I’m not really one to re-read books. In that sense, the Kindle has been a blessing for me, because they’re (usually) cheaper and don’t take up space. I’ve got 221 books in my Kindle library and a further 50 or so in the Apple Books format. The only book I do re-read a lot is Tim Powers’ Declare, which is one I’ll pick up in the summer if I happen to run out of other books to read. Something about that book, that it’s stand-alone, that it’s so perfectly pitched at my obsessions, means it’s one I’m sorry to finish.
And I suppose it’s that feeling, of being sorry to finish that is the root of anyone’s re-reading programme. There’s a question often asked on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast, and it goes something like: which book that you’ve read would you like to live inside?
Which is a tricky question, because, no, I would not like to live inside the world of Declare, with all its conflict and bewildering occult elements. Personally, I’d probably go back to something like Swallows and Amazons, and as long as I could stay on the lake, camping on the island, eating ‘pemmican’ and drinking ‘grog’, I’d be happy. But I think there are books that you love to be lost inside, and sorry to finish, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.
I recently finished the ninth novel in Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” sequence about the bastard assassin Fitzchivalry Farseer and his strange friend The Fool. This sequence of three mountainous trilogies was written between 1995 and 2017, and would be quite an achievement on its own — but the prolific Robin Hobb wrote an additional seven novels set in the same fictional universe in between each of the Fitz/Fool trilogies. The first nine books were written at a pace of one-per-year. Then Hobb wrote three books set in a completely different fictional realm before returning to the Elderlings and writing the final* seven, again, at a one-per-year pace, between 2009 and 2017. The mind boggles at the volume of material. That’s 19 books in 22 years (plus other bits and pieces). In the same period, George RR Martin has managed not to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, having stalled after five books.
I make this comparison not to have a go at GRRM but to point out that what Hobb has achieved is no easy feat. She makes it look easy. And I find it ironic that when TV producers go looking for properties they pick on Martin’s unfinished opus and rehashes of Tolkien, when all along there was this rich universe of character and plot.
Now, I’ve steered clear of the odd seven Elderlings books, because I was into the Fitz and the Fool story and didn’t want any side trips. So I’ve always got the option of reading the seven other books, but at the moment I simply feel bereft at having finished the core nine. The truth is that some of the characters of the side-trip seven appear in the final trilogy, and although I was unfamiliar with them and obviously missing references all over the place, I still don’t feel inclined to read them.
Except I know I’ll weaken. When I said ‘bereft’ above I wasn’t exaggerating. I wandered around for days after I finished feeling lost and lonely because I’d been so steeped in Hobb’s world for so long that I couldn’t face life without it. This is so unlike me. What is it about them? As I’ve said before, they’re really easy to read. By this I mean that they’re not Janet-and-John simple, but that Hobb’s style is relaxed and pleasant, conveying huge information dumps without making you feel like you’re wading through treacle. I’ve criticised GRRM’s style before on this blog, and Hobb is, for me, so much the better writer. She builds the world, peoples it with interesting characters, and then lets events play out without ever forcing them or rushing them. Actions always have consequences, and the emotional pay-off towards the end of the final book is both earned and satisfying. Again: think of the carping about the TV ending for Game of Thrones. The complaints there about inconsistent characters or inconsistent storytelling may or may not have been justified, but you definitely do not feel cheated at the end of Assassin’s Fate. When you feel irritated by one of Hobb’s characters, it’s because they are being irritating and she wants you to feel that frustration.
Anyway, bereft. It’s hard to recommend fantasy because it’s such a vast field and there are so many crossovers and similarities. A bit of magic, a few dragons, lah de dah. It’s hard to differentiate. I spent many years following Katherine Kerr’s Devery series, and ended up feeling bored and impatient with them. No such feeling with Robin Hobb: consistent, gripping, moving, and with a proper ending. Highly recommended.
*Hobb holds out the promise that there might be more, if she can think of an ending. I admire her restraint at not starting something she doesn’t know how to finish.