Sunday, December 18, 2016

Renegade's Magic - Robin Hobb

I'm a bit low on recent releases. There are a few waiting for me under the Christmas tree but since that is a few days off yet, I have taken the opportunity to read an older title. Renegade's Magic, the final book in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, is probably the least popular book she wrote. Hobb is not known for writing fast paced novels, but even by those standards this concluding book does an excellent job of trying the reader's patience. While I am still fascinated with the premise and the worldbuilding, I do have my reservations about this novel. To properly explain why, I'm going to have to give away a bit more of the plot than I usually do. Be advised there are spoilers for the entire trilogy ahead.

Nevare has finally been cast out completely from Gernian society. His friends and former colleagues think he is dead. Magic has enabled him to get away, but he has quite literally lost everything. There is only one option open to him, follow the magic and see if the Specks will take him in. Once again the magic interferes and the Speck side of Nevare's personality takes over completely. Gernian Nevare becomes a spectator in his own body, watching helplessly as the magic leads the Specks into a desperate action against the invaders. Reason, fear and disease have all failed, fire will have to do the job. It is all or nothing for the Specks, in a fight that is so hopelessly unbalanced that victory seems impossible.

Magic has messed with Nevare's mind a lot over the course of the previous books and in this novel his personality completely splits. The Speck trained Great One takes over and the Gernian noble takes a back seat. Like the previous two books, Renegade's Magic is completely written in the first person. That means that for most of the novel, the narrator is not actually in control of what is going on. He watches the story unfold from the back of his Speck self's mind. For most writers, it would be a challenge to keep this interesting for a few chapters, Hobb attempts to do this for most of the novel. Combined with her tendency to plot the novel at a moderate pace, it can't fail to bore some readers. The inevitable confrontation with the Gernians and the equally inevitable realization that Nevare is doomed to fail as long as he is divided against himself, are a long time coming.

What we do get, is a detailed look at Speck  society. Their resistance to Gernian expansion is put into cultural perspective. Their society is ruled by magic but they are not nearly as ignorant of the outside world as the Gernians seem to think. What Hobb does very well is show us the desperation of the Specks and the huge price their magical resistance extracts from them. Being a Great One is not an enviable fate. Hobb also pokes a few holes in the idea that the Specks are a peaceful people by shedding light on their past conflict with the Kidona. It is another example of how well developed Hobb's world is.

The overarching conflict between the Specks and the Gernians reaches a status quo in the book. Not so much because of the Specks fighting in the more traditional sense of the word, but more because the magic manages to redirect the attention of the Gernians. Easier gains are made elsewhere, rooting out the rebellious Specks is no longer worth the effort. Hobb may have meant it as a happy ending but if you look at the situation more closely, it seems like a matter of time before the conflict will reignite. The Specks' respite is dependant on a gold vein and the goodwill of an eccentric Queen. When the gold runs out and the Queen's attention shifts, an ocean port will still be desirable. The cynic would say that the Specks have been put into a reservation but haven't realized it yet. With no noticeable change in the Gernian attitude towards the Specks, it very much seems like a temporary solution.

From reviews of the previous two books it should be clear I don't particularly like Nevare. His slavish devotion to what society and the Good God expects of him is very annoying at times. What's worse, in this book he has no control and plenty of time to brood over his mistakes and misfortune. After yet another failure, by Nevare's Speck self, he comes to the realization that without becoming one, there is no way he can ever succeed. A full merging of these two perspectives would have resulted in a drastic development of this character. Too drastic for the author apparently. She opts not to take that route and that makes the ending of this novel very disappointing.

Hobb effectively separates the two and allows Nevare to slip back into Gernian society with most of his prejudice and conservatism  intact. To add insult to injury, he is essentially rewarded for it by reconciling himself with his family and being appointed heir to both Burvelle estates. There is talk of buying him a commission too. In short, everything noble's son Nevare could possibly want out of life is within reach. After all he has endured because of society's confining social structure, all the misery he has seen caused by a rigid set of religious rules and cultural prejudice, he ends up fitting precisely in the role the Good God teachings destined him to fulfil.

Structurally the novel seems to follow the same pattern the final books in the Tawny Man trilogy also follows. The climax of the trilogy is quite early in the book and then Hobb takes her time wrapping things up. Although it is not quite as pronounced as in Fool's Fate, the final chapters do feel like Hobb wrapping things up. The central conflict has been (temporarily) resolved, whether or not Nevare knows it. The rest is just rewarding him for being such a dutiful protagonist.

Looking back at this reread of the series I think that the very thing that is Hobb's strength in the FitzChevalric novels is turning against her here. After three books inside Nevare's head I still think he is a short-sighted prick. While one can admire his work ethic and to an extent his loyalty, he is simply too unlikeable and static to make for a really interesting character. For a single first person point of view narrative, that is a big problem. Not even Hobb's worldbuilding can quite overcome this issue for me. Hobb obviously has things to say in these books, mostly about various forms of discrimination, but they always seem to stay one step removed from the characters. I enjoyed reading these books to a point, but they are not among the best she has written.

Book Details
Title: Renegade's Magic
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 662
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075764-9
First published: 2008

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