Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

way of kings

Format:  Hard cover, first edition, 2010

Pages:  1001 (not including appendices)

Reading Time:  about 18 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Highprince Dalinar fights battles against a hostile race, political foes, and unusual visions; the slave Kaladin attempts to keep his fellow slaves alive; and young Shallan must make a bold attempt to steal an artifact that can save her family.

 

The Way of Kings has been sitting in my “to be read” pile for 7 years. The thick, doorstopping, massive tome had been intimidated me for those 7 years, because I knew it would take a long, long time to read, and I wouldn’t have much to blog about while I was trying to complete it. As time passed, the sequels Words of Radiance and Oathbringer came out and added another 2200+ pages on top of the 1001 pages found within The Way of Kings. I asked myself if I really wanted to tackle these massive works when I already have my hands full with the Malazan series, and with visions of Robert Jordan’s bloat in my head. On the other hand, Brandon Sanderson brought that bloated Wheel of Time series to a close, so perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I finally managed to conquer The Way of Kings, and have a review ready, but first I’ll look at other reviews on the internet.

 

Thomas Wagner of SFReviews.net states: “But what we are left with at the end of the day is, for all its very real merits, one of those thousand-page tomes in which far too little takes far too long to happen. For all the artistry of its execution, The Way of Kings never duplicates the sheer breathless entertainment value of the Mistborn novels. It’s too invested in being literary to remember to be plain old fun. Sanderson fills the book with one absorbing scene after another. But up to the point we’re nearing the climax — literally, I pegged the 900-page point with the note “things finally starting to get exciting” — The Way of Kings reads less like a novel than a collection of beautifully-written scenes in search of a novel. It all comes together just fine in the end, I’m pleased to say. But the readers who’ll end up appreciating The Way of Kings the most will be fans of epic fantasy who care far more for an immersive worldbuilding experience than taut storytelling. Sanderson has some of his characters experience the philosophical epiphany that life is much more about the journey than the destination. I’d have preferred a few more thrills along this journey, that’s all…In this way, the book’s length is a liability. Sanderson could easily have shorn about 200 pages from the final draft, not deleting anything of great import, but simply condensing passages that go on and on in a way that conveyed the same information. And, being tighter, the result would have been more palpable suspense…For all this, I remain deeply impressed by Sanderson as a writer, and it would be a real disservice to fail to mention the book’s virtues. I was fascinated by just about every aspect of Sanderson’s development of his world, all the way from its deep history, to its flora and fauna, to its intricately detailed system of magic, which is pretty similar to that in his other books. (This physical component is tied to that power, and so on.) The expected climactic battle scene is still plenty exciting, and there are good hints that the sequel will considerably raise the stakes. And while it’s hard to ignore that, like Sanderson’s previous books, this one eventually reveals itself to be a superhero story at heart, the superpowers some characters find themselves with are just part of a greater storytelling picture, and not the whole.

Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review writes: “I wasn’t even a quarter of the way into this book before I realized I was beginning something impressive. Sanderson writes as if for his life, knowing just when to leave a point of view for another, when to bring the character back from the brink and when to test a character’s mettle. From a purely writing standpoint Sanderson is showing himself to be one of the best. Not only is his grasp of his characters impressive, but the way that he imparts that to us is stunning. Every character seems to be intricately carved into what we read, with a mixture of flaws and qualities that make them figuratively jump off the page. The action scenes – whether they be from the lowly servants to the mystically enhanced generals – are nothing short of spellbinding and leave you breathless with anticipation throughout…Maybe the area in which Sanderson achieves his highest praise is in the manner with which he depicts the headspace our characters live in. Not only in their reaction and understanding of the world around them and the manner in which it reacts and has reacted to the continual storms that batter its landscape, but also in how the characters seem to be baffled by concepts that to us are normal, but in their world are foreign. Their bafflement leaves the reader similarly baffled, all too great effect.

Finally, Aidan Moher of A Dribble of Ink says: “It’s difficult to argue that any novel requires 400,000 words to tell its story. It’s an even tougher road to expect a series to need ten such volumes to reach its conclusion. On the surface, The Way of Kings should be enough in-and-of-itself to solidify any chance of anyone arguing successfully for behemoth-sized novels: it’s slow, plodding, over-complicated, and, even at the end of it’s final page, feels more like a prologue to a larger story than one of the longest published novels of the last decade. There’s a lot wrong with The Way of Kings, by all means, it’s a slog of a novel, but despite all of this, I found myself eagerly looking forward to every opportunity I had to crack open its many pages, to immerse myself in Roshar…Sanderson is so earnest, so effusively enamoured with his fictional creations, that it’s difficult to read The Way of Kings and not be washed over by the love that the author has imbued in his work. It’s a love of his own creation, but also of the epic fantasy’s lauded history: the enormous scale of Robert Jordan; the worldbuilding and ethnic diversity of Ursula K. Le Guin; the clashing armies of Terry Brooks; the otherworldliness and humour of Jack Vance. The Way of Kings is an homage to ’80s and ’90s fantasy, and, for anyone who grew up reading the great authors of those eras, there’s an almost irresistible desire to forget the novel’s flaws and just enjoy the ride…The Way of Kings has that same obsessive, addictive quality that makes all of Sanderson’s other works so effective. It’s not so much about what it offers readers, but about what it can offer readers. Promises abound, hints of world-changing events, and mind-bending character developments to come. Nobody does foreshadowing in epic fantasy as well as Brandon Sanderson, and, if his previous work is any indication, every small detail in this early book will have a ripple-like effect on the volumes that follow. Every chapter is full of questions, full of the type of plot developments and world building that fills chatter around water coolers or playgrounds…The Way of Kings is very clearly the first chapter of a much larger tale. Despite its flaws, The Way of Kings proves that Sanderson has the ambition to fill the hole left after the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and continue establish himself as one of the most successful and prolific young fantasy novelists. Like many opening volumes before it, The Way of Kings convinces readers that the best is yet to come.

