My Six Duchies Session with Robin Hobb

My guest today is a name that has been a fixture in epic fantasy for more then a decade now, and an award nominated author even before that under the name Megan Lindholm. She is responsible for fan favorite series like the Farseer, Live Ship Traders, and Tawny Man trilogies. This year she leaves the successful and familiar setting of the 6 Duchies and with her latest release, Shaman’s Crossing, introduces us to the Kingdom of Gernia, an all new canvas to kick off the The Soldier Son trilogy.

robin hobb

Today Robin Hobb, where she touches on Shaman’s Crossing, Peter Jackson, why first is better than third, and her love for spoilers.

Jay — I enjoyed Shaman’s Crossing and admittedly one of the chief reasons why is the departure from a medieval setting, a setting that is drastically different from what we have come accustomed to from you for a decade now. How are you feeling exploring your new world? Are you finding it difficult and unfamiliar, or are the creative juices relishing new possibilities?

Robin Hobb — I always enjoy exploring new scenarios, and I think this one has a great deal of possibility. The higher technology level makes all sorts of things possible. I’ve never understood why magic had to be confined to a pre-technology era. My first experiment with a non-standard story setting was Wizard of the Pigeons, a fantasy set in contemporary Seattle. It got me started on the idea of playing with magic in all sorts of settings and time frames. As always in any book, it’s the characters that make it for me, and I’m expecting great things of Nevare.

Jay — Did The Soldier Son trilogy exist conceptually only after you finished Fool’s Fate, or was this a story you have wanted to tell for some time?

Robin Hobb- The concept for Soldier Son has been rattling around in my mind for several years. Usually while I’m writing on one book or set of books, I’m researching the next one. I already know what I want to write after I’ve finished Soldier Son. So while I’m working on books two and three of this trilogy, I’ll be gathering up the bits and pieces and making notes for the next book. It already exists as a file, with several rough scenes. If I waited until the current book was finished to begin working on the next one, I have to have a year off between books, or perhaps more.

Jay — Excluding Nevare (the POV character in Shaman’s Crossing), what character did you enjoy writing the most?

Robin Hobb — I enjoy all my characters. I think that if the writer doesn’t care, it shows, especially with villains. The fun part of writing is that you get to be all of your characters. So when I’m writing a character, at that moment, he or she is my favorite. They’re all enjoyable in different ways. Obviously, I don’t, in real life, share the world view of every one of my characters. The trick is to get into that character and for that moment believe what the character believes and then think, ‘what would I do or say next?’ And then don’t flinch from it. If I’m trying to write from the point of view of someone who is a sexist, for example I can not write while smirking over my shoulder at the reader and saying, ‘see how ignorant this poor fool really is?’ I have to put my heart into it and write as if I truly shared that belief.

Jay — You are noted for your first person POV’s, although have written both first person and third person genre efforts, and have always stated you feel your strength is characterization. With that in mind, what made you decide that the first person POV was a viable format for you specifically even early on in your career — and what work(s) or author(s) showed you the possibilities of that format if applicable?

Robin Hobb — Real life story telling is almost always first person. And it really works. If it starts out saying, “My friend Joe saw a bear on his vacation’ you may or may not pay attention to my story. If you don’t know Joe, you may not care much. But if I start out saying, “I was crouched on the streambank, trying to get the hook out of the trout’s mouth and I heard this noise and I looked up and I didn’t see anything at first, but something smelled really bad . . . “ Now I’ve got you. And when you are the reader and you have to say those words in your mind, then you are the character, experiencing it with him. You care. You connect.

Jay — I read an interview by you where you discussed some work you enjoyed reading, and you brought up Nero Wolfe (a personal favorite of mine) by Rex Stout, along with John D. Macdonald works, various Sherlock Holmes stories, and author Robert B. Parker. These are all noted detective/mystery works and writers, and I was wondering with the recent rise in cross genre work between either Fantasy/Science Fiction and Detective/Mystery works, if you have ever had any inclination to do the same — or perhaps write one outright?

Robin Hobb — Nope. I’m afraid my story telling ideas don’t come to me in that format. I think good mystery writers probably have puzzle box minds. I don’t. I do love a good mystery, but if you look at the ones I mention, you’ll see they are very much character driven. It’s not just Travis McGee, it’s his buddy Meyer who makes those stories so good. If the characters are good, I’ll read anything. I think that fantasy and mystery are very good at developing characters that change over the years and through the books.

