Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Inheritance - Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

One of my earlier endeavours in Fantasy was reading Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy back when they were first translated into Dutch in the late 1990s. My feeling on some of the authors I read back then, Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, have changed considerably but Robin Hobb has remained one of my all time favourites. So much so that I am contemplating replacing some my Dutch language copies with English ones in the not too distant future. I now own six Hobb books in Dutch translation only. The rest is in English. Before starting her writings in the Realms of the Elderings, Hobb published 10 novels under the name Megan Lindholm. Currently, I have read eight of them. The tend to be more varied in choice of setting and themes, resulting in some very interesting novels, but not the popularity of her other pseudonym. The Inheritance is a collection of shorter pieces that combines the authors two voices. It contains seven pieces published under Megan Lindholm and three as Robing Hobb.

To highlight the difference between these two pseudonyms Voyager has made an edition with two covers, more of less in the style of the old Ace Doubles. The back cover is printed upside down but you can start reading at the back, the text assumes the Robin Hobb side of the book is the front. I've seen a lot of criticism directed at the Voyager covers for the Robin Hobb books. Personally I kinda like this one. Maybe because I am a cat person. The author provides brief introductions to each of the stories, usually with a bit of information about how the story came to be. I very much enjoyed reading those. One thing I think is missing from this edition is a publishing history of the stories it contains. I am pretty sure there is at least one, possibly two original stories in the collection but I have no idea when some of the others were first published. Bit of an oversight if you ask me.

While the front of the book features the name of Robin Hobb, the collection starts with the Megan Lindholm pieces. It opens with A Touch of Lavender, the longest Lindholm piece in the collection and one most clearly recognizable as science fiction. It is set in a world were an alien race referred to as Skoags have landed on Earth. In a effort to pry their secrets of interstellar space travel from them, the US government is taking care of them best they can. Much to disgust of some of the people living on welfare. The aliens are paid from their budget. We see the story through the eyes of a young boy from a broken family. He lives with his mother in a crappy apartment in poverty and soon ends up in a circle of hope, disappointment, neglect and substance abuse. If there is one thing that Hobb and Lindholm share it is their tendency to make their characters suffer. This story works very well for me on two levels. There is of course the question what these aliens are doing on Earth, something that will intrigue the science fiction reader. On the other hand there is also the drama of a dysfunctional family, something Lindholm highlights when one of the aliens steps into the role of father figure. It's an interesting mix and a strong opening of the collection.

Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man is the second story in the collection. It is written from the point of view of a 35 year old woman. She's an aspiring author and works not quite enough hours at Sears to make ends meet. She's also lonely, unhappy with her job and stuck in her writing career. Then she meets the Fortyish Man, who, with a dash of the supernatural, brings back joy in her life. Hobb has put events from her own life in pretty much all her fiction but this one is probably closest to autobiographical we get in this collection. She wrote it for her husband on the occasion of his fortieth birthday. It's very personal. I strongly suspect those two are the only two people on the planet who can really really see it for what it is.

There are a couple of Lindholm stories in this collection that are written to make the reader very uncomfortable. Cut is one of them. It deals with the question of how far someone can go, or should be allowed to go, in changing their bodies. Should a person be allowed full control over such matters are tattoos, piercings, burns or cosmetic surgery? Where do you draw the line between necessary and cosmetic? What if someone wants to voluntarily undergo a (female) circumcision? And how far would you go to stop someone from making the mistake of a lifetime? It's unsettling, though-provoking and brilliant. If you only ever read one story by Lindholm, make it this one.

Cats are quite common in both the Lindholm and Hobb stories. The Fifth Squashed Cat is one of three with a reference to the creatures in the title. It's a rather unusual Fantasy. We get to see the story through the eyes of the person who does not believe in magic. How many stories have you read where the protagonist is forced to admit there is magic in the world and continues to develop their talents in that area? What if you make another choice? This story features both the sensible choice and a taste of missed opportunity. And for a change it is the cats that get abused.

In Strays we get to see cats in quite a different form. Like the opening story of this collection it features a child growing up in an environment of abuse, neglect and drug use. This time we see the story through the eyes of someone from a more privileged, but still single parent, family. It's a nice Urban Fantasy but not my favourite of the collection. It's pretty clear in which the direction of the story is heading early on. I must admit Lindholm managed to write an interesting and incredibly strong character in the neglected girl Lonnie though.

Finis is the only story in the collection I didn't like. It's a vampire tale with a twist I suppose. The fact that a story has a vampire in it was never a recommendation in my mind, even before the onslaught of sparkly vampires I didn't really like these kind of stories. To make matters worse I saw the shape of the story on the third of twelve pages, after which it failed to hold my attention. It may work better for other readers though.

