I’ve been saving this one. It was released whilst I was still completing my PhD, and though I had read all the other Robin Hobb books I could get my hands on as they came out, this one I saved.
As you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader, I was done with my PhD a while ago, but I held back from starting on this almost superstitiously. I had put it on too high a pedestal. I had waited too long. I’d struggled a bit with the later Rain Wilds Chronicles books and was worried Hobb would somehow have lost her touch with Fitz and the Fool, my very favourites.
And I’d simply fallen out of the habit of reading fiction. Or at least, fiction that I had not read before. When you’re ill and depressed and stretched thin for years you only risk your pleasure hours on that which is trusted and easy. I trusted Robin Hobb, mostly, but I wasn’t up for as harrowing a journey as the Soldier Son trilogy. Nor did I want to mar this new series with my depression.
But, emboldened by the fact that my mother has recently started reading the Livership Trader books, I embarked on this new journey.
Fitz and the Fool
I say ‘new’, Fitz and the Fool are hardly new characters, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone introduce themselves to Robin Hobb with this book. Not because it is bad – far from it! – but because it is so far down the line into the rich world she has created, and one could not possibly feel the full impact of the novel’s events without knowing the story of Fitz and the Fool from their beginning in Assassin’s Apprentice.
Fitz and the Fool is the fifth trilogy set in the world that we are introduced to with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. Although one might read the Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and Fitz and the Fool without the other books set in this world, the rich interconnectedness of world events and cultures is at the heart of these series, and I honestly recommend reading them all.
To stick to just these characters, though, Fitz is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who had been crown prince before the revelation of Fitz’s existence caused him to retire to a quiet life with his barren wife, Lady Patience. Fitz, meanwhile, was trained as an assassin – to be a tool for the Farseer crown, instead of a danger to it. Possessed of both the royal magic, the Skill, and the forbidden animal magic, the Wit, Fitz lives a turbulent life, events swirling around the possibilities created by his existence. Having been tortured and beaten to the point of death, Fitz survives and continues to serve his king and country in secret.
The Fool, who had once played the role of fool to King Shrewd, was Fitz’s companion since childhood. He reveals himself to be a White Prophet – one who sees the forks of possible futures and works to nudge the world onto a better path, using his Catalyst. Fitz is the Fool’s Catylist.
In book three of the Tawny Man trilogy, they travel to Aslevjal, the icy island where a dragon lies trapped in ice. It is the Fool’s belief that restoring dragons to the world is vital to shifting it into a better path. Together, they free the slumbering dragon, but not before the Fool is captured by a rival ‘White’ and tortured to death. Using their connection and the skill magic, Fitz brings the Fool back from death, but he can no longer see the future. He has lived beyond any possibility he ever imagined.
In fear that remaining with his Catalyst he might undo all their good work, the Fool leaves Fitz to return to his homeland for answers as to what it means for a White to outlive his prophecies.
Fitz, meanwhile, returned to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, who has believed him dead – beaten to death – all these years, and who had raised his child, Nettle, along with Fitz’s own foster-father, Burrich, who had become her husband. Finally reconciled, when last we saw Fitz, he was living a life of peace with Molly and Patience in Withywoods, the estate his father had retreated to before he was assassinated.
It is so difficult to discuss this book without spoiling it utterly, for there is so much that I did not see coming and which I would spoil for no one. The tale begins many years on from Fool’s Quest. The Fool has kept his word and never seen Fitz since, but aside from this, he has lived a contented life with Molly at Withywoods, watching her children grow up and avoiding life at court and the dark politics that plagued most of his life.
We begin at Winterfest, which Fitz has always enjoyed. A mysterious stranger comes with a message that she will give only to Fitz. Fitz tells his steward to seat her comfortably in his study and offer her food and accommodation, but says he will talk to her in the morning – he has kept Molly waiting too long already. Meanwhile several minstrels arrive unannounced and are marked as curious – Fitz cannot sense them with his wit sense, but he is distracted from them when Molly is taken ill. As he looks after her, the messenger who waited in his study flees and is killed, her message undelivered.
The incident is strange, but Fitz puts it from his mind when no further answers are found. Molly continues to show signs of age that Fitz does not. A skill-healing many years ago has left his body continually repairing itself. At 50, Fitz lives in the body of a man of 35. Molly does not. True sadness comes to him as, though she had experienced an early menopause, Molly becomes convinced she is pregnant, and it seems increasingly obvious she is losing her mind.
To say more would be to spoil things utterly, but the consequences of Molly’s apparent phantom pregnancy will echo through the rest of the book. Especially when a second messenger arrives at Withywoods years later, with a dire, cryptic message from the Fool…
Ah… how to discuss this without spoiling everything? I will say that the novel starts a little rocky. Fitz and Molly in domestic bliss never really sat right with me. Of course it was to be longed for, throughout Fitz’s difficult life, but it is hardly the stuff of an epic fantasy saga. The first chapter or so does ring a little uncomfortable in places as Fitz and Molly share married couple banter that doesn’t ring quite true for me. However, the novel soon settles and finds its feet and tone.
It is an unusually structured book. Much of it remains gentle, and yet no less gripping. After a little awkwardness, even the domesticity works for it. Fitz as a family man and a father is truly a pleasure to read. Especially as he so longed for a family and children when he was alone with his wolf those many years. There is one particularly long chapter in the middle which would stand out as a structural faux pas in the hands of anyone but a master. Fortunately, Hobb is that master.
As with Hobb books of old, I found myself staying up deep into the night, and towards the climax even reading until the sun began to rise again. It also made me cry for old pains and childhood struggles and that deep connection I have always felt for Fitz as a character.
Hobb continues to demonstrate her unique mastery of the first-person style of story-telling, embedding us so deeply in one person’s perspective that we are as surprised as they when someone does or says something that shifts their point of view… and yet one can see upon reflection all the hints and tiny events that showed that other characters were going about their own lives thinking things the main character did not expect all along.
I loved this book. When I finished it, I immediately ordered the hardback of the next book and downloaded the Kindle sample to read until the physical book arrived.
The only minor niggles I have are that Fitz’s gender essentialism and reading of women as soft mother figures – Molly, in particular, remains always something of a fantasy for him; the girl with the red skirts as he had idealised her – is not sufficiently challenged. Whilst Hobb’s works contain many challenges overall, and the genderqueer or non-binary figure of the Fool still means so much to me, it’s depressing to read a book where characters continually affirm that such and such an aspect is particular to women, or particular to men, and not see these comments challenged at all. It renders all the female characters slightly less real, for there is not a one that feels like me.
Despite this, I feel not only that Hobb is back to form, but she has brought me back to reading. I find again that not only do I hurt when Fitz hurts, but I heal when he heals, and that is truly sepcial.