Jay — Regarding your work, presently you have become a fantasy fixture under the pen name Robin Hobb, which you wrote your last several and current series under. Yet Megan Lindholm is both a Hugo and Nebula nominated short story/novella author. Can we expect to see any work for you in this format — and do you still write short fiction?

Robin Hobb — I still write as Megan Lindholm. Short stories are a very difficult form for me. In the time it takes me to write and publish a short story, I can usually write three or four chapters of a book. And that gets right to the bones of the problem. Time. I have lots of ideas for novels and stories under both names, but only so many writing hours in each day. So, for now, the shorter works are shouldered aside by the novels. I have lots of half finished, barely started, nearly finished and finished but not polished stories in my computer files. But taking the time to make them salable and ready for print is the hard part. The novel has a deadline. That’s why it gets done.

Jay  — I read a rather insightful collection of essays edited by Karen Haber, Meditations on Middle Earth, that you participated in, and in you spoke of the moment you finished reading The Lord of the Rings and the three thoughts that came to you:

“one was the simple unbelievable void of it’s over, there is no more to read.” “And I have never encountered anything like this. I’ll never find anything this good again.”

“in all my life I will never write anything as good as this. He’s done it; He’s achieved it. Is their any point in my trying?”

That said, what were your thoughts on Peter Jackson’s adaptation, and has their been any such possibilities with your own projects?

Robin Hobb — I respect his integrity as a film maker. He obviously put a lot of thought and heart into the movies. But, when all is said and done, that was Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. That isn’t a put down. No movie is ever a book. It’s always about someone’s experience of reading a book. As an ‘experiencer’ of the books, I’d have made different choices if I were making a movie, but wouldn’t we all? I think to have created that visualization is an amazing achievement. I really enjoyed all three movies.

Jay — Regarding two of your most beloved characters, Fitz and the Fool, were their any direct, conscious “real life” inspirations for these characters?

Robin Hobb — When I began writing the books, my youngest son was about 15. He and his friends were in and out of the house, so I had a whole contingent of young men to observe. A lot of Fitz’s body language is based on how my son moved at that time, but that is physical posture more than anything. Fitz matured as my son and his friends did, so I had a rich source for taking bits and pieces of information. That said, there is no one who is the sole model for any of my characters. Characters really have to be products of their own world, or they are not believable. You can’t take a 20th century girl with 20th century sensibilities, put her in a castle and have a solid story. I’ve never taken a friend and inserted him into a book. It just doesn’t work for me.

Jay — Recent message board “birds” tells us you are in possession of an advanced copy of George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows — what other authors would you recommend fans of yours?

Robin Hobb — Martin definitely tops my list for fantasy right now. My list of authors to recommend has grown far too long; the problem is that I like writers all the way back to BC and up to the present. So where do you start? With Virgil? Choosing three at random: Steven Brust, Rudyard Kipling, Michael Marshall Smith. I do have a list of favorite writers up on my website. It’s fairly substantial.

Jay — The second book in The Soldier Son trilogy, Forest Mage is due out mid-2006. What can you tell reader of Shaman’s Crossing about where you intend to us and Nevare — something, perhaps a tidbit for salivating fans?

Robin Hobb — No, no, no!

You know I don’t do spoilers! Part of the joy of a book is coming to it unspoiled, and watching the tale unfold. I’d really prefer that readers experience my books that way. I work very had to keep spoilers off the book jacket copy and off my newsgroup. I will tell you that I don’t understand writers who give away bits of the plot in advance of the book. A book should be an experience that the reader has a page at a time. This last Harry Potter was the second one I’ve read where on every page, I expected a major character to get killed. And that really influenced how I read the book. I would have much preferred not to know that at the beginning. It’s rather like my experience of Million Dollar Baby. I still haven’t seen the film and I probably won’t. Reviewers who said they ‘would not reveal the surprising twist at the end’ had already given away too much. Why on earth did they have to say that? Have we forgotten what it’s like to open the pages of a book for the first time and fall into it, with no clue of where we may land? Shouldn’t we leave that intact for other readers who follow us weeks or even years after a book’s first release? Spoilers do keep people from reading. Ask any child about The Wizard of Oz, and almost without exception, they’ll tell you they saw the movie, but never read the book. The same is true of The Jungle Book. Those of us who have actually read the books know that the text differs substantially from the movies. But those kids may never discover that.