 

There’s something special about this book. I do remember that early on I was surprised to see that 400 pages had gone by and I hadn’t noticed the progress I had made. At 800 pages I remembered thinking that the amount remaining was just a small part, compared to what I had already read, and I wasn’t sure how I had gotten through those 800 pages so fast. Despite its size, Sanderson’s prose, as it has in previous novels I’ve read (such as Towers of Midnight or Mistborn), flows effortlessly. As Aidan says above, the book has its flaws…despite that, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the story. Here you won’t find ponderous language, extreme attention to every little detail and overly complicated plot devices like you do in other books of this size; rather, while the pacing does stagnate at times, it never feels as if size or page count is the impediment to finishing The Way of Kings.

In all respects, The Way of Kings does what it is supposed to do as the first book in a series – it sets up the narrative and background while introducing us to the main characters, at the expense of action sequences. This is normal for an introductory book, and I would very much expect the next two releases to have a different focus and pace. As Sanderson uses The Way of Kings to explore the world he has created, the reader can see the passion he has for that creation in the details…at times it seems like Sanderson has thought out every effect and consequence of those details that he has created. From races such as the Parshendi (with their black and red skin and armor growing out of their body), to the rock based plants, to the various Spren, to the extreme weather…Sanderson has created a completely alien world. At times Sanderson lays it on a bit thick – I remember thinking, “not another type of spren!” when a new one was introduced later in the story. Still, it is quite ambitious to imagine such details, when most authors are content with variations of Earth’s Dark Ages. And I love the Highstorms…I had once imagined extreme weather as part of the setting of my own book, but Sanderson’s ideas are far superior to my own.

Although the world-building is top notch, at least with respect to flora and fauna, I still haven’t wrapped my head around the thousands of years of history that precedes the current time. Much of that is by design, as Sanderson has some secrets that he is not yet ready to reveal. As a result, we hear things like the Heralds, the Voidbringers, and the Knights Radiant, but what is revealed is often contradictory and confusing…this is by design but it doesn’t make things easier. A few bones are tossed to us at the end of the story, but there’s still a long way to go until clarity is achieved.

The characters in The Way of Kings are its strongest assets. Highprince Dalinar seems to be a by-the-book, straight-as-an-arrow, goody two-shoes, but he wasn’t always that way; in fact, not only was he a supremely talented fighter on the battlefield who enjoyed killing, he very nearly did something extremely dark in his past to a family member. Those less than noble deeds and thoughts still haunt him at times, and he strives to hold his older, current self to a higher ideal. It’s a concept that takes what should be a two dimensional character and gives him more depth. During Highstorms, Dalinar has visions of events in ancient times, but its never really clear why only he receives them and why the visions only come during Highstorms.

Kaladin was probably my favorite character. He has the ability to manipulate the feelings of people around him, as well as certain events, without even realizing it. Some of this is through magical talent, and some is through force of will. There is a quote on the back cover from Orson Scott Card that says, “It’s rare for a fiction writer to have much understanding of how leadership works…Sanderson is astonishingly wise.” This quote particularly applies to Kaladin and the way he naturally leads others by example. It seemed very familiar, but I was unable to remember where I had read something similar before. The closest parallel to Kaladin’s story that I could think of was Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Faith of the Fallen – not an exact parallel, but rather some of the elements are similar. The only issue I had with Kaladin’s story is that much of his past is detailed through flashbacks, which I feel are a far too common vehicle for storytelling these days. Flashbacks have become routine and more accepted than I would prefer, often bogging down a story to visit a time in the past and destroying pace and continuity in order to develop a character, simply because it’s trendy. Other than that nitpick, however, I did enjoy Kaladin’s viewpoint the most.

Shallan is a bit of a mixed bag. At the beginning we learn she must steal something to save her family, but there really isn’t enough emphasis on why we should care or even why it should be compelling in the grand scheme of the plot. It is only later that we find out that Shallan has some kind of unique gift, which may become important in the future – but it was of no importance to the overall plot of The Way of Kings. In essence, by working for the scholar Jasnah, Shallan proves to be a vehicle for disseminating information to the reader that we wouldn’t otherwise know, and that seems to be her only function in this first book. Time will tell if her role justifies the amount of pages devoted to her narrative. There are a few other viewpoint characters: Adolin, Dalinar’s son; Szeth, the Shin assassin, who has a minor role here that seems like it will become more important in the future; and another random viewpoint or two.

