Review: Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb
Posted July 1, 2011on:
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
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.