This is more a rambling on the subject of the books than any sort of proper review. My review is, basically: I love this trilogy and feel strongly enough to stand in defense of the main character. Far be it from me to recommend any book to any one – I’ve been painfully cured of that – but when I did I used to recommend this strongly. What I meander on about here assumes some familiarity with the storyline and characters, and there may be some spoilers, hopefully minimal.
Continuing in the tradition of rereading old favorites, this one sparked by a group read on Goodreads… Ah, Fitz. One day an old man deposits a small boy on the doorstep of Buckkeep with only the curt statement that he was no longer going to be feeding his daughter’s bastard by Prince Chivalry. And from that moment the boy is the epitome of the rock dropped into (relatively) still waters, or maybe even more appropriately the butterfly stepped on by the time traveler that wipes out the future: he has no more control over anything that happens to him than the butterfly does, and the disturbance he unwittingly (so to speak) and unwillingly causes changes absolutely everything.
I was surprised – shocked, actually – when I participated in this group read and read others’ adverse reactions to Fitz. One disgusted comment was “he pushes people who care for him away and then complains to himself that he’s alone” – and I don’t understand where that comes from. The complaints were about how he sends mixed signals to Molly, how he makes some stupid choices and mistakes, and that over all a few people just couldn’t seem to stand him. I was taken by surprise because I’ve “known” Fitz for almost half my life, and I’ve always felt nothing but empathy.
He’s like an abused animal in a lot of ways, having been so neglected a child in so many ways – fed and clothed, and nothing more for the most part – and most of his life is spent purely reacting. There are not a lot of situations when he sees a way that he can take action of his own; either he’s constrained by his oaths, or by the secrets he carries, or by a lack of information or of a clue how to proceed.
He is the one who has been pushed away all his life, and treated with anything ranging from casual friendship among the town children to carelessness to outright contempt and loathing – the latter through no fault of his own, just because of what he is. The way he is treated almost across the board, it seems, is because of how he is taken at face value. The children perceive him as, basically, one of them, and accept him as such without question, indifferent to anything beyond whether he could hold his own in the games and whether he contributed to or detracted from their fun. The hatred he is met with – in particular, of course, by Regal – is because he is a bastard interloper, born in some filthy village to some anonymous girl. He is simultaneously beneath notice and an active threat. Any other qualities of personality or spirit are irrelevant, because of where and how and why he was born. He is never even given a distinctive name of his own (or if his mother gave him one it does not follow him into his new life, though – perhaps – he hears it just once in his later life). What people call him is not an ordinary name like ordinary folk nor an attribute name like noble folk, just something in between, just a label: Fitzchivalry, meaning literally Chivalry’s bastard. It’s a very long time before anyone with fewer than four legs bothers to look beyond that label. (Patience, probably unable to face calling him by that label, does stick a name tag on him reading “Tom”, but it means no more than if she had dubbed a cat.)
That labeling is something significant in this world. Among the nobles – the world Fitz has been dumped into, will-he/nil-he – names are not simply something to replace “hey you”. Names are aspirations, goals, characteristics which the name-bearer is hoped if not expected to espouse. Verity: a truthful man, honest to a fault. Chivalry: a man of great honor, in all dealings but one. Patience: a woman who when all is said and done is remarkably persistent and tolerant. Shrewd: you’ll never get anything past him. Regal … well. Depends on how you look at it. By his own lights, he is regal.
So to drop a boy into this mix and fix a name like Fitzchivalry on him is to in a way place a limit on him. He is Chivalry’s bastard: end of sentence. Nothing else about him, it seems to say, matters.
Add to the weight of that name the burden of a secret life – two, really, one a secret shared with only Shrewd and Chade, and the other shared with no one – and a terrible covert duty, and in many aspects Fitz matures very quickly. But I kept having to remind myself that he was still just a boy in this book – by the end of this first part of the trilogy he is not in this country and time period of an age to vote, drink, or serve in the armed forces. With all of his responsibilities and duties and experiences, he is barely more than a boy, and has had no kind of “normal” childhood. Every aspect of his life has been touched – marred – by what he is. I’d forgotten how painful it was to see him become interested in an apprenticeship that would have suited him down to the ground – only to have to turn away from it because of the accident of his birth.
I don’t think it should be so very surprising to anyone that he does not handle himself or present himself like, say, an adult, or even a well-socialized tenth-grader would. There’s no way he could. For me the surprise lies in the fact that he is as strong and positive – and sane – as he is at sixteen.
This entire trilogy is one of the pillars of fantasy for me. Unfortunately the same does not hold true for others of Robin Hobbs’s books, but these three are special, not least because the characters that inhabit them are living, breathing people with lives and minds of their own. Fitz, the boy trying to claw out his own existence. Burrich, the hard man who was not always hard. Patience, painfully conflicted, and Lacey, ever faithful (and dangerous with a knitting needle). The Fool. For me, the Fool is one of the best characters in fiction. Steeped in mystery and surrounded by questions (and enveloped in enigma), he – or is it he? – has a magic all his own. The Fool alone makes this a great trilogy; the fact that the rest of the characters and settings are superb doesn’t hurt.