In his typical fashion, Sanderson drops a few reveals at the end of the story to whet the reader’s appetite, reminding me a lot of the ending of the first Mistborn book. I should note that there are other elements that remind me of Mistborn, such as the way men can move with superhuman speed and strength in their shardplate (magical armor), and also in the way that Szeth can walk on walls and ceilings while lashing (pushing and pulling) objects. Then there’s the magic system itself: using certain gemstones determines the magic that can be used, which is incredibly similar to the well-defined system of Allomancy in Mistborn. Of course there’s an index in the back of The Way of Kings to refer to if you get confused about what the gemstones can do. And finally I should note the illustrations within the book – they are numerous, useful, and occasionally beautiful. The beginning of each chapter has a strange saying, along with a notation by some kind of scribe. These sayings and notations are at first meaningless, until a reveal near the end brings clarity to their use.

In conclusion I’d have to say that despite its flaws, The Way of Kings is a masterful work, ambitious in scope and easy to read. As the action picks up near the end and the pace accelerates, and Kaladin crosses paths with another viewpoint character, the tension ratchets up and I actual got a little misty-eyed as events unfolded. I hadn’t expected that powerful of an emotion to manifest during the story, and it was a pleasant surprise. The first part of the book drags a bit with regard to pace, as do some of the chapters devoted to Shallan, but once you get past that, the story moves along just fine. There’s an incredible world here that Sanderson has developed, and I’m actually looking forward to Words of Radiance, the next 1,000+ page entry in the series, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.

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New End Of The Year Goal

In my last post, I talked about how I met the reading goal I set for myself this year. But wait! The year’s not over yet. It’s exciting to think of how much farther I can push the “pages read” count by December 31st. What follows are the details to my approach for the rest of the year.

There are over 7 weeks remaining in the year. If I could read a book every 2 weeks, with an additional week to finish The Grey Bastards (which I’m over halfway through), that means I could have 4 books completed in that 7 week span. The titles and page counts look something like this:

The Grey Bastards = 421
King of Thorns = 449
The Silver Sorceress = 498
The Tainted City = 402

total = 1,770 pages

Adding that to the 12,605 pages I’ve read to date, that would be 14,375 for the year.

Over 14,000 pages. Wow…

So there it is…my goal for the remainder of the year. I’ve updated the crawl chart in the upper left sidebar to reflect this new goal. I hope I can pull it off!

Reading Goal for 2018 Conquered

It’s done. I did it.

I hit (and exceeded) my reading goal of 12,000 pages for 2018.

This morning I finished off The Way of Kings. The sheer page count was intimidating, but I shouldn’t have worried. The pages, especially the last third of the book, seemed to fly by. Back at the end of September I predicted I’d have a review for The Way of Kings done by early November. Indeed, here we are in early November and I will be starting on the review shortly. But first, I’d like to talk about my approach to blogging this second time around in the context of my reading goal.

In a recent post titled “Dear Book Bloggers, I’m worried about you”, Redhead almost brought me to tears with her concern about book bloggers…particularly about how much of our lives, and time, blogging consumes. I know that all too well after crashing and burning in 2013. This passage that she wrote I particularly took to heart, due to the reading goal I set this year:

And you, the book blogger who decided ten reading challenges look fun, and you thought reading 100 books this year was a worthy goal (and don’t forget the bingo card!), and then college started up again, you got diagnosed with a chronic illness, you moved cross country, you had to give your cat away, and now you are wondering how are you ever going to meet your goal of reading 100 books this year?

I set an incredibly ambitious goal compared to what I had done in the past. Why did I do that? Was I looking to test the theory that history repeats itself? No, the key lies in what Redead wrote further on:

Book blogging is not and was never meant to be something you are required to do every day or three times a week or on any arbitrarily defined schedule.

Book blogging is not and should not be about keeping up with other bloggers. There isn’t some prize for reading the most books, or downloading the most eARCs from Netgalley or getting the most ARCs in the mail.

This is why I failed my book blog, and my audience, the first time. I have mentioned the multitude of other book blogs that were cranking out content like crazy during 2013. I felt that I couldn’t keep up, that I needed to provide an equal amount of content to be heard, that my voice was lost among the multitudes. It’s why I started reviewing TV shows, because I felt that I needed to provide something during the long gaps between reviews.

Redhead has shown an incredible amount of wisdom and sage advice in her post. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hike to a monastery high in the mountains of Tibet and find her seated cross-legged, wearing the robe of a monk and mastering throat singing while reading!) If I had simply kept plugging along at my own pace, not worrying about page hits and visitors, not obsessing about supplying enough content, I’d be in a very good spot right now. That’s because nearly all of those other bloggers that were cranking out content burned out, moved on to other projects, or just went silent. Had I taken my time and paced myself, I would have kept going without burning out. Book blogging is not a race, but if it was an apt comparison, there’s something to be said for that old adage about the tortoise and the hare. So in that context, how do you “win?” Redhead offer some insight in that regard:

Being the bloggeriest blogger who ever blogged is not winning. Winning is showing up. Winning is being your authentic self. Winning is talking about books you care about, books that make you think, or cry, or laugh, or grow. Winning is coming to the bloggish community as you,  not as who you think we want to meet. Winning is recognizing burn-out for what it is, taking a break when you need to, and keeping it fun.

Blog when you feel like it. Blog on a schedule that works for you. If you have a schedule that was working, and it isn’t working anymore, change it. Blogs are not made of stone and neither are  you. Your blog works for you, not the other way around.

