This is, in fact, the seventh novel in Hobb's (aka Megan Lindholm) sequence set in or around the Kingdom of the Six Duchies. The first three books detailed the childhood and youthful adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the ruling Farseer line and junior assassin, while the second trio dealt with matters and characters distant from the Six Duchies proper, in Bingtown and far-off Jamaillia. The binding link between all the books so far has been the presence of that peculiar, oracular creature, The Fool. The madcap Fool of the first trilogy became Amber the woodcarver of the second and now has metamorphosed (quite literally, in a very physical sense) into the dashing and rakish Lord Golden...
It is as Lord Golden, after an absence of fifteen years, that he plunges back into Fitz's life. Fitz has spent the years living a bucolic, almost hermetic existence. Scarred by his early adventures, he has few aspirations left and is glad that the world believes him dead. All he wants is to be left in peace with his Wit-bond companion, the wolf Nighteyes, and his adopted son, Hap.
But time will not stand still. The Six Duchies are restive. The Witted folk, whose magic leads them to bond mentally with like-minded animals, are being persecuted, in truly gruesome fashion, by rustic vigilantes. Kettricken, Queen-Regent of the Kingdom on behalf of her young son, Dutiful, has forbidden these atrocities, but with little effect. Unknown to the royal court, Dutiful not only possesses the hereditary Farseer magic of Skilling, but is himself Witted, and his ignorant stumbling into the edges of his gift make him vulnerable to dangerous forces. At first uninterested in the struggles of the wider world, Fitz is slowly drawn back into a world of conspiracy, secrets, seductions and sudden, vicious confrontations by his sense of family loyalty. It takes a lot of pressure to achieve this, and we travel a gradual, almost gentle, path from backwoods retreat to royal castle.
First Fitz's old master, the royal families' chief assassin, Chade, comes to call, beseeching Fitz's assistance in tutoring young Dutiful in the Skill. Then Fitz's lover, Starling drops by, stamps on his heart rather spitefully and finally storms out stage left, sneering. Then it is the Fool's turn, reminding Fitz that he, as the White Prophet, is here to Change The World, and that Fitz is the tool, the wedge, the talisman by which he persuades Time to jump out of its rut and turn into another path...
You have to give Hobb credit for not letting her characters flutter here and there like a loose leaf in the wind. It takes 195 pages to shift Fitz significantly from his own front door, and the time in between is taken up with scene setting and 'back-filling' as Fitz tells the Fool about his experiences over the last fifteen years. It's plain to see that all this is going to be necessary to the larger tale, for Hobb doesn't waste prose and the tangled past exerts a very real and tangible pressure on current events. But there are, one confidently anticipates, two more books to come, and some of the preliminary material in this volume hasn't yet revealed its significance, and therefore can't help but feel like 'stuffing', not story.
Then too, Fitz, as a character, is no longer the bright child or the enthusiastic young man of the first trilogy. He's in early middle-age, and the book has a tone, a pace, mostly more suited to a mature man's settled thoughts and steady behaviours.
I have to admit to a slight sense of disappointment in the plot. Hobb has a fine sense of narrative, and builds credible conspiracies, and better still, credible villains, but though this novel is well written it feels a touch thin on these fronts. It's a bit too linear, too straightforward, with few real twists, and because Fitz almost never gets to confront the principal villain face to face this important character feels distinctly unreal.
You can, by the way, read The Tawny Man without having read the second trilogy in the sequence, The Liveship Traders, but you can't really give the first set a miss; the back-story matters too much.
Fool's Errand is a gradual, rich reintroduction to some favourite old characters, and it has its moments of high drama and tension, but I've a sense of strong anticipation, rather than immediate satisfaction... Hobb can write more gripping work than this, and I hope will do just that in the next two books of the trilogy.
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© Simeon Shoul 18 May 2002