So. Robin Hobb. We meet again.
I have something of a history with Robin Hobb. If you’d asked me who my least favourite author was at any point between the age of 14 and the age of… 24, say, I’d have probably said Hobb. Some of this was perhaps because I’d made it a thing that I disliked her work, and was playing up to it*, but some of it was very much that I just really disliked her. I mean, come on, the Live Ship Traders books. No.
I first read some of her books at about the right age, given that this is your typical YA coming-of-age thing… probably thirteen or so. I read this series, another I forget, and the Liveship Traders. Of the three, I probably hated this the least, but it’s a low bar, given that the Liveship Traders books are irredeemable trash. But I hated them all at thirteen. I hated Fitz, I didn’t care about anything that happened to him, and I couldn’t connect to any of the other characters. I hated that he never really did anything. And I hated his relationship with Molly (more throughout the series than in this book specifically). And this was a thing that was known about me by many people. So, about the age of 24, 25, a different friend, knowing my dislike of Hobb, bought me Assassin’s Apprentice for my birthday, knowing that I would then feel obliged to read it. Because all my friends are lovely people. I figured maybe I’d have changed my mind as I got older, so I should give it a go and re-evaluate. Turns out, still not a fan.
And then this got voted in as this month’s book club book. Had I not reread it a couple of years ago, I’d have been interested to reread it and see how my views had changed. But I knew I’d still hate it. So that was fun**. Luckily I enjoy book club enough that it was worth powering through.
But yeah, my views haven’t really changed.
I suppose the major thing that comes across to me now, and I probably wouldn’t have articulated as firmly as a teenager, is that the entire book feels completely devoid of substance. A lot of this is a function of having characters with no sense of humanity to them at all. I can’t connect emotionally to them because there’s nothing there to connect to. Cynical me suggests this is because Fitz at least is meant to be a blank slate so that teenagers can self-insert without any worry of personality-clash, but that feels slightly mean. And also possibly credits Hobb with more talent than I think she possesses. Because, if I’m honest, it comes off more as bland incompetence than a deliberate choice – she just can’t write a character worth a damn. It’s a glorious extravaganza of telling rather than showing. And… well, not even enough of that. I don’t think I could tell you right now what sort of person Fitz, as the main character, whose head you inhabit, is meant to be, because there’s nothing in the book to latch onto to give you any clues. He… likes dogs I guess? That’s about it. He makes no real choices, demonstrates no real passions or desires, he just rattles from encounter to encounter, with the world happening at him. He doesn’t think, he doesn’t feel, he just is.
And that’s just fucking boring.
And it’s not like any of the supporting characters are any better. There’s Burrich… who likes animals/is good with animals, and exists to be gruff at things. There’s Chade who… has no discernible personality beyond “so, duty”. There’s Molly, the love interest, who is probably meant to be “girls as the mysterious entities they seem to teenage boys” but just comes across distracted and disinterested. And the list goes on. There’s no… personality anywhere. And I whinge about this so often, but you need characters to make your book. Even just one you can latch onto would be enough. But no.
And then there’s the plot. Which is, primarily, generic fantasy trash. She’s not done anything new or interesting, and what she’s done isn’t done well. It’s a coming of age story with an attempt at older voice writing it as history. YAWN. And then the pacing is so wildly off, you probably fall asleep in the first half. Just nothing happens, for ages. And then a couple of things happen, then the last chapter is a lot of things happening and then-… no, that’s it. Just ending, and with no fuss or even build up. It’s just done.
And then… and then… there’s the writing. I made notes as I was reading it, and the first one I have is “p1, oh god the melodrama”, and that doesn’t really go away. She vacillates between “dull and workmanlike” and “this person has no concept of the era upon which she’s based her pseudo-medieval fantasy land”, and the latter grates horribly. Because if you’re going to write something historically-ish, I think you either need to commit fully or not bother… any sort of halfway house is going to feel nasty. And the halfway house of just writing a bit fancy in a way that looks a bit archaic in the right light if you squint… no. It’s awkward and clunky and just horrible to read.
But ultimately, my major issue with Hobb, and why she was downgraded from least favourite author to just “meh” a few years ago, is the same as my issue with N. K. Jemisin – I can’t see what people see in them. They both strike me as generic, lacking both innovation and skill, and so fulfilling no criterion in my “is it good?” stakes. If I read both without any context of their popularity, they’d be a two or a three on Goodreads, falling into the amnesiac hole of blandness, because there’s just nothing special about them. What elevates them to dislike, for me, is my complete inability to fathom why anyone thinks they’re other than bland, tropey, mediocre nothings. There are hundreds of unknown books out there doing the same bland shit. Why these ones? And that bugs me more than it really should. I mean, to an extent, it bugs me more with Jemisin because she won a Hugo off the back of it, but the principle is the same. I just don’t get it.
So I remain very much not a fan of Hobb. To my mind, she does not deserve any more credit than the hordes of interchangeable YA fantasy trash writers, because that’s all she’s doing. And I hope to god I never have to read her again, because three times is far, far too many for a book you knew you hated after the first. And I can’t really envision a situation where I’d have to (I wanted not to do it this time, but past me didn’t have the sense to ‘blog about rereading this book, so I had not post to use as crib notes, alas). I don’t begrudge the no doubt enormous amount of teenagers who enjoy it, because, well, it’s a YA coming of age novel and that’s what they’re there for. But it’s nothing more than that, and not an exciting example of that even so.
Next up, I am back on the nominee list, ploughing through Death’s End in order to get to Borderline, and the end of the award reading.
*So, back when I was the librarian of my university science fiction society, the members could get membership in exchange for donating books to the library, the amount of membership at the librarian’s discretion. I specified an amount I would bestow based on number of books donated, but added that I would deduct some for any Robin Hobb. A then-friend (now boyfriend, in fact), who sometimes appears to exist merely to try me, donated a massive pile of books which included a sizeable collection of Hobb. Perhaps he doubted that I would stick to my guns. Obviously I stuck to my guns. He received negative membership for the Hobb, and I am not sorry. It’s safe to say that I made my dislike of Hobb into a Thing.
**On the other hand, hey, I’m in a run of reading stuff I hate (and knew I would) so what’s one more for the pile? I’M LESS THAN A BOOK FROM DONE WITH THAT RUN NOW OH MY GOD I AM SO PLEASED. But Death’s End is huge, so come back in a month maybe…