Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb

It's a good year for Robin Hobb fans. This month Blood of Dragons. the final installment in her current series the Rainwild Chronicles, appeared and on top of that The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince,  a new novella also set in the Realm of the Elderlings, was released by Subterranean Press. I'm currently reading Blood of Dragons but when This beautiful little book arrived I couldn't help myself an read that one first. As usual the people at Subterranean did an great job of making the book look pretty. It's a nice little hardcover with with a cover and two full colour interior illustrations by Jon Foster. This book is almost worth the price just for the looks.

Robin Hobb is mostly comfortably writing the long form. Her novels tend to be very big books. In her debut under this pseudonym in 1995, only six pieces of shorter fiction have appeared. Five of them are tied to the Realm of the Elderlings in which most of her novels are set. I've read three of these pieces, collected in the Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm collection The Inheritance (2011). Of those I thought only Homecoming, a story that serves as a prequel to the Liveship Traders trilogy, can live up to the standard Hobb sets in her novels. She just seems to be more comfortable with novel length works.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a 38,000 word novella, even Hobb's short fiction is long. The story that reaches back to the Farseer trilogy. The legend of the Piebald Prince surfaces several times in those books as an illustration of the prejudice and outright hate people with eh Wit encounter in the Six Duchies. The details of the story are scarce though, and most of it is portrayed as legend rather than history. In this novella, we get an eyewitness account. It is told in the first person and Felicity, the woman who recounts the events, does make it clear that it deviates from official history in a few crucial details. The truth of the matter is for the reader to decide I guess.

Felicity is a servant and wet-nurse in service of the Farseers. She is the playmate of the 'willful' princess Caution and her son the Piebald Prince. The story is told in two parts. She first recounts the story of the princess Caution and her own youth by her side and how the young princess met a certain Chalcedean stable hand possessing the Wit. In the second half of the tale she moves on the Caution's son and the heir to the throne of the Six Duchies. Their lives will bring the Six Duchies to the brink of civil war and change the line of the Farseers forever.

Some reviewers feel this novella is a good entry point into the wider Realm of the Elderlings. I disagree with that. Hobb only touches lightly upon the Wit and the Skill and the significance both kinds of magic have for the Six Duchies. The real significance of what is going on will likely be lost on readers who haven't at least read the Farseer trilogy. The context of that story enriches the novella to the point that is becomes more than a well-written fairytale. Personally I think I would have found it only mildly interesting without having read the rest of the series.

The first person point of view Hobb chooses fits that of the rest of the Farseer books. I thought that was a nice detail. The way the story is split in two halves doesn't work nearly as well though. Essentially it is a tragic repetition. Both the Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manage to wreck their lives under the influence of the Wit and in both cases it is like watching a train wreck. Hobb's novels are often tragedies and her characters are generally no strangers to self destructive behavior. To fit two of them in less than 200 pages is a bit too much in my opinion.

That being said, it is written with skill. I rarely come across an author who masters the first person point of view like Hobb does. Throughout the tale you feel Felicity's fear of being released from service and having to return to her live of poverty that her mother worked so hard to escape. It's the personal challenges amid events of nationwide significance that make the story come to life. It's the reason why I lived the Farseer trilogy so much and why I have devoured every book Hobb has published since. The novella is perhaps a bit too short for this technique to achieve its full effect but in a way Felicity is a more interesting character than either the Princess or her son.

So is The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince worth the price Subterranean is asking? For a fan of Hobb's work I'd say yes. It is a well crafted tale about a key point in Six Duchies history. It enriches the series as a whole and will keep the experienced Hobb reader turning pages. For a fist time reader I think I'd be better just to pick up a copy of Assassin's Apprentice and start at the beginning. A full novel will be a more rewarding read. That is, if you can find a copy of this book at all. As I understand it Subterranean is almost though the second print of this novella already. Who says this type of work won't sell? I'm glad I got my copy on time, time to head back to the Rainwilds and finish Blood of Dragons now.

Book Details
Title: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 184
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-544-4
First published: 2013

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