Eos Books was kind enough to offer me an ARC of Robin Hobb's Renegade's Magic a couple of months ago. While I was delighted to receive the book, the fact of the matter was that I hadn't read either book one or two of the series!
I consider myself a huge fan of Hobb so it was an easy decision to purchase Shaman's Crossing and Forest Mage, books one and two of The Soldier Son Trilogy. Standing in at 591 pages, 726 pages, and 662 pages, respectively, it took some time to consume Hobb's always excellent prose, world-building, and engaging characters.
If you're interested in learning a little more about Hobb and her other books, check out her Amazon Author Page.
Here we go with the reviews...
Enter Nevare Burvelle, second son of a second son, fated because of his birth order to become a soldier in his king's cavalla (cavalry). Much of this first book in the series deals with Nevare's childhood: how his father initiates him into his birth-fate, begins to meld him into the man he must one day become, and, finally, sends him off to the King's Academy where he will learn the business of soldiering. Along the way, as you would expect, Nevare becomes entangled in a web that neither he nor the reader will fully understand until events unfold in Renegade's Magic.
I found Shaman's Crossing fully engaging. Nevare's early years on his family's estate draw you in from the start, introducing us to his father's war history with the Plainspeople and Nevare's own bond with one Plainsman in particular. There was almost a low point where Nevare is at the academy, what with the mundane day-to-day life of a student and all, but Hobb keeps the reader interested with a myriad of sub-plots and a cast of real, believable characters who each have difficulties or challenges of their own. It was a lot of fun reading the beginnings of what becomes a much larger story for Nevare, and I'd scarce put Shaman's Crossing down before Forest Mage was in hand and turned to page one.
The cover for this book is important because, more than any other cover I've seen for this series in all it's many editions, it symbolizes what the Soldier Son Trilogy is all about. You have a man--a cavalry soldier--sword drawn, facing the mists of the forest and the ominous mountains beyond. There is fire, carnage, and an overwhelming feeling that something is out there. Is it coming? Is it waiting for our cavalryman's charge? We don't know, but clearly the man senses the danger he's in else his sword would not be drawn.
The soldier, of course, represents Nevare. I say "represents" because Nevare never becomes that man--that soldier--being shown on the cover. Something happens to him, something that was begun in Shaman's Crossing that spills over here. He never becomes the Soldier Son he was supposed to be. Instead, he changes in ways I won't report here least it take something away from your own reading. Suffice to say bad things happen. He's in a sorry state. Yet he battles on, searching for a solution to a dilemma begun in book one which has taken everything from him but his life. Even that, however, might be forfeit if he doesn't come to terms with who and what he has become.
Again, Hobb draws us in with her masterful storytelling. I honestly felt for Nevare's misfortune and kept turning the pages because I wanted to see him succeed. Sad to say, he doesn't. Not in the way we hope, anyway. Forest Mage, like any middle volume, is a bridge between book's one and two, though it does wrap up a good part of Nevare's misfortune (and one of his lives--read the book to understand that!) and sets him on the road to finality as told in Renegade's Magic.
An SFFWorld Favorite for 2007, Renegade's Magic concludes the story of Nevare Burvelle, who is fated to become a Soldier Son in his king's army. Life takes some unexpected turns, however, as Nevare is called to a different destiny. Drawn by magic to the frontier, where his king is waging war against the Specks, Nevare finally succumbs to the forces taken control of him and, instead of fighting his king's enemies, he joins them. Thus begins Renegade's Magic.
Renegade's Magic is a continuation in excellence--excellent storytelling, excellent prose, excellent characters. Hobb has created a world that transcends the classic good vs. evil model, where everyone has the potential for either. If there is any weakness at all in this trilogy it's that, in the end, no one is really "evil". Characters may do despicable things, but, once we understand their viewpoint, I found myself often sympathizing with them regardless of what they'd done or why they'd done it. It makes it hard to want any one individual to come out, in the end, as the victor. The truth of the matter, though, is that there are multiple victors. But victory comes at a price. No one is left unscathed, least of all Nevare, who sacrifices much, oftentimes without even fully comprehending what is happening to him or why (not until the very end, anyway).
Magic plays a dominant role in the Soldier Son Trilogy. So much so that magic itself becomes an entity unto itself. The manner in which magic is mastered is both unique and intriguing, though I have to admit I was a little put off by it at first. I hate to throw out a spoiler (so I won't), but suffice to say magic actually transforms the wielder physically. The end result is a hero who, well, doesn't appear very heroic. I don't think there's any doubt Hobb was making a statement here about our own society, and how we often judge people by their outward appearance. This failing of our own society also exists in Nevare's world, except that only Nevare's own people loathe the change that has overcome him. Their enemies, the Specks, actually hold him in great reverence. It makes for an interesting dichotomy in terms of the storytelling and character development.
Past experience with Robin Hobb's work really had me expecting a bittersweet ending (think Fritz in the The Farseer Trilogy). Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. I won't go so far as to say the ending is all roses (even roses have thorns), but there is a certain gratification I felt as I finished the final sentence. Nevare's world may have been turned upside-down, but, with will and tenacity and a heavy dose of plain stubbornness, he comes out alright in the end.
Renegade's Magic was a worthy conclusion to an excellent story.