The final Lindholm story in the collection is The Drum Machine. It's one of the stories that is written to make the reader uncomfortable again. I guess you could call it a dystopia. It is set in a future where having children as perfect as possible is the norm. Random combinations of genes and the risk of hereditary disease is seen as an unwanted burden on the tax payers who eventually have to cover the cost of these less productive members of society. Lindholm draws a parallel between music and making babies that is quite interesting. Allowing randomness and experimentation is a risk. One that might make the composition, or the baby, better. Or worse. The society Lindholm describes doesn't take risks, something the main character approves of, both in music and procreation. The result is disturbingly mediocre. Great story, I think it his one of the originals, might make a good one for awards season next year.

The last three stories were written under the Robin Hobb pseudonym and all three are set in the Realm of the Elderlings. They take up slightly more than half the pages in this collection and this is one of the main differences between Hobb and Lindholm. Hobb writes epic fantasy, Lindholm writes more to the point. The first Hobb piece in the collection is the only one I have read before. Homecoming was published in Dutch as a novella in 2005. I enjoyed reading it back then and my opinion of it hasn't changed.

Homecoming is written as a diary and set well before any of the novels in this setting. It set well before any of the novels and deals with an exiled Jamalian noble couple, who's only chance to regain their rulers favour is in a successful colonization of the aptly named Cursed Shore. Her husband, who is of the opinion that women should be occupied with the arts and other less worldly pursuits and leave politics and economy to the men, hasn't seen it fit to tell her of their desperate situation. As the voyage progresses, the reality of it sinks in.

There's a great rift in this story between people who keep themselves going by fooling themselves into thinking they will one day return to Jamalia rich, and those who see that survival should be their first priority and that the chances of ever returning are minimal. Hobb shows the breakdown of old social structures very well. The author of diary is convinced of her status in the first stage of their journey but forced to let go later on. Something other members of the party have more trouble with. The lack of planning ahead, fulfilling immediate desires and chasing impossible dreams take disturbing proportions in the tale. It's a very nice look at the origins of the Rain Wilds settlements. Also note the subtle shift in language. The first entries are written by a well educated lady, a bit verbose, quite formal. In later entries the language becomes more direct.

The second Hobb story is the one that gives the collection it's title. The Inheritance is set in Bingtown for the most part. It deals with Cerise, a young woman who is turned out of her house after her grandmother, whom she's been taking care of, dies. Her inheritance consists of a few pieces of jewellery, among than an pendant made of Wizard Wood. It tells her the life story of her grandmother and how she lost her fortune. The pendant can help her get her inheritance back or so it tells her. Like other art made from Wizard Wood the pendant struck me a quite manipulative. On the one hand you feel sorry for Cerise, on the other hand, it smells of ordinary revenge.

Cat's Meat is the final story in the collection and I think this may be another original. It takes us to the Six Duchies where Rosemary is trying to make ends meet after her dashing lover left her for an other woman, leaving her to take care of their young son. After several years of absence, he returns, telling her he has come home. Rosemary can't just turn him out, the cottage she lives in is the legal property of their son, not hers. She is not happy to see him again though, with good reason as it turns out.

As with the previous two Hobb stories, it features a strong female character and an irresponsible, selfish male. The story also shows us a bit of the Wit, one of the two forms of magic found in the Six Duchies. All cats have it, something most cat owners would agree with. Rosemary's tomcat is quite surprised that she allows this rival into their house. The cat's point of view in this story is quite interesting. Again, the story leaves the reader with a sense that justice has not quite been served here. Cat's Meat is a thrilling tale, I read it in one go and I think most readers would have trouble putting it down. I think I like Homecoming better but there is not much between these very different novellas.

This collection is not a complete overview of the short fiction Lindholm and Hobb have produced but it clearly showcases that variety of works the author is capable of. Overall I thought The Inheritance is a strong collection. There's only one piece I consider weak, which is about as good as most collections get. It's also a good introduction to the Megan Lindholm side of the author's writing. Although I love the Hobb stories, I think this pseudonym does limit her to the more traditional epic fantasy. Lindholm's work shows she is capable of much more. Sometimes it is a gamble, not all of it is great, but some of her best work has been released under the Lindholm pseudonym. Which makes me wonder if The Drum Machine is not trying to tell us something about writing as well.

Book Details
Title: The Inheritance
Author: Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 400
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-727377-5
First published: 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment