Sunday, March 16, 2003

Review: "Golden Fool" by Robin Hobb

Often the second book in a trilogy is the hardest to slog through. In most cases, trilogies start with a bang and end with a bang, and the middle book is just a bridge between the two. But that's not the case with Robin Hobb's "Golden Fool" ($24.95, Bantam Spectra). If anything, "Golden Fool" is more dynamic and engaging than its predecessor, last year's "Fools Errand."

FitzChivalry Farseer, the illegitimate heir to the throne of the Six Duchies, is believed by most - even his own daughter and her mother - to be dead. But now, Fitz has been thrown back into a world he thought he'd left behind, the courtly intrigue of Buckkeep.

Fitz - masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, servant of Lord Golden - finds himself walking the same secret paths he walked as an apprentice assassin so many years ago and again reporting his findings to his former master Chade Fallstar. He has been asked to teach Prince Dutiful the Skill magic of the Farseer line - an art Fitz knows precious little about himself - and also to teach the prince to control the feared and reviled Wit magic. On top of all of this, he still grieves for the death of Nighteyes, the wolf he was bonded to for so many years, and his adopted son Hap has been caught up in city life and is straying down the wrong path.

Dutiful has been betrothed to an Outislander princess in an effort to make peace with the longtime enemies of the Six Duchies, but the princess' party holds some interesting secrets. At the same time, a strange delegation from Bingtown makes things even more interesting.

Then there's always the issue of the Wit magic. While Kettricken has declared the execution of the Witted illegal, it still continues in some areas. A militant faction of the Witted that call themselves the Piebalds continues to threaten the queen. What's worse, the Piebalds may know two dangerous secrets: that FitzChivalry Farseer still lives and that Dutiful possesses the Wit.

If that sounds like there's a lot going on, well, there is. But Hobb handles it masterfully, just as she always has.

Hobb's "Farseer" trilogy of a few years ago easily ranks among the best fantasy works of the past decade, and "The Tawny Man" is shaping up to be every bit as good.

Hobb is a master of manipulating human emotion. Her characters, particularly Fitz, work so well because it's easy to relate to them. Many of his problems arise from situations the average person has been through (always saying the wrong thing, misjudging others, having everything you do go awry), and you can easily put yourself in his shoes. At times, you want to jump into his head at critical moments so you can help him make the right decision for once.

Just for the record, I do miss Nighteyes. Despite the focus on Fitz in the "Farseer" trilogy, Nighteyes was always the real star in my view. But the loss of the wolf plays into the storyline well, allowing the reader to feel the void left by Nighteyes almost as keenly as Fitz himself does.

It's rare these days that a book keeps me turning pages well past the time I know I should put it down and turn in for the night, but this one did. "Golden Fool" proves again that Hobb is one of the best in the business.

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