So. No spoilers from me about Forest Mage, the next book in the Soldier Son trilogy. It would be very hard to say anything about it that wouldn’t be a major spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet read Shaman’s Crossing. Besides, I’m still writing Forest Mage. With my luck, I’d tell you something that gets edited out before the book is actually printed, and people would end up forever wondering what on earth I was talking about.

Jay — Ha! I had to ask or no one would believe me!

robin hobb

Since Megan Lindholm started scribing tales under her pen name, she hasn’t only been consistently reliable, she also has maintained a level of quality, while offering fans of epic fantasy a worthwhile read for ten of the last eleven years. Among these, and featuring a first person narrative, her Farseer Trilogy is often spoke of as one of the most popular recent epic fantasy series completed, and led to two related spin-offs, her Live Ship Traders and Tawny Man. These series, and their success have made the name Robin Hobb, one of the most identifiable in the genre. In those mentioned eleven years, the only year that Hobb’s fans and shelves were without new work from Hobb was last year, however, any sense of concern was quickly supplanted with anticipation, with the announcement of an all new trilogy, in a setting completely independent of her prior work, entitled The Soldier Son trilogy. The subject of this review is the first installment of this anticipated sequence, Shaman’s Crossing, recently released at the beginning of July, except in the U.S, which I believe will see it in September.

Shaman’s Crossing can be described as a mystic frontier tale, heavy on environmental and ecological preservation undertones, examining the effects of imperialism, and slightly reminiscent of a Cardian coming of age story, in the beginning stages of a class struggle.

Hobb introduces us to the Gernian Kingdom. A Kingdom whose King Troven has given the order to expand east, the expansion marked by a road marring the country side. For the last twenty years the Gernians have succesfully subjugated and defeated the nomadic plains-people (think Native Americans), many of which are now numbered in the second generation of being assimilated into Gernian society. The Gernian’s expansion has met a temporary reprieve as the western frontier dominated by the Barrier Mountains, home and haven of the Specks.

These new territories are populated and ruled in the King’s name by a new generation of nobles promoted directly by the monarchy. These new Lords were officers rewarded for their war time valor to the rank of nobility and given various fiefs in the newly conquered territories. These lords are at times affectionately called, and at other times condescendingly, as Battle Lords.

The main character of Shaman’s Crossing, and the our guide in Gernia, as Hobb once again employs a first person narrative for ‘The Soldier Son Trilogy’, is Nevare Burvelle. Nevare is the second son of a Battle Lord. I stress second son, as this is an important element in Hobb’s new world, and one of interest. The Nobles of Gernia’s sons are occupationally, and thus class stratified by order of birth. The first is the heir, he will inherit the estate and its income along with the title, and social position granted to a Lord, the second son is the soldier son, he will have the opportunity to serve Gernia as an officer in the Cavalla. Cavalla could be a play on cavalry, but interestingly enough it could also be play off of the Greek city “Kavala” which in the Byzantine period was a notable trading post for horses, and still has a reputation for its horse riding. The third son is given to the faith, apparently a monotheistic based theology, and the fourth to the arts, and so on.

Daughters are married off in pre-arranged agreements by the head of the household, either the father, or their oldest brother if necessary. This class structure is strictly adhered to, and thought of as being blasphemous if circumvented, even if by death of one of the sons and a subsequent birth later. The writ, as Nevare ponders it:

“OF THOSE WHO BEND THE KNEE ONLY TO THE KING, LET THEM HAVE SONS IN PLENITUDE, THE FIRST FOR AN HEIR, THE SECOND TO WEAR THE SWORD, THE THIRD TO SERVE AS PRIEST, THE FOURTH TO LABOR FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE, THE FIFTH TO GATHER KNOWLEDGE”

Shaman’s Crossing is about Nevare, and the beginning of his journey, both into manhood, and into his seemingly ineluctable destiny. In his early years he was trained to be an officer by his father, Lord Keft Burvelle, at their holdings, Widevale.

