I suppose we should call this one 600 Pages of Nevare Eating Things and Arguing with Himself.
In this conclusion to Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy, Nevare faces the enemy within, who goes by the name "Soldier's Boy." As the story opens, Nevare flees from Gettys after magically faking his own death. He heads straight for the Speck forest, where he unleashes his magic on the King's Road to wreak havoc and set back construction. Such a great expenditure burns his reserves of magic, which manifests itself as extreme weight loss. It also lets Soldier's Boy take control of their shared body, relegating Nevare to the role of observer/annoying head-side-kick for the majority of the book.
Soldier's Boy promptly demonstrates he is just as incompetent at using magic and making friends as Nevare is. Since he's uncool and no one likes him, he eats his feelings (though he claims he's just trying to "build up his magic," I think we can all read between the lines here). Meanwhile, he and Nevare continue a battle of the unwitted as it gradually becomes apparent that the only way either one of them can properly wield the magic to save the Specks from the Gernians is if these two personalities merge to form a unified, whole Nevare. And neither one wants that to happen.
I've thought long and hard about what I want to say about Renegade's Magic and the Soldier's Son trilogy in general. Truthfully, I'm finding it difficult to cultivate enough enthusiasm to praise or criticize. Shaman's Crossing's was worthy of the former, and Forest Mage was worthy of the latter. In comparison, this book is a bland mixture of the two.
Renegade's Magic is an improvement over Forest Mage, if only because we get a complete look at the Speck society. Just as our exposure to Gernian ideology made Shaman's Crossing more interesting, the Speck ideology forms a major component of this book, and it is no less worthy of attention. The Specks, though "primitive" in technology in comparison to the Gernians and ourselves, have a very complex hierarchical society. At the top, of course, are the Great Ones, the Speck mages. Below them are the feeders, attendants to the Great Ones. These two echelons are honoured by their kin-clans, for Great Ones bring prestige to a clan, and the feeders keep their Great Ones happy and healthy. Child-rearing is a collective effort by the clan, and the clans themselves are migratory.
Speck society has a lot to recommend it. I wouldn't want to be a Great One, despite the literal and social power that accompanies such status. Maybe it's an aversion to or horror of obesity, or a reaction against the idea of having "feeders." But Hobb depicts a people much more attuned to nature than our own technologically-elevated societies. More importantly, we finally get a diverse culture to associate to the name that has been uttered ever since the first book. The Specks are no longer some spectre of an enemy out east. They are a group of clans, far from monolithic, struggling to survive.
A small part of me was hoping Soldier's Boy's raid on Gettys would work and drive the Gernians away from the frontier. It seemed like the least distasteful option on the table. Of course, I didn't expect it to work. Nevertheless, I am disappointed with the way Hobb ultimately resolves the conflict between the Gernians and the Specks. It seems like cheating, a distraction instead of a resolution. And "the magic" accomplishes it all through Nevare, without Nevare having much of an influence at all. This disempowerment of the protagonist is never a good thing; it verges perilously close to deus ex machina territory, and it robs the resolution of its reward.
And then after that resolution, the story doesn't end. No, it keeps on going in a coda as a restored Nevare leaves the Specks behind to return to Gernia. Because you can go home again? This ending, more than anything else about Renegade's Magic disappoints me. After making such a big deal of the division between Nevare and Soldier's Boy and the uncertainty over what would happen when the two merge … the result is nothing. The resulting character seems suspiciously like Nevare: Gernian and whiny.
It's obvious from the first book that Hobb had set herself a difficult task. After all, her characters are just as nasty and self-centred as those involved in the colonization of the Americas, and look how well that went. So I'm not sure what I expected when it comes to resolving the conflict between the Gernians and the Specks, especially because I seem so dissatisfied in any "magical" ending. Despite my reservations, I will give Hobb credit for her careful foreshadowing in earlier books and her ability to make lesser plot threads coalesce during the climax.
Unfortunately, the exciting moments, such as Soldier's Boy's raid and the climax, are few and far between here. Renegade's Magic is almost as dull as Forest Mage: in the latter, Nevare spent most of the book as a cemetery sentry; in the former, Soldier's Boy spends most of his time eating and butting heads with other Speck Great Ones. Neither book is in any particular hurry to tell its story, and neither does it with the skill that Hobb demonstrates in Soldier's Son. I'm at a loss to explain why this is, why the first book of a trilogy can be so good while the sequels suffer from structural and narrative flaws. Some of this must be subjective, since other people don't have as much of a problem with these two books.
Objectively, though, I think it comes down to a problem of focus. Take Orandula, the god of death, life, balances, and smartass carrion birds, as an example. Great character; I love its dialogue. Still, was there much of a point? It seemed like such a random addition to this universe, more useful as a plot device than a thematic one. Hobb's insistence on spending so much time on Soldier's Boy's careful rebuilding of his reserves and training of the Speck "army" seems like little more than padding to me. I wish there had been a more tangible goal to which the story could have built, something for Soldier's Boy and Nevare to do other than bicker and concoct half-baked schemes while waiting for the magic to take over and solve everything.
Hobb has a nice writing style and a good ability for describing the world her characters inhabit. Yet these books fail to provide the type of complex narrative I desire in my fantasy. The issues are there. The characters are waiting, but they aren't given enough direction, and Hobb keeps them on too tight a leash. Sorry to say, but Renegade's Magic is far more representative of the trilogy than Shaman's Crossing.