Sunday, February 7, 2016

Forest Mage - Robin Hobb

I'm running low on recent publications again so I reached for a backlist title from the huge stack of books I mean to review one day. Forest Mage (2006) is the second volume in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy. The series takes us away from Hobb's successful Realm of the Elderlings setting to a technologically more advanced society. These novels are not Hobb's most popular works and I can see why. Although I recognized the skillful writing, we see the story through a frustratingly static main character. That is not to say the books are not worth reading. I may not like Nevare much, but Hobb's worldbuilding is nothing short of exceptional.

Nevare is recovering from the Speck plague he himself has unleashed on the capital. He nearly died but with the help of his cousin Epiny, he manages to defeat the tree woman and become one of the few cadets to survive. The academy has changed forever. With the loss of so many cadets to the plague, there is no way the separation between old and new nobles can stay in place. There are just too few left. Nevare appears to recover well from the plague. He lost a lot of weight but puts it back on quickly. The doctor has his doubts about his fitness however. When Nevare leaves for home to attend his elder brother's wedding, he is still gaining weight and by the time he gets home, he is so large his father almost has an apoplexy. It is the beginning of a number of dramatic changes in Nevare's life.

Even more than Shaman's Crossing (2005), this novel is about discrimination. It shows up in many guises, and while Nevare doesn't always recognize it, it is painfully clear to the reader. In his final days at the academy we see the difficult transition from rigid separation between old and new nobles to more mixed companies. Soon Nevare has other worries though. He quickly realizes being big is more than enough reason for people to dislike you. He is a target of bullying by complete strangers but also by his fiancée, his father and his sister. Hobb describes the changes and Nevare's problems adapting to his new size in excruciating detail. Early on in the novel, he still has hope to work off the excess fat but no matter how much effort he puts into it, he can't seem to lose weight. It's pretty much the only area in which Nevare changes. He admits to himself his weight gain is not natural.

His ambitions in life have not changed however. When he receives medical discharge from the academy, loses his fiancée and is disowned by his father, he is still determined to fulfil the good god's plan for his life and become a soldier. If not as an officer, then as a ranker. Given what he has experienced up to that point in the story, it is an astounding bit of stupidity. Cut loose from every bit of security he has ever known in his  life, he clings to the last scraps of the Gernian social structure still within reach. He is, in other words, still unable to see the world beyond what he was told it should be like.

To realize his ambition to become a soldier he has to accept the lowliest post imaginable. He ends up at the end of the King's Road, where desperate attempts are made to push it through Speck territory. It is here, in a place of despair and failure, that the dark side of humanity is even more obviously exposed. The Specks are considered to be savages, an obstacle to be overcome by technological progress. If they should perish in the process, well, that is the price of progress. Nevare, who is much more aware of what would happen to the Specks if Gernia succeeds, seems to think this inevitable and at one point even patiently explains to one of them why this would be so. The best the Specks can expect from the Gernians is a mild regret that their culture will have to go.

The metaphoric felling of the Speck ancestor trees clearly shows us the future in store for the Specks. Their cultural roots cut away, they'll be cast adrift in a society not their own. It's a story you'll find over and over again in the history of the United States (and many other places in the world). Nevare's attitude in this respect is painful to read, exactly because he is so aware of what is going on. His attitudes frustrates the Specks too. I have to admit that Hobb portrays the cultural gap and the misunderstandings that arise very well. The tension between the two sides keeps rising until Nevare is forced to make a choice. It gives this second book in the trilogy a very clear climax. No middle books syndrome for Hobb.

There is another form of discrimination that runs through the whole trilogy, and that is sexism. Again, Nevare is not exactly innocent here. Gernian society is patriarchal and in the upper classes at least, gender roles are sharply defined. Nevare has been taught a kind of behaviour towards women that is rife with double standards. Women to him, are either delicate creatures to marry, protect and have children with or prostitutes. When he meets one that doesn't seem to fit in either category, and he does on several occasions in the novel, he gets terribly unsure of himself. Nevare's casual sexism shows up in a lot of places in the novel. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly obvious. It adds another aspect to Nevare's personality that makes him into a thoroughly unpleasant main character in my eyes.

Hobb's portrayal of Gernian society and it's many flaws is utterly believable, instantly recognizable and very detailed. By the end of the book, Nevare as been exposed to, or party in just about every one of them. The author is known to be very hard on her main characters but few sink to the level of Nevare in this novel. And yet he keeps trying. His father desperately tried to give the boy Nevare a spine and he has succeeded in ways he clearly didn't envision. I don't like him much, but in Nevare Hobb has created another main character with stubborn streak that rivals her most famous creation Fitz. I just wish he was a little less eager to accept Gernian moral standards and social mores as an absolute truth.

Book Details
Title: Forest Mage
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 718
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075763-2
First published: 2006

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