Therein lies the true secret of reaching my goal this year: I have learned to manage my time appropriately. I fill in the dead spaces between book reviews with status updates, reading goals, interviews and book orders. And if I need a short break, I take one. So even if I hadn’t made my goal, I wouldn’t be upset. If I can’t post twice a week, or if  I break for two weeks between posts, so be it. I calmly accept that if someone follows my blog, and enjoys reading what I have to say, it is their choice as to whether or not they can accept that I can’t give them content everyday. To my readers who are content with those terms, I say thank you very much, it means a lot to me.

For now, it is time to celebrate success, and to wonder what I can accomplish by the end of the year, while imagining what next year may look like.

It’s time for me to acknowledge that I have won as a blogger – I showed up, I was authentic, I talked about how I felt about the books I read, and I blogged when I felt like it, without being worried about what other people wanted, and I still achieved my goal. That it is no small thing.

And it’s also time to give Redhead a big hug and thank her for caring, and for accepting me for who I am…and if there’s one thing that’s certain it is this: I’m certainly not the “bloggeriest blogger”!

Book Review: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

Port_of_Shadows_Cover

Format: hard cover, first edition, 2018

Pages: 396

Reading Time: about 7 hours

One sentence synopsis: The Black Company tries to head off rebellion against The Lady as well as the threat of the Dominator returning, while Croaker becomes a family man who tries to fight off memory loss that could affect the precious Annals, the history of The Black Company.

 

The Black Company stands out as one of the top 10 books I have ever read. Witty with equal amounts of action and mischief, the characters come alive and the villains are outstanding. Its importance to my love of the fantasy fiction genre cannot be underestimated. Later books in the series dropped in quality, though I still read them religiously upon release. When Port of Shadows was first announced, I was both excited and a little nervous: excited that it was set after the first book, but nervous that it would have too many elements of the latter books, and I had some problems with some of Cook’s Garrett PI books. So which way did the story fall? Read on to discover my thoughts, and as usual there are going to be minor spoilers, with a section of major spoilers at the end. I couldn’t find many reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, but I did manage to find one.

 

Bill Capossere of Fantasy Literature states: “The Black Company strand felt entirely too episodic, so much so that I actually wondered for a while if this was supposed to be a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. Worse, it didn’t feel like a tightly or smoothly linked collection, if that was what it meant to be. There were a lot of abrupt shifts, plots felt like there wasn’t much pay-off when/if they were resolved, and it all read as extremely choppy…The breeding/resurrection plot never really came alive for me, never felt truly high stakes…Focusing on Croaker’s (the book’s narrator — Company historian and a great character from the series) domestic/marital issues was another odd choice as they weren’t all that interesting, again, never felt real, and if one is familiar with the series, were clearly not going to be all that important in the big picture, robbing that plot point of any real potential tension or drama…That goes along with another major issue I had with Port of Shadows, which was the prurient (often childishly so) nature of some of the text and the casual misogyny in places…I’m nowhere near as tolerant of it now as I might have been (maybe?) twenty years ago, and so the casual mention of rape, gang rape, “copping a feel,” etc., was just severely off-putting each time it happened…Characterization was thin at best, which is a shame because in memory, at least, that was one of the major strengths of the original series (perhaps nostalgia is at work here; I can’t say for sure). Characters to me seemed either shallow, simple, or just a cypher, with no sense of growth or depth; I can’t say I cared about any of them either in terms of what happened to them or just a sense of curiosity about them, with the slight exception of two children, who I think are Cook’s best creation in the novel…All in all, Port of Shadows was a frustrating, disappointing read that had its moments but those were too few and too far between…As for fans of the series, I can’t recommend it to them, either, as I’d call it a real drop in quality, though I’m sure most will give it a shot, and I can’t blame them.”

 

I delayed my review because I really struggled with my approach and articulating how bad this book is. Bill does an eloquent job of capturing a lot of what I was feeling after finishing Port of Shadows, but it goes well beyond that. Port of Shadows is really a tale of 3 books, or, if you will, 3 threads within one book. The first thread involves the chapters Tides Elba, Smelling Danger, and Bone Candy…these 3 chapters appeared previously in various anthologies, and have been grouped together as the first part of this book; if you have read these short stories previously, there is nothing new there. The second thread involves a tale of a necromancer and two of the Senjak sisters, set in the past. The third thread attempts to tie the first two threads together.

As Bill states above, coming up with a story that fits in between two books robs the story of tension, because we know certain characters will emerge unscathed, and introducing new characters that we don’t know and who aren’t mentioned in later books means they’ll either die, flee, or settle down. Characters like Two Dead, Mischievous Rain, and Firefly never appear again in later books. And while it was good to see old characters like One Eye, Goblin, Silent, and Elmo, many of them don’t feel right, or as Bill describes it above, shallow and simple. This is particularly notable in the lack of interplay between One Eye and Goblin, which was probably the most disappointing aspect of the book for me. Cook still has a good grasp on military-style banter between company members, and a few laugh out loud moments did occur, reminding me of the older Black Company novels…it just feels like such moments are far too few. Meanwhile, the narrator himself, good old Croaker, Company Annalist and Medic, feels more wimpy and whiny than I remember. Some of that is due to the plot of the third thread, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable read. It’s a problem similarly found in the later Garrett PI books, where the protagonist is clueless and whiny.

