I really haven't read enough Robin Hobb. She has flown under my radar, mostly because my first encounters with her were through the library, and I have this bad habit of checking out books in the middle of the series (ahem, Golden Fool) and then wondering what the hell is going on. Last year I read Assassin's Apprentice, and I have acquired the remaining two books in that trilogy, so I hope to finish that soon. For now, however, I've turned to the Soldier Son trilogy. And though I've exceeded the amount of space I usually devote to anecdotes, I shall mention how I acquired these books. I actually read Shaman's Crossing years ago, probably back when it first released. I didn't like it. I thought it was dull. So I was hesitant to re-read it and finish the series, but all three were left abandoned at a one-off bookswap we had at the gallery where I work. I don't like to turn down free books, much less a complete trilogy in matching paperback.
So here we are.
With Shaman's Crossing, Robin Hobb turns her attention to colonialism. She combines world-building with fairly competent characterization, politics with just a pinch of zesty magic, to create a story that is rich if a little over-saturated. Although I have reservations about this book, I think Hobb does deserve the accolade the Baltimore Sun has blurbed on the cover of my edition: she is "a master fantasist."
I don't think I can talk about the world without talking about Nevare, and I certainly can't talk about him without talking about his world. So I'll do both. Nevare Burvelle is the soldier son of a new noble; i.e., his father was also a soldier, but he so distinguished himself in battle that the king elevated him to a newly-created lordship. And in Gernia, commoner sons take on their father's profession, while noble sons follow an order: heir, soldier, priest, artist, scholar, etc. It's all in the Holy Scrolls, and apparently violating that order is taboo. This is one of those premises that sounds really cool but that I have a hard time believing would actually work. But I rolled with it. Oh, and women don't get to do anything except plot political marriages and have babies and wear dresses (I think in that order).
If you are starting to get the idea that Gernia, for all its power and prestige and riches and quality of life, is a not-so-nice allegory for the British Empire, you might be on the right track. And Gernia's imperialist policies form the political backdrop for Nevare's maturation into an adult and his conflict with the spiritual forces of the Plainspeople and the even more mysterious, distant Specks. Nevare becomes caught in the middle of a three-way conflict: the Plainspeople are fighting against the Specks, who drove the Plainspeople onto the plains in the first place. From the west, Gernia is displacing the Plainspeople, and will soon go up against the Specks. Nevare, thanks to an encounter with a Plainsman, has been magically linked to a Speck spell that has its own ideas about how he can be used, as a tool, to bring about Gernia's ruination.
So here's the thing: I like Nevare. He is earnest but not obnoxious, and he is capable and competent yet still prone to making mistakes. (I can't stand protagonists who always manage to get it right.) So, because Gernia is Nevare's homeland, and yes, if I'm being honest, because I've internalized eurocentrism despite my best efforts, I kind of want Nevare and his country to succeed. Well, not so much succeed as in colonize and oppress the Plainspeople and the Specks; but I don't want Nevare to have to betray his own people. At the same time, I want the Specks and the Plainspeople and their magicks to survive against Gernia, against its soldiers and technology and cold iron.
These paradoxical, torn loyalties experienced by the reader through Nevare are what make Shaman's Crossing fascinating and brilliant. I want Nevare to survive and make his father proud; I want the Plainspeople and Specks to survive. While not mutually exclusive, one of these will definitely need to compromise in degree somehow. I'm interested to see how Hobb resolves the plot, but for now let me ruminate upon what it means.
There are no easy answers. Although it can be trying to hear the justifications and racism at times, seeing colonialism from this perspective does help me get into the mind of the colonialists and understand the motives driving them to expand. It isn't just avarice; Gernia itself feels threatened by rival country Landsing, which wrested from them their coastal provinces, rendering their proud navy obsolete. Unready to provoke another war with Landsing, Gernia's king turns his eye eastward. So there is a pressure-cooker situation happening, where Gernia can't stop moving east, and the Plainspeople have been pushed westward by the Specks. Something's gotta give.
This is worldbuilding, people. Living, dynamic worlds where events of the novel are but a small part of what's happening. So many fantasy novels build great political intrigues into their plots, yet these exist in a vacuum where it seems every other political entity happens to be sleeping. Hobb has created a society shaped by advances in technology, the loss of a costly war, and controversial political decisions by its ruler. This, in turn, has shaped Nevare. He is growing up as the first of a new generation, the soldier sons of new nobles, attending the King's Cavalla Academy.
Of course, peeling away the politics, we see that the structure of this novel is that of the boarding school. The King's Cavalla Academy is like a Hogwarts setting (without the magic). I'm assuming the friendships and enmities Nevare has formed here will contributed to the plot of the subsequent two books. Most of his time spent at the Academy consists of being persecuted for being a new noble.
Oh, in case you didn't guess, the old nobles who were around before the war didn't appreciate the king diluting their power with new nobles who are, naturally, loyal to him. When it comes to communicating this concept, Hobb gets very heavy-handed. Sometimes it seems like every second conversation Nevare has is about how the old nobles hate the new nobles and are waging a proxy class war via their sons. It's relevant; it's realistic, but it's also way overstated.
This tendency to harp on the intricacies of her world is Hobb's one indulgence that detracts from an otherwise-great book. It doesn't help that, since Shaman's Crossing is in the first person, we hear it all in Nevare's voice. I love that Hobb is enthusiastic about her world—and that her world is worth being enthusiastic about—but sometimes I just put the book aside and took a break because the lengthy descriptions and exposition were getting on my nerves.
You know who also got on my nerves? Epiny. I feel bad, because she's a spunky little women's rights activist who is surprisingly good at critical thinking. Yet she's also young, and she acts so immaturely at times. I so wanted someone, anyone, to tell her to start behaving with a modicum of composure. However, this is not a flaw; it is probably deliberate in, or at least very appropriate to, how Hobb tells the story.
Shaman's Crossing takes a lot of common fantasy motifs—technology versus magic, soldiers versus tribal warriors, class conflict, etc.—but as with her other series, Hobb has fabricated both story and setting enough to make her work stand out. Even though this isn't one of my favourite fantasy novels, and it isn't my favourite Robin Hobb story, it still demonstrates her ability as a fantasy writer, and it's entertaining and even a little thought-provoking. As the beginning of a trilogy, it has a satisfying conclusion and a tantalizing arc. As its own story, it is a deep character piece set against the backdrop of colonial politics. Shaman's Crossing is more complex than I gave it credit for being the first time I read it: don't make the mistake I did.