Sunday, June 28, 2015

Shaman's Crossing - Robin Hobb

Last week I ordered some new books but since none of them have arrived yet I dug a backlist title out of the bookcase for this weekend's review. Shaman's Crossing (2005) by Robin Hobb is the first book in her Soldier Son Trilogy, a series that is a lot less popular than her work in the Realm of the Elderlings. Hobb took a chance by leaving the world she had at that point published nine successful books in and, commercially at least, I don't think it paid off. She went back to the Realm of the Elderlings after and hasn't left it since. Although the setting is different, the novel is very much Robin Hobb, I enjoyed reading it like I have enjoyed all of her books, and yet, there is something about it that prevents me from being carried away by it like her novels in the Realm of the Elderlings tend to do.

In the kingdom of Gernia, the order of birth determines the career of the nation's sons. The first son is the heir, the second the soldier, the third the priest, the fourth the artist and so on, as decreed by the Good God in his Holy Writ. Nevare Burvelle is born a second son and thus destined to become a soldier. His father prepares him for his eventual enrollment in the Cavalla Academy, where he will be trained to become a cavalry officer. His father has doubts about his fitness for command however, and in an attempt to teach Nevare independent thinking, he sends him off to learn from a man who was once one of Gernia's most dangerous enemies. This shaman of the Plains People, now subdued by the more advanced Gernians, takes Nevare on a trip that will change his life forever and severely interferes with Nevare's own ambitions.

The worldbuilding in this novel is wonderful. It is set in a world that has a technology level comparable to the second half of the nineteenth century. In a recent war with a neighbouring nation Gernia has lost possession of its seaports and is now expanding east to make up for the loss. The plains to the east of Gernia were once the domain of the semi-nomadic plains people, seen as savages by the Gernians. In a series of wars, the Gernians defeated all the tribes and are now trying to push though the territory of the Specks, another primitive people, to reach the shores of the eastern ocean. Where Bingtown is Hobb's version of colonial North America, this trilogy describes the western frontier and the drive to create a nation that stretches from coast to coast.

The Gernian expansion is the first level of conflict in this novel. Hobb frames it as a technology versus magic battle but it also carries with it a number of problematic concepts that the nineteenth century United States shares with Gernia. Most notably the idea of the noble savage, forcing Gernian civilisation on the plains people 'for their own good' and of course some appalling instances of discrimination against the Plains People and Specks.

That would be plenty of worldbuilding for many fantasy authors but Hobb doesn't stop there. She inserts an internal level of conflict among the Gernians too. Gernia is a kingdom and although rapidly modernising, it does retain vestiges of the feudal society it once was. To control the newly won territories, the king has elevated some of the bravest commanders to the status of lords. Nevare's father is among them. Although these new lords are all second sons of nobility, the old nobles resent their elevation, especially since the new nobles tend to support the king in his plans for eastward expansion, for which the king needs to raise additional taxes. Nevare is raised on an isolated estate in the east and doesn't understand much of the politics when he arrives at the academy. He is forced to learn quickly though.

On the surface, the conflict between the old and new nobility is the one that affects the nation, and Nevare personally most, but the stalled expansion to the east and the Speck's resistance is much more pressing. Nevare is the linchpin in this conflict. Something he does not recognize or dare to admit even to himself throughout the book. He clings to his ideas of how his future should look to the point where it almost kills him.

Like Hobb's book about Fitz Chevalric, The Soldier Son trilogy is written entirely in the first person, with Nevare the only point of view character. Where you can sympathize with Fitz, and at times curse his stupidity, Nevare is a different kind of character. He, as his father recognizes early on, lacks a spine. He is also not a very nice guy. In fact, he is a bit of a prick. A trait that will become more pronounced later on in the trilogy. Where most teenagers would at some point rebel against the strict upbringing Nevare is receiving, he is completely convinced he is on the right path. He wants from life what the scriptures say he should want from life. To be a soldier, send his notebooks home to this father's (and later on brother's) estate, and to retire gracefully to the family holdings at the end of a military career. Even when he has doubts about his fitness for a career as a Cavala officer, he clings to these beliefs.

Hobb challenges him of course. Mostly in the form of his eccentric cousin Epiny. She is the daughter of his father's brother, the first son and heir, and that makes her old nobility. Unlike Nevare, she rebels. She refuses to become an ornament in a rich man's house. Nevare is genuinely shocked by her behaviour. He feels women should be docile and domestic creatures, wanting nothing more than to raise children and please their husbands. Her independent attitude, unladylike actions and belief in the supernatural clash with Nevare's conservatism and he actively resents her for infecting him with these unorthodox ideas. It is here, I think, that we come to the flaw in this novel. Nevare and Epiny are such extreme opposites that even with the large number of pages we spend in Nevare's head, they become black and white.

For the entire duration of the novel, Nevare clings to a military career that was doomed before it started and at the end of it, he has yet to face up to that fact. Where Fitz is stubborn, flawed, passionate and at times incredibly dense, Nevare is just conservative. He does what he feels is his duty and nothing else. The world around him is changing, the era of heroic deeds (if one can call the destruction of a way of life and a culture that) has come to an end and society is slipping towards a meritocracy instead or one where nobility and the order of birth determine one's options in life. It all passes Nevare by. In fact, he doesn't even recognize these developments. Hobb created a wonderfully complex world in this novel, and then puts a character in it who is pretty much static, a boy who is constantly being led by others rather than forging his own way. His father is right, he would have made a lousy officer. But that is not his destiny, as we'll see in the second book.

Hobb's books have always attracted me because of the characterisation, but in this book it fails her to an extent. I did enjoy the novel a lot. I even think it is a little underappreciated. The themes Hobb addresses and her uses of a very non standard fantasy setting make it a noteworthy book. But almost six hundred pages of first person narrative with a main character who keeps thinking in circles, keeps denying change and keeps rationalising his society's sexism, prejudices and arrogance is a bit too much of a good thing. I liked the book well enough but I do see why it will never be a fan favourite.

Book Details
Title: Shaman's Crossing
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 577
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-06-075762-0
First published: 2005

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