This leads into that fact that the book is boring and not really very interesting. Portraying The Black Company as a peacekeeping, domesticated force, instead of a mercenary outfit fighting for its survival, invites boredom, and there’s much of that here. All combat happens off-page, with Croaker getting reports and being left out of things. There’s a reason for that too, but it’s not a good choice when you want to make a novel compelling. Between Croaker being clueless, whiny, and forgetful, and then the additional confusion added due to a plot point (which I will discuss in the spoiler section below), with not much action taking place until the end (and still not much there either), this book is mostly dull. About the only thing I liked were the the interactions between the Company and Limper (which as mentioned above is recycled material written many years ago), and the family life that Croaker experiences. In fact, I very much liked the characters of Mischievous Rain and the children Shin and Firefly, as well as the three eyed cat Ankou. The chapters where this strange family unit interacts with one another are some of the best in the book, in spite of Croaker’s squeaking and whining.

However, I still haven’t touched on the most damning criticism of the book, and that is the creation of a plot that revolves around the magical sexiness of teenage girls, rape (or thoughts of rape), pedophilia, and necrophilia. Is this an attempt to be dark and edgy? If it is, Cook has gone way too far. Descriptions of this problem are better explained on sites such as Goodreads, so I’ll leave it at that. I was not impressed.

In conclusion I’d have to say that I’m disappointed with Port of Shadows. There were a few parts of the story that I did enjoy, but much of it was slow and hard to get through, and knowing that the book has to end a certain way to maintain continuity doesn’t help things. Add to that the misogynist criticisms, the shallow characterization, and the confused and forgetful state of the narrator, and you have a less than stellar entry in the series. If Cook writes another Black Company story, will I read it? If the book attempts to resolve many of the issues with Port of Shadows, I’ll give it a chance; otherwise the answer is a resounding no. I expected better, but I’m left only with the following thought: isn’t nostalgia a bitch?

SPOILER SECTION

I’ve moved the spoilers to the bottom of the review because I need to expand on what I wrote in one of the paragraphs above. I actually delayed my review so that I could do some fact checking. First, it’s pretty clear that Mischievous Rain is The Lady disguised as Tides Elba. If there was any question, there’s a statement near the end of the book by Firefly as she speaks to Croaker, and although I couldn’t seem to find it again, went something like this: “For some reason Mom doesn’t even understand, she has the hots for you.” Since it’s highly unlikely another beautiful, powerful sorceress has the hots for Croaker, it has to be The Lady, with white face paint and glowing blue lines on her face an indication of sorcery that maintains the illusion. Then there is the deference paid to her by the Taken. The Lady and Mischievious Rain are the same person – that should not be in doubt.

Second, there is much confusion over the true names of The Lady and her sisters, so much so that I think it undermines the story. If there is a massive spell of forgetfulness at work, it has to be because The Lady is afraid that her true name will be discovered (in the series, knowing a sorcerer’s true name strips them of power). The woman in the writings who escapes the necromancer Papa (and then returns later) is Credence, and is also Mischievious Rain/The Lady as is evidenced by the reunion at the end of the book. Yet The Lady’s true name is Dorotea, as was evidenced in The White Rose. Dorotea, however, is the name given to the sister that died and was brought back to life by Papa. It’s actually more beneficial for The Lady that everyone believe she is Credence and her sister is Dorotea so that they don’t discover her true name…and therefore makes no sense as to why everyone will need to forget the writings. This impacts the plot because the spell of forgetfulness is at times what makes the book hard to read, since the narrator (Croaker) is often befuddled and forgetful. I supposed one could argue that even those two names aren’t known until documents are discovered in The White Rose, so perhaps I’m being a bit too critical on this point. It does not change the fact, however, that Croaker’s forgetfulness is a chore to stumble through.

Finally there’s the question of what happened to Two Dead, the children, the three-eyed cat, Buzzard Neck, and all of the clones of “Dorotea”. They all simply disappear, never to be mentioned again, because of course they didn’t exist when Cook wrote Shadows Linger and The White Rose, and the other stories that follow. It’s all very unsatisfying…

Reading Goal Update 10-13-18

While I’m working on my review of Port of Shadows, I thought I’d do an update on my reading goal. After completing What Remains of Heroes, The Shadow of What Was Lost, Fool’s Assassin, and Port of Shadows, I’m only 396 pages short of my reading goal of 12,000 pages for 2018. Completing The Way of Kings would put me at 605 pages over goal, but I estimate it will take another 3 weeks to do so. That leaves about 7-8 weeks left in the year – plenty of time to really push the totals up. Here’s what I’ll try to finish by the end of the year:

The Grey Bastards = 421
King of Thorns = 443
The Silver Sorceress = 498
The Tainted City = 402

That’s over 14,000 pages if it pans out. Wow…

New Orders and Updates 10-3-18

The first bit of news is that I have finished Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows and will be working on the review in the next few days. I’ve started reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, but because the book is so heavy and I don’t want to lug it around everywhere, I’m going to read it on my work breaks and focus on the Elric re-reads at home. If I finish the re-reads before The Way of Kings (which is very likely), I’ll start on The Grey Bastards and read both concurrently.

