Soldier’s Son Trilogy Review
I just finished Robin Hobb’s latest novel, Renegade’s Magic, the conclusion to The Soldier’s Son trilogy. Rather than just writing a review of this book, I decided to post my thoughts on the series as a whole.
The Soldier’s Son is about a high-born “second son” named Nevare, who initially believes he’s destined to serve his family in the King’s cavalla, battling over land against the savage Kidona and Specks cultures. These dreams are dashed aside when a series of events leads to his life being stolen from him by what’s only known as “the magic”. On the surface, the series comes off as your typical Chosen One fantasy that you see the fantasy shelves at Barnes & Noble already well stocked with. But if there’s anything Hobb excels at, it’s taking worn clichés, dusting them off, and turning them into something exciting again.
Minor Spoilers up to Renegade’s Magic
The series as a whole is one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever seen Hobb take on. I can only imagine how difficult some of the sections were to write. She put painstaking detail into this truly unique world. Rather than using the typical medieval setting, the author opts for a more frontier like world. For a long time, it almost seems like a twist on the clash between the early Americans and the Natives, until you’re finally delved into the Specks’ culture toward the end of the series. Seeing how each different society worked, and how each culture realistically clashed over it, completely fascinated me.
More notably, this is probably the first time I’ve read about a morbidly obese hero who was ironically starving most of the time — less exciting to read about. It was an unflinching depiction of how a man of that size got around, how he felt about himself, how others reacted and treated him for it, and even the shame he found in eating around other people. Watching the progression of a man going from handsome and respected, into someone unrecognizable by his former peers (and usually treated as such: barely worthy of recognition), was incredibly depressing, sometimes gross, and often enraging.
The series planning is nothing short of amazing, but at the same time, proves to be the biggest pitfall of the series. The first book, Shaman’s Crossing, moves at a sluggish pace and presents a lot of not-so-likeable characters. It chronicles Nevare’s youth, his first encounters with the Specks, and details through his mostly boring times at the Academy. Most of the characters are stiff-necked and prejudiced, reflecting the high-born air of the people Nevare comes from. On the initial read through, it seems to be nothing more than setting up the world and characters before launching into the actual story. The climax hits out of nowhere, and hardly makes sense.
Forest Mage picks up where the previous left off, and presents a far dirtier, less idealistic perspective of this world. While the pace picks up a lot in this book, and is overall more enjoyable than the previous, Nevare still wanders around with seemingly no direction. Since you’re limited to his perspective, you find yourself just as in the dark as he is, and furthermore, focuses more on the people in his life and his daily activities rather than the bigger picture. While both are very important, it proves to be incredibly frustrating that there’s obviously something amiss, and Nevare chooses to be ignorant of it as long as possible.
Finally, Renegade’s Magic comes as a revelation. Not only does it change your perspective of the world, but it completely changes your perspective of the entire series, even the characters. Things that seemed like they were just there to add color in the earlier novels, even the actions or random thoughts of characters, come back as something much bigger. Bigger than anything you ever even thought was part of the story. Everything comes together, and Hobb ties all the loose ends rather nicely. All of the pieces to the puzzle were there the entire time, and you almost feel stupid for not putting it together earlier. While I could have done without that last chapter, the ending as a whole was among the most satisfying I’ve ever read, and made the other novels well worth my patience. Now I want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again, which is funny — after first reading Shaman’s Crossing, I remember saying it was an okay book, but I doubted I would ever read it again.
I doubt this trilogy will ever get the recognition it deserves. For most fans, it’s trapped in the shadow of Robin Hobb’s Elderlings series, and that will probably never change. Everyone will always want more of the Fool, of the Liveships, and of Fitz. For new readers, the story is incredibly unaccessible. It’s not fantasy as most readers expect fantasy to be, and it’s a huge commitment to ask of someone to trudge through the first two novels when the payoff doesn’t come until the end. To be honest, I was only able to make it to the end because I was utterly fascinated by the world building.
Even despite the massive payoff that was Renegade’s Magic, the series has it’s flaws. There are a few plot devices that I didn’t find very convincing, and the magic was too often used as a deus ex machina. And while my other complaint is minor, it still stuck out like a sore thumb amongst Robin’s normally polished and graceful writing: there were typos all over the place. There’s nothing like halting the flow of a story like coming across a typo, or an obvious fragment of an old sentence that somehow made it into print. Of course, I read the UK editions of the books since they came out first, so the US editions may not have this problem. But again, it’s not that big of a deal.
Now I need to prepare myself for a Hobb drought, and figure out what I want to read next. Her next project hasn’t even been confirmed yet, so it’ll be a year and a half at the least before I get another Hobb fix. Whatever I choose, I need to find something nice and light. These books provided me with enough emotional stress to last me a year.