the Little Red Reviewer

Review: Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb

Posted on: July 1, 2011

Forest Mage (Soldier Son Trilogy: book 2), by Robin Hobb

published in 2006

where I got it: purchased new

why I read it: enjoyed the first book, Shaman’s Crossing

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Picking up shortly after the end of the first book in the trilogy, Shaman’s Crossing,  Forest Mage was mostly what I’ve come to expect from Robin Hobb – a powerful character driven fantasy that starts out “traditional”, and then, quite suddenly, most certainly isn’t.

As the military academy recovers from the Plague, life slowly goes back to normal. Noble families are coming to grips with the fact that their third son (destined for the priesthood) may now be their second son (destined for the military) and so forth.  Nevare is readying to head home to his brother’s wedding and to see Carsina, his betrothed. While most people who survive the plague become weakened and skeletal, Nevare is having the opposite reaction to his brush with death: he can’t stop gaining weight.  He becomes heavy.  Then fat.  Then obese.  Hobb takes every possible opportunity to remind us that Nevare is supposed to be a fit, trim soldier, and “letting yourself go” simply isn’t accepted in this society (I’ll just assume that every woman in this world always loses the baby fat, and thyroid problems are nonexistent). Due only to his size, Nevare is in turn spurned by his father, his siblings, his friends and his betrothed. And then he is given a medical discharge from the academy. Everything he was destined to be, the military life his father trained him for, is over.

Humiliated and disowned by his father, Nevare sets out for the eastern frontier determined to join up with a military post far from home. Everywhere he stops it seems, people don’t want anything to do with him because of his girth. People assume he is homeless, or a thief, or a murderer, or all of the above, and only because he’s fat. Hobb belabors this point, often.

Along the King’s Road, Nevare learns first hand the folly of building a road with chain gangs, of building frontier towns just to abandon them when the road passes through and the guards leave.  Puts me in the mood to track down some American history about the transcontinental railroads and the natives who were “in the way”.

Nevare finally makes it to the frontier, where told he is too fat to be a regular soldier, he’s given the job of guarding the cemetery outside of town. The cemetery needs guarding because the Specks come out of the forest and take bodies back with them. They refuse to understand that people like being buried in the ground!!

Nevare is constantly in denial.  he’s in denial that the Speck magic has already taken control of him.  He has no choice in the matter, and he has no free will in the matter. The magic will simply make him do things to it’s will. If the magic wants Nevare to come to the forest, and Nevare won’t because he believes his family needs him, the Speck magic will make sure his family isn’t interested in his help anymore.

This was an engaging book to read, but it was not an easy book to read.  I was near hysterics for the last 30 pages or so. When the other half asked how Forest Mage made me feel, I told him it made me feel like I was flaying myself.  Robin Hobb is known for getting an emotional reaction out of her readers. Well she sure as fucking did this time, complete with capital letters, kleenex, and colorful invective.

Emotional reaction aside, I had some issues with this book:

At first I was angered by Hobb’s obsession with “hate the fatties”. It got old, and stale, and I was sick of being reminded of my own intimate body image issues every time I picked the book up. Ok, I get it, the Gernians hate fat people, you can quit being so damn heavy handed about it on every single page. But then, I took a deep breath, and a step back, and attempted to think about it dispassionately.  I don’t think it’s that the Gernians hate fat people, it’s that they hate anything the Specks love and respect. In the Speck religion, a person who is filled in magic is literally, physically, filled with it – they become fat with it.  If Speck magic made your hair turn blue or your toenails fall out, the Gernians would passionately hate people with blue hair or no toenails. Hobb simply chose something that she knew few of her readers would be able to brush aside.

I kept wishing Nevare would just open his eyes and realize that not only was his life long dream of becoming a soldier not going to happen, but that the world wasn’t going to end because of it. Not being what our parents insist that we are is a painful but often necessary part of growing up.

Nevare’s loss of free will also bothered me, on a personal level. Something I’ve always enjoyed about fantasy is that anti-heroes (and some heroes too!) use their free will all the freakin’ time. Sure, they have a quest to complete, but if they feel like stopping for a drink at the tavern on the way, they do it.  As the Speck Magic takes over, Nevare loses his free will and I just personally did not like that. To me, lack of free will feels too much like slavery. if you are going to take away my free will you might as well just lobotomize me.

Speaking of the Specks, they are cool as hell, and I wish Hobb had given us more of them. More of the Speck people, more of their beliefs, just plain more of them.  The scenes with the Speck people, those are the scenes that came so alive for me. So alive I could hear these people talking, I could smell the sweat on their skin, watch their eyes dart about, hear their silent footfalls in the forest echo the knowledge of their ancestors.

The Specks may have been awesome and Hobb’s writing and characterization as incredible and perfect and spot on as usual, but it’s going to be a while before I pick up the third book in the series, Renegade’s Magic. I need to recover from what this book put me through first. I need to read some My Little Pony or Strawberry Shortcake or something like that. Maybe The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but maybe not, as the caterpillar got fat, and I don’t want anyone to hate him even though he turns into a butterfly.

 

 

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13 Responses to "Review: Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb"

Sounds like you got sucked right in, at least at the very end anyway. Nice balanced review, it is obvious that though you had some real problems with the book that you still connected to the story.

The ‘fat’ thing is interesting. It reminds me of reading Murakami’s book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In one storyline the protagonist meets a very young and by all accounts attractive girl who is “chubby”. The protagonist even admits being attracted to her but throughout the story does not stop referring to her as the chubby girl, or something like that (its been a year and my memory isn’t spot on). I loved the book but kept getting annoyed at that part. It didn’t seem to serve any purpose in my mind other than being annoying. I’m sure Murakami could explain and it would make perfect sense, but it was a small flaw in the novel as far as I was concerned.

I haven’t read any of Robin Hobb’s work. I’ve been very attracted by the covers in the past but nothing I’ve read about her work has reached out and grabbed me and said, “You have to read this!”.

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Less than a year ago I thought the same thing “eh, nice cover art, but not something I’m interested in”, and then I got addicted. give her “Assassin’s Apprentice” a try. I think it’s a good introduction to her style and her collection of trilogies that follow different characters in the same world.

yeah, the fat thing was annoying, but i think it’s just a mask for something else, and maybe Murakami was using it for a similar device?

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I suspect on one level, as regards the Murakami, the protagonist was trying to keep this very young girl in context with his feelings that he shouldn’t be thinking about her sexually (and this isn’t spoilerish because you see this right off). And by ‘young girl’ I certainly don’t mean so young that it would be wrong for him to be having this attraction, just that they had a big age difference. Still, it did get a bit annoying, especially because the character is so likable.

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This series was the most difficult one to read on my part of all of her works (and I’ve read them all). Nevare was a very hard protaganist for me to like or understand.

The third book is the best, by the way. I’m glad I read it.

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that’s good to hear, that the 3rd one is the best. The only other Hobb trilogy I’ve read is the Farseer, but we’ve got the Mad Ship and Tawny Man trilogy too. I’ll be ready to finish this trilogy in a couple months, I’m sure.

As you’re my resident Hobb expert, which do you recommend I get into next? Tawny Man or Mad Ship?

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The Liveship series comes before the Tawny Man series, then the Rain Wilds. I’d definately keep reading them in order :)

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I’ve just finished the Liveship Traders trilogy (Mad Ship is the second book), and I enjoyed it just as much as Farseer – except the ending. While I really loved Farseer’s, I was a bit annoyed with Liveship’s. I know you’ve been somewhat disappointed with Farseer’s endings, so maybe you’ll love Liveship’s.
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I haven’t tried Tawny Man yet.

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Wazeau – thanks! looks like I’ll be hitting up Liveship next, once I finish Soldier Son. I have heard very good things about that series.

Mybookrevu – yeah, the ending of Farseer annoyed me, but it did make sense for the story. Now that I’m getting used to Hobb torturing the crap out of her characters, I think those endings of hers are going to be easier to swallow.

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Forest Mage was definitely my least favourite of the series – I mean, I see that we need to have Nevare angsting about his conflict with society, loss of free will, etc… But an entire book of it? Third one’s much better, I thought.

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I am on a Robin Hobb kick right now! I considered reading this trilogy, but decided to go back to the beginning and read her first trilogy… Lately I have finished Assassin’s Apprentice and the third book in the Tawny Man trilogy. I generally love Robin Hobb! Have you ever read her sci-fi that she writes under a different name… Megan something.

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I’m a Hobb fan. The Soldier Son trilogy wasn’t my favourite of her works but it seemed to me that it took some bold and unconventional steps and certainly the writing was excellent. Not a series for those who want the protagonist to take control and triumph at each turn though. I think a lot of readers lost patience with &/or found it too hard to read about the constant thwarting of our ‘hero’. All in all I enjoyed the series a lot.

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Jacob – thanks, I’m feeling better and better about reading the 3rd one.

Kailana – what did you think of Tawny Man? we own that, but i haven’t even looked at it yet. I’ve seen some of her SF books, Megan Lindholm, I think, but i haven’t read any. are there any specific titles you recommend?

Mark – the “hero” getting screwed at every turn, that is pretty damn bold and unconventional. hmmm, not unlike a few experimental Radiohead albums? i think the main reason I was even able to finish this book is Hobb’s magnificent writing style. She rips your heart out, but does it so gently that you’re the one breaking your own ribs to give her easier access.

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I’ve never read anything by Robin Hobb, but her stuff looks interesting. A blogger buddy of mine highly recommended Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, but I want the ones with the new covers, and they’re out of print for some evil reason, so I can’t get them (even though, apparently, they are easily bought in Australia and the U.K… the Book Depository hates me.) Sooo that might be my first stop when, someday, I can get the editions I so desperately NEED at this point. :) Your review provides good insight into Hobb’s style. Thanks!

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