In the beginning portions of the novel, we are introduced to the Burvelle family, Nevare’s older brother Rosse, Elsi, the elder of his two sisters, Vanze, the youngest son, and finally Yaril the youngest of the Burvelle siblings, and Nevare’s kid sister.

The family seems very functional, and well disposed of each to other, and the Lord Father proving to be a very capable in setting a foundation for a dynasty for his New Noble family. Nevare’s father seems to take special interest in Nevare as one would typically guess, Lord Keft himself was as noted, a former Soldier son himself. In the early portions of the novel we see the different tutors and lessons Nevare is exposed to.

The most interesting being, when his father ask his avowed enemy a plainsmen, from one of the most infamous clans, the Kidona to teach Nevare “only what an enemy can teach.”

It has to be mentioned that although the plains people were conquered, they are gifted with magic abilities, an ability that is only defeated by Iron, which is another interesting element Ms. Hobb employs in her world.

Nevare first saw this ability as a young boy visiting an outpost, Franner’s bend, with his father on business. A young girl, left alone for a moment by her scout father in the fort, a product of a taboo union, of Gernian, and plains-woman, was assailed by a group of sons of soldiers, provoked by lust, masked, and self-advocated by bigotry. Nevare watched the girl defend herself, and likely saved his life as well:

“IT IS HARD TO DESCRIBE THE MAGIC SHE DID. THERE WAS NO LIGHTNING FLASH, NO ROAR OR THUNDER, NO GREEN SPARKS, NOTHING LIKE THE OLD GERNIAN TALES OF MAGIC. ALL SHE DID WAS MOVE HER HAND IN A CERTAIN WAY. I CANNOT DESCRIBE IT, I WOULD NEVER IMITATE IT AND YET SOME OLD PART OF MY SOUL KNEW AND RECOGNIZED THAT SIGN.”

“…THE TWO BOYS HOLDING HER REACTED FAR MORE STRONGLY. AT THE TIME I HAD NEVER SEEN A MAN FALL IN SEIZURE…”

Nevare’s new instructor, Dewara, taught Nevare the ways of the plainsmen, how to fight, how to survive, how to ride a taldi, the traditional mount of a plainsmen, he also taught him how to speak Jindobe, the trade language. He also took him to the brink of death, but before that, gave both Nevare and the reader a glimpse of the Specks, in a mystic, psychedelic journey, to another plane — a plane that Nevare thought was an illusion, which was followed by this exchange, one that stuck out in my reading:

“GERNINA! HE SPAT THE WORD AT ME. “YOU ARE THE ONE WHO IS NOT REAL HERE. DO NOT PROFANE THE HUNTING GROUNDS OF RESHAMEL WITH YOUR DISBELIEF. GO.”

“NO,” I BEGGED HIM. “NO. LET ME STAY, LET ME BE REAL HERE.”

After this experience, which will lead to a Speck. Nevare will literally, and unceremoniously be dragged home by Dewara, nearly without his life, but he brought something back with him.

The Bulk of the novel takes place in the capitol of the Kingdom Old Thares, where Nevare and other Noble soldier sons go for their official training, at the King’s Academy. This is where we are really exposed to the political situation in the kingdom. As mentioned before, the Battle Lords, are new nobility, elevated by the King, for valor in the field, and to hold the new frontier of ever expanding Gernian Kingdom, but even more so to gain political leverage in the Council of the Lords, the governing parliament if you will, of Gernia.

This leverage of course is directly a threat to the “old nobles”, the traditional dynastic ruling families of the Kingdom, for the most part an aristocratic group, who are not wholly supportive of the King’s western expansion, but would rather look east where many of the ” old noble” families lost valuable coastal holdings in a prior war with another kingdom, Landsing. The old nobles are also aware that adding to the Council of Lords in any fashion diminishes the power of their own individual influence. What makes this more interesting is that in these cases the fact that these new Battle Lords are second sons, they are actually in dispute with their own families. For instance Lord Cleft Burvelle’s older brother Sefert is a Lord himself in Thares. One could imagine some would find such a breach created by the King from traditional ways would be viewed with no small amount of disdain.

