Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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The Tawny Man Trilogy
1. Fool's Errand
2. Golden Fool
3. Fool's Fate

by Robin Hobb

A book review by Steven Wu
http://www.scwu.com/bookreviews/
March 08, 2004

Rating: 7 (of 10)

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first. In The Tawny Man Trilogy, the last trilogy in a sequence of nine books set in the same world, Robin Hobb displays all her usual skill at writing and character-building. For readers familiar with Hobb's previous works, The Tawny Man Trilogy is a competent tying up of loose ends. I just want to make clear, before I start on the criticisms, that I give this trilogy a 7 for a reason: it's really not bad.

That being said, The Tawny Man Trilogy falls far short of the high mark set by Hobb's previous two trilogies, The Farseer Trilogy and The Liveship Traders Trilogy. Since I'm trying to review three books here, and since my thoughts are very much bound up with the particular book I read, here is a brief narrative of the commentary that ran through my head while reading this series.

1. Fool's Errand

The trilogy starts very, very slowly: the first three-quarters of Fool's Errand finds Fitz, much older than he was at the end of The Farseer Trilogy, puttering around on his farm with his adopted son. Although Fitz has deliberately withdrawn from the rest of the world, he nevertheless continues to get visitors--including several begging him to return to help the Six Duchies through its latest time of turmoil. Of course, although Fitz is obstinate about staying in his bucolic life, he is soon dragged back into the thick of things: this time, by news that the Queen's Witted son has been kidnapped by the Piebalds, a group of murderous Witted rebels. (The Witted, for those not acquainted with the series, are people who form life-long attachments to animal familiars.)

The end of the first book is surprisingly quiet. There's almost no cliffhanger here--which is a relief. I remember Hobb's other books also ending well after the first volumes, but in each of those books there was always a serious sense of looming danger. Here, the hints of something to come are looser. The mysterious feathers Fitz has hidden away, the female presence he encounters while Skilling, the threatening Piebalds, and so on. Nevertheless, the novel is amazingly peaceful. It deals with traumatic events, true. But it is also a much more intimate novel, with lots of introspection and relatively little action.

But although I liked Fool's Errand a great deal, parts of it seriously irked me. In particular, I was annoyed when the Fool finally goes to confront Fitz, and the "it's your destiny" talk flies fast and thick. It's true that there has always been this ominous background noise that Fitz's destiny is closely (and tragically) tied to the fate of the Six Duchies--but to have this stuff in the foreground somehow trivializes it, making it sound like a B-movie setup. In addition, Fitz's introspection at times verges on the superficial and juvenile--a fault that can be attributed in large part to occasional (and thankfully infrequent) lapses in Hobb's writing style.

2. Golden Fool

There is a point in Golden Fool where the trilogy attains the heights achieved by Hobb's previous books. When the Narcheska challenges Dutiful to bring back the idea of the dragon Icefyre in order to win her hand, the tension is deliciously unbearable, and you can almost hear tragic futures and deadly fates clicking into fixed formations.

But aside from that one, wonderful moment, Golden Fool seriously loses its way. Certain plot threads are dropped--most prominently, the Piebalds hardly feature at all in the book, despite their looming presence in the first novel. Their absence not only drops the narrative tension that the first book so carefully set up; it also makes the events of the first book seem irrelevant compared to the events of the second. More damagingly, certain very dull plot threads become something of an obsession for Hobb: I'm thinking in particular of Fitz's constant attempts to deal with his hormone-driven adolescent son. While I understand that these subplots help humanize Fitz, they feel unsophisticated and irrelevant; too often, Golden Fool feels like a collection of Fitz-actions that Hobb has cobbled together into a novel. This is not to say that there aren't plenty of other interesting subplots to sustain a reader's interest. There are, as usual, lots of interesting mysteries that Hobb has built up, but none of them are very well maintained through the course of the book.

One good part of this book, however, is that it begins to bring in people from The Liveship Traders Trilogy as well, although they make only brief appearances.

By the end of the second book, it's clear that this trilogy is shaping up to be very different from the previous two trilogies. Most importantly, this series is a much smaller series than the previous two. It's also a much slower series. The first two trilogies, by contrast, tended to move very swiftly after the first volume, and each had a much more epic feel by the start of the third book--a feel that is missing in Golden Fool.

Despite my criticisms, though, Golden Fool is still an interesting read. It's just that this book is the low point of the trilogy.

3. Fool's Fate

At the close of the second book, I began to wonder why this trilogy is named after the Fool, when it is narrated entirely by Fitz. The third book makes it clear why the Fool is such a central character.

But I had lots and lots of problems with this third book. The good thing about Fool's Fate is that it finally leaves the confined boundaries of the Six Duchies castle and sets off on an exciting quest to kill Icefyre. It's too bad that so many characters become extremely annoying along the way: Web (an old Witted man) is smug and self-righteous, Chade (Fitz's awesome assassin tutor in the first trilogy) is just obnoxious, and everybody--and I mean everybody--is stupid.

To make things worse, because Fitz is stuck on an arctic island attempting to hunt down Icefyre, Hobb resorts to rather ham handed techniques of reminding us about what's happening with people off the island: Fitz Skills to Nettle, his daughter; and he often stops in the middle of, say, battling a horde of angry wildlings to think sorrowfully about whether his son is doing ok. Now, such reminders can be done well, but in Fool's Fate they are just too obviously artificial.

Finally, it's only in Fool's Fate that it becomes clear that The Tawny Man Trilogy is really not meant to stand on its own. It is, instead, almost exclusively an extremely long epilogue to the stunning Farseer Trilogy. It's hard to express why I think so without spoiling the end of the trilogy. So let me put it this way. The conclusion of The Farseer Trilogy was powerful for a number of reasons. Among those reasons were (1) Fitz's abandonment of Molly, the only girl he ever really loved, in order to protect her and the daughter they had together; (2) Fitz's separation from Burrich, his adopted father; (3) Burrich's subsequent marriage to Molly, due to the belief (held by both of them) that Fitz was dead; (4) the hard knocks Fitz had to go through to learn what it really meant to be a Sacrifice to his people, without any glory or even material reward. Suffice to say that by the end of The Tawny Man Trilogy, every single one of these points gets addressed. Such a tying up of loose ends is good in one sense: I have previously noted that The Farseer Trilogy ends on an almost unbearably bleak note, and this trilogy softens the emotional blow of that ending by essentially appending a "but they lived happily ever after." The problem, of course, is that by superficially resolving the most affecting elements of The Farseer Trilogy, this trilogy ends up feeling false, as if Hobb is deliberately trying to appease us (and maybe herself) by making her characters happy, rather than taking the time to come up with a truly realistic way to resolve the unanswered questions from the first series.

In short, although The Tawny Man Trilogy is for the most part an interesting trilogy, its real power--and, in particular, the power of its ending--derives almost exclusively from the overwhelming power of the first trilogy. A lot of my negative opinions about this trilogy comes from the gap between it and Hobb's previous works. Perhaps that's unfair. But when an author has written previous books of such amazing quality, it's always a disappointment to have her fall short.

Copyright © 2004 Steven Wu

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