Following the Port of Shadows review I’ll have a post on where I am with my reading goals.

The final bit of news is that I purchased two new books. Both were released on the same day. The first is the paperback edition of Alec Hutson’s The Silver Sorceress, which I have been greatly anticipating:

silver sorceress

 

The other is the hard cover edition of Michael J. Sullivan’s The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, book 4 in The Riyria Chronicles. Interestingly enough, I was unable to find a paperback edition, so I went with the hard cover, which is the first hard cover I will have in the series. The Death of Dulgath did have a hard cover edition, but I had ordered the paperback edition since I already had paperbacks for the rest of the books. Oh well…

winters daughter

Book Review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

fool's assassin

Format: hard cover, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  667

Reading Time:  about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Fitz returns and assumes a quiet life away from Buckkeep, but the specter of Fool continues to haunt Fitz as he raises his new charges, right up to the explosive ending.

 

When I did a classic review of Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice several years ago, I probably did it a disservice in retrospect. That book was so good, I bought the two sequels, and then a second trilogy, and now I’ve embarked on yet another trilogy of sequels. It is a very rare book, and author, that can bring me to tears, and still fewer that can make the hurt so strong that it lasts for days. In fact, Hobb is probably the only author that has ever accomplished this feat as it relates to me as a reader. It happened during the first trilogy, and I will never forget it; Hobb earned my respect as one of my favorite writers, though I never read her Liveships or Rain Wilds series. She is a fellow Washington State native, and I met her once at a book signing at Powell’s Books. This new trilogy is one of the reasons that enticed me to return to reading, and now that the trilogy is complete, I’m ready to tackle it without having to wait for the sequels to be published. So how does this book measure up to her previous books? Read on to find out, and don’t worry about major spoilers – I will present those after the last paragraph as a separate section. There may be minor spoilers here and there, however. First it’s on to guest reviews, of which there are no shortage – which should tell you something about Hobb’s stature within the the literary world (as opposed to simply fantasy fiction)…

 

Memory Scarlett at In The Forest Of Stories states: “The book jumps ahead by years at a time; years where the Fool is nowhere to be seen. I became horribly anxious for him as the chapters ticked by with only the most ominous whispers to hint at his whereabouts. I worried about him for his own sake–Hobb is awfully good at making the reader worry about her characters–and I worried about Fitz’s reaction to his absence, particularly given his attitude towards the rest of his family. I should note, now, that the timeline does tend to slow the pace down. This wasn’t an issue for me, since I’m the sort of reader who’s quite happy to watch beloved characters live their lives and to guess which seemingly minor details are actually crucial bits of foreshadowing (another thing Hobb’s frighteningly good at), but I’m sure it has the potential to alienate some folks…I always anticipate the moment in any book where two storylines converge, allowing us to see each character through the other’s eyes. While that’s not quite what’s going on here, it’s still fascinating to see Fitz from someone else’s perspective. Prior to this, we’ve known only what he chose to record about himself, and what he imagined others had observed when they watched him at work. Y’all know I like him so much in large part because he’s an unreliable narrator, and his unreliability becomes even more apparent once we get Bee’s take on him…It’s interesting to note, too, that Fitz himself pauses to address the flaws in his own POV. He wonders how his interpretation of his own adventures has changed with the passing years, and to what extent his past accounts of his life are still fair and valid. In a similar vein, it’s interesting to see how Fitz’s interpretation of Bee fails to match her own sense of self. This is the sort of literary trickery that sends me into paroxyms of glee. I do so love to see multiple sides of a character. We also get plenty of fun bits where one of them thinks they’ve gotten something over on the other–but once we switch to the other POV, we learn they’re totally wrong. This sort of thing delights me. I must emphasize, too, how very much I liked Bee from the moment she began to tell her own tale. My feelings for her only intensified as the story progressed. I’m a total sucker for fictional children who actually come across as real people. Bee is intelligent and articulate, but she’s still very much a small child. She can absorb a great deal, but she doesn’t always interpret it correctly, whether it’s an historical treatise she’s swiped off Fitz’s desk or a conversation she’s overheard.

Lauren Davis at io9 says: “Hobb’s name is often linked to George R.R. Martin’s, and with good reason. Like Martin, she has built a world with a rich history and she uses a light—but often terrifying—touch with magic. But where Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling narrative spread across numerous characters, Hobb prefers intimacy, spending an entire book with just one or two characters’ voices in our heads. Fitz is so often stumbling for his place in a world that has little use for bastards, but a grave need for heroes. It takes a deft hand to ensure that parties and daily tasks and talk of distant politics aren’t boring, and Hobb manages to make this world rich and inviting, even while the shadow of future tragedies looms overhead. Much like Buckkeep Castle served as a significant character in the Farseer trilogy, so too is Withywoods manor an important character, one filled with its own secrets—a surprisingly appropriate home for a former assassin. For even in Withywoods, Fitz can’t escape the man he once was. And when the outside world intrudes upon his haven, Fitz once again has to decide who he wants to be and where his loyalties lie—something complicated by the changing shape of his immediate family…Hobb is an incredibly vivid writer who pays close attention to the interior lives of her characters. She can make you weep over a character’s death, sure, but she can also make you sigh over a conversation between a husband and wife who have finally found comfort in each other, or between a father and daughter struggling to understand one another. Her characters are alive, and a pleasure to spend time with even at their most frustrating. Fitz is a character we’ve watched grow from boyhood, but he’s still evolving, still learning the lessons that come with being a husband and father…Fool’s Assassin is a slow burn of a book, building to a cliffhanger that will clearly lead us into a more action-packed series. But its deep focus on character ensures that the story never drags. As I approached the last hundred pages of the novel, I found myself getting wistful, realizing I’d only get to spend a few more hours with these characters at this point in their lives—at least until the next book comes around. Fool’s Assassin feels like a visit with an old friend, one you haven’t seen in years but who still holds very special a place in your heart. Fitz may have grown older, but he’s still exciting company.