These political squabble bleed down to the children of the nobles, and manifest themselves in the Academy, which we find is segregated and whose new chief administrator, Colonel Stiet’s blood runs old blue. I really enjoyed Hobb’s description of the academy life, anyone who has ever attended a University should be able to relate and appreciate the bulk of Shaman’s Crossing. From classes, to pranks, to hazing, it is here where Nevare will forge bonds with a diverse, even if archetypal. You will be able to relate people Nevare meets with people you know, from the fair and charismatic Trist, to the porcine but resourceful and strong willed Gord, to the steadfast if not brilliant Spink, among others.

Also during this time we are introduced to Epiny, Navare’s cousin, and eldest daughter of Sefert. Epiny is eccentrically progressive, and almost single handedly breaks the monotony (not to be mistaken as a negative however) of the storyline. Some will find her nonsensical, but it really fits her worldview, and if thinking about it, the depiction we get, exclusively through a very conforming and traditional perspective of Nevare, I think it’s very consistent. I particularly found Caulder, the son of Colonel Stiet, to be an enjoyable character study, one that I hope evolves as the series progresses.

The Speck’s themselves remain a enigma for most of the story and there true nature is evolving through to the reader as it does with Nevare. The Specks are far removed from thought in Old Thares, the truth of them perhaps only found in the far west frontier, and removed from daily reality. The latter portions of the novel shed more light on the Specks, and the extent of their power.

From the very beginning of the novel I felt this was Hobb’s most tightly written offering. I see possibilities with her social structure, found the plains-people to be very intriguing, and really enjoyed Hobb’s methodical description of academy’s life. Nevare has proven to be an interesting POV vantage point.

I do think people that have problems with disassociating a new series by an author, from their prior work may have some difficulties with Shaman’s Crossing. Fitz, was a popular character, and rightly so, however, this story is not about Fitz — at all. I recommend trying to enjoy a new series by Hobb, without needlessly and fruitlessly comparing two unrelated series characters. I honestly don’t see the sense it. Nevare at times will frustrate readers, but better to frustrate me and stay true to his background, then do something that may be “cool” or suave, and completely out of character.

Perhaps in the future he will prove more individually capable, perhaps not, but it wouldn’t have seemed homogeneous to the rest of the novel and true in regards to the character development and the time elapsed within the novel. I’m not a Fitz fan, as much as I am a Hobb fan — and no the two are not necessarily synonymous. I really enjoyed the characters, the academy, and Hobb’s world building, which is not yet complete, but as said its possibilities are more then slightly intriguing.

The element of the novel I found not to my tastes at all, were actually the majority of the sequences where we caught a glimpse of some of the fantastic elements in the novel. Allegory is abundant in this effort by Hobb, and one strong theme is the environment. The preservation message, one any sane person agrees with,  was not handled as subtle as I would have liked. It’s obviously important to Hobb but I wish she would have trusted me as a reader to get it.

When Nevare has various instances where he is being affected by the Specks, it successfully stunted the flow of an otherwise meticulous narrative. It was like watching a great movie, but riddled with commercials. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t have issues with messages in the text, it’s the foundation of most art, however, it was to foreword for my preferences, and is my principle grievance with Shaman’s Crossing. I was a bit dissatisfied with the Specks until the latter portions of the novel, it was like being primed to see something spectacular — and you get the Briar King. Hobb, however, made up for this later in novel to some extent.

The conclusion of the novel has its positives and negatives. Hobb successfully kicks off a new trilogy with a first installment that does offer some conclusions, and provides some closure while promising more for the forthcoming installments. The end does have a faint tang of deus ex machina to it however, it is a bit tidy.

A new Hobb world, an interesting caste structure, a viable political climate, a war being fought, characters that have an authentic quality to them, as well as it seems some interesting subtle narrative that may imply depth more than a skimmer would notice and thus could prove Shaman’s Crossing to be a more informative rereads then prior Hobb efforts.

This is not a book that has an abundance of action in it, so warmongers are warned, it is however well worth the time to read (even with the infomercials), and I think if readers approach it with an open mind, and without a heavy dose of Fitz man-love, you will be as equally inclined as I am, in anticipating the second installment, I believe tentatively titled Forest Mage.

The first book of the Soldier Son trilogy, Shaman’s Crossing probably isn’t the best Robin Hobb book I have read, but it has the look of being promising, and definitely breaking new ground for Hobb fans.

Author: Jay

protoculture hoarding, devil fruit eating, energon cube stirring, spirited away, chilling in a house of leaves.