And finally, Justin Landon at Tor.com explains: “There’s little doubt that Fool’s Assassin will leave a wide variance of impressions on its readers. It is, without question, a slow novel. Comparing it to more pastoral family dramas would be more appropriate than the action packed epic fantasies the previous Farseer books are often compared. It’s also, unquestionably, beautifully written, with the kind of prose that not only compels you to keep reading, but manages to burrow beneath the skin and crawl around…Fool’s Assassin returns to the inside of Fitz’s head, reliably unreliably interpreting the actions of those around him. The reader is privy to his every thought, including journal entries that he writes of days long past. These entries, which open every chapter, are a phenomenal way for Hobb to remind the reader of what’s come before…Fitz is joined this time around by a second point of view, also written in the first person that bounces back and forth without obvious delineation. This second point of view, challenging as it can be to separate the two, elevates the lugubrious pace to a more interesting place. Written as a young adult novel, within an adult novel, these chapters provide an entirely new context to Fitz and the surrounding narrative. The character, who I won’t reveal for purposes of spoilers, is a classic fish out of water young person. She is different. Smaller than her peers, with a slight congenital disability, she struggles to adapt to the environment she finds herself in. Like Fitz, she’s often incapable of decoding the intent of those around her, assuming the worst in everyone (sometimes rightly), even her own family. She is put upon and misunderstood and far more capable than anyone expects, especially adults…Hobb’s alternate point of view suffers from some of the maladies, but in observing them in each other, the reader is given a much more comprehensive view of the issue. Our narrators are troubled individuals who are forced to not so much overcome their challenges, but succeed in spite of them…Although Fool’s Assassin is not a tour de force, it succeeds on a massive scale. Her prose sparkles, her characters leap off the page, and even her staid milieu is perfectly textured. I wanted to be bored, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to be annoyed by Fitz’s kvetching, but she made it impossible. I wanted to be thrown out of the story by the shifting points of view, but she ensured every single one had a point. In other words, Robin Hobb is an absolute master of the craft and it’s on full display in her newest novel.

 

I think all three of the reviews above absolutely nailed much of how I feel about this book. The pacing is agonizingly slow. In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz’s character is defined through a coming of age story, where proving one’s worth, depending on friends, and simply surviving are the key takeaways. In Fool’s Assassin, the pastoral setting (as Justin describes it), focus on relationships, and reminiscing about the past – which serves as a recap for those who haven’t read the previous series or a reminder for those who have – robs the story of any tension. Most writers would lose readers if they attempted this, but Hobbs’ brilliance is that her characters are so real and so engaging that you can’t help but to be fascinated by them, even when they are performing the most routine tasks or having pages of conversations. The closest parallel I think of from a writing standpoint is Charles Dickens, where the characters and their relationships carry an otherwise mundane story.

Another brilliant move by Hobbs, as Justin points out, is duality of narration. Bee’s perspective is also a coming of age story, which is heavily formulaic in fantasy writing, but it is balanced by the viewpoint of Fitz, who is an older and far more experienced character, and a viewpoint from an older character is something seldom seen in modern fantasy. The balance here is superb. As Memory Scarlett mentioned above, certain events are seen from contrasting perspectives, which is fascinating, and often one narrator makes assumptions about the other that are off base. In this way Bee is very much like Fitz.

Of the three charges that Fitz must look after (much in the way he raised the boy Hap in previous books), Bee is the most engaging and fully developed. She is intelligent for her age, but not infallible, and I absolutely loved her character. She becomes central to the plot, and her odd quirks, small stature and quiet demeanor only make her more endearing. FitzVigilant (or Lant for short) was a confusing character. He arrives far too late in the story to have a serious impact, and his contrasting behaviors gave me no insight to his motivations or feelings, and no clue as to how I should feel about him. And then there’s Shun. When Fitz first meets Shun, she behaves in a completely different way than she does later when she arrives at Withywoods as Fitz’s charge. In fact, I had to go back and re-read a previous chapter just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. In my mind, Hobb made a big mistake with the consistency of Shun’s character, and it really irked me, but most readers probably won’t notice it. Hobb always gives us (at least) one character to despise, and despite the presence of some young bullies, for me, Shun had the most unsympathetic personality traits.

Fitz himself spends much of the story flitting between happiness, brooding, and grief. He continues to show that he has difficulty in being a good (and dare I say competent) father or ward to his charges. The brooding and grief are a major factor in the slowness of the pace, and at times his self-pity is extremely annoying, which had me looking forward to Bee’s narrations more. Still, with all Fitz has been through it’s hard to be critical of him. And he does make progress in his relationship with his daughter Nettle. I enjoyed Nettle’s character and wish she had more pages devoted to her. Riddle, Nettle’s love and Fitz’s good friend, does have a more prominent role here which is welcome. And Revel, the Withywoods butler, is a delight. But it is Molly that is the most important character in Fool’s Assassin. In almost every aspect of the story, Molly’s impact drives many of the feelings and actions that take place. I have always had a love/hate relationship with Molly. In earlier books I felt she was an unnecessary distraction, and up until now I felt her characterization was lacking the most of any prominent character. However, in Fool’s Assassin, Hobb has turned that around, and kudos are due to her for accomplishing that feat.

The plot, Molly’s impact notwithstanding, largely revolves around the absence of Fool. The mystery of his disappearance and lack of contact unfortunately undermines the plot, as very little is revealed until the final pages. And some red herrings that lead the mystery off in the wrong direction don’t help. In fact, the title of the book is deceptive, as it refers to Fitz feeling the absence of Fool rather than doing any killing on Fool’s behalf. Overall, I thought the plot was weaker and more of a problem than the pacing. The characters are really the driving force that save the story. The pace and tension do pick up over the last 100 pages, and I had to catch myself as I jumped ahead to see what was going to happen.

The setting of Withywoods couldn’t be a better place to set the story. Once bequeathed to Fitz’s father Chivalry and his wife Patience, it now belongs to Nettle, Chivalry’s granddaughter, since Fitz is believed to be dead and is now known as Tom Badgerlock. From its secret passages and interesting rooms, to the ghosts that are seen in its hallways, it is like a miniature version of Buckkeep, minus the political intrigue of court and the protection of armed guards. I found the rural, pastoral lands around Withywoods to be quite charming, and yet it is close to Memory Stones that allow immediate travel to Buckkeep.

One last thing I wanted to point out was it is not easy to pick this book up if you only have a 15 or 20 minute period available to read. Some of the chapters go 30 pages or more without a break. It means you must stop somewhere in the middle of a conversation or action sequence and the next time you pick up the book, you have to remember exactly where you left off and what was happening when you left off. Most books I’ve read lately don’t have this problem, but in Fool’s Assassin it can be tough to find a good stopping point.

In conclusion, several reviews that I had read made me concerned that due to pacing I would not enjoy this book, and that was absolutely not the case. I found the story fascinating despite the reminiscing about previous events and moodiness and grief that often drag the story down. I hate to admit it, but it is largely Bee’s coming of age viewpoint that saves the story. Hobb not only validates her place as one of my favorite writers, but once again displays deft prose and top notch characterization that cement the FitzChivalry books as some of the finest writing in not only modern fantasy, but also in any genre. With other reviewers claiming that each book in the Fitz and the Fool series is increasingly better, I’m looking forward with eager anticipation to Fool’s Quest, the sequel to Fool’s Assassin. Unfortunately, due to the size of the queue I’ll be well into next year before I can pick it up.

 

SPOILER ALERT

Do not read any further unless you don’t plan on reading Fool’s Assassin, have already read it and are checking out my review to get my take, or if you feel that spoilers won’t affect your enjoyment of the story. Seriously. These are major spoilers. You have been warned!

I wanted to add another section with spoilers because I feel that there are some features of the story that should be pointed out, yet doing so would ruin the enjoyment of discovering events in the story for oneself. A separate spoiler section seemed like the best way to accomplish this.

The first thing I want to bring up is Molly’s pregnancy. Hobb does a commendable job in tricking me into thinking that Molly has lost her mind. The birth of Bee was as astonishing as it was improbable, especially given Molly’s age. When Bee is described, my immediate thought was “that sounds like one of Fool’s race”. This is a key point which, along with Bee’s lengthy time in the womb and strangely advanced intelligence led me to the conclusion that Bee was Fool’s hidden “son”. Fool’s gender has always been in question, so it only makes sense that Fool’s “son” may not actually be a boy at all. Still I questioned my reasoning, especially when Fitz meets Jofron, and I was convinced that her grandson was actually Fool’s son. Until, that is, one passage in the story reminded me that Fitz had a transcendent experience where he had actually been in the body of Fool. You would need to read the previous series to understand this, but to me it became clear – Fitz’s brief merger with Fool allowed Bee to come into existence in this new series. It explains how Molly could conceive at her age, the length of the pregnancy, where Bee’s intelligence comes from, and Bee’s physical appearance. I’ll be immensely pleased with myself for figuring the mystery out early on if that turns out to be true in the following books.

The next subject I want to expand on is the inconsistency of Shun’s character. When Fitz first meets Shun, she is posing as a barmaid, and believes herself to be Chade’s assassin-in-training, with a hefty dose of cockiness. Yet when she arrives in Withywoods, she acts like a spoiled royal whose only concern is her wardrobe and living conditions, and proves to be largely inept in a time of crisis. These two depictions of her character are completely at odds with each other, and the inconsistency makes no sense. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, though, if it turns out that Shun is simply a good actress.

Finally, I was excited to discover that Bee is sensitive to the Skill, may have a form of the Wit, and possesses the ancestral memory of Nighteyes. I can’t wait to see what happens to her character. Should Bee survive to the end, I could see another series that features her instead of Fitz – a brilliant set up by Hobb…