Fool’s Errand, The Golden Fool and Fool’s Fate make up The Tawny Man Trilogy, a sequel to The Farseer Trilogy. I thought I would surely have posted a review of the Farseer trilogy when I read it – it made such a strong impression on me – but that was in 1999/2000, way before I began blogging, so of course I couldn’t have.
I will try to stick to talking about the Tawny Man trilogy here, but if after reading this you decide to read it, please do start with the Farseer trilogy. You will get a lot more out of them this way.
These books are all about the characters and the relationships between them. There is a well-crafted world for these characters to inhabit, and a plot for them to follow, but those are really only there to support the cast. A quest to either revive or kill a dormant dragon? Fine, whatever, let’s go and find out – but please let me know what happens to the Fool!
To give you a quick introduction, the main characters are Fitz, the bastard son of a prince, who is raised by the prince’s stablemaster and trained as an assassin; and the Fool, who is simply the king’s fool. The lives of these two twine around each other, and it is this criss-crossing of their paths that makes up the series’ backbone.
A royal bastard, raised in a castle as a tool for the royal family – Fitz is always in the thick of things. He’s an unwilling hero who’d much rather have a quiet life and raise a family, but again and again he gets pushed into intrigue and danger – by fate, by a sense of duty, by friendship and love. “Adventure” is the wrong word for it when it is undertaken so reluctantly, and often fraught with so much tragedy, pain, hard work and frustration.
The Fool is the mysterious other. He is maybe not entirely human. Nobody knows where he came from, and there is some uncertainty about his gender. He talks in riddles and makes cryptic but precise prophecies that come true. He is entirely white.
But there are many other characters around these two, all fully developed and imagined in great detail. Many of them stick around throughout all six books. There are kings and queens, assassins and magicians, minstrels and warriors, even animals. What really struck me about Hobb’s writing is how real she can make those characters seem. I feel like I really know these people, almost as if they were my friends. In fact, because we see inside Fitz’s head (the books are written in first person), I can actually know him better than my real life friends, whose heads I cannot look inside, whose thoughts and emotions I can only guess at.
The joy of reading these books lies in slowly getting to know these characters – falling in love with some, coming to despise others – and experiencing the ups and downs of their lives with them. This being epic fantasy, their ups soar beyond mountaintops and their downs plumb the depths of despair. They fly with dragons, they are immersed in the joy of magic, they fall in love. They are betrayed, tortured to death, abandoned; lovers are separated, kingdoms threatened, friends die.
But the mundane is also there, making the characters human. They are bored, uncertain, they quarrel, they make mistakes.
Throughout it all, a few themes recur. Sacrifice is one. What is more important: the fate of the kingdom (and possibly humanity) or the life of a friend? What would you be willing to die for? And what would you be willing to give your life for?
Love is another. Where does the line go between love and friendship? What can it mean to love another?
And finally, the importance of everything. Life is the sum of all our experiences and choices, good and bad. You would not be you if you had not lived through the difficult, painful parts. We are making choices all the time, and all our choices matter.
“Not all men are destined for greatness,” I reminded him. “Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure? What good is a life lived as if it made no difference at all to the great life of the world? A sadder thing I cannot imagine. Why should not a mother say to herself, if I raise this child aright, if I love and care for her, she shall live a life that brings joy to those about her, and thus I have changed the world? Why should not the farmer that plants a seed say to his neighbor, this seed I plant today will feed someone, and that is how I changed the world today?”
Without being overtly emotional in tone, these books are nevertheless more moving, more full of feeling than any others I can recall right now. (Some of Mercedes Lackey’s books are in the same league but don’t come close.)
The books were beyond absorbing, compulsive in the true sense of the word. I stayed up reading well past midnight not once but many times. I could not put down the book because even if I did, all I could think of was the book. I could not sleep because all I could think of was the book.
Hobb is too skilled to use simple cliffhangers. But still somehow each chapter ends at a point of such high tension that surely, I thought, the next chapter will have to resolve things, and then I can put it down.
And then comes the the crescendoing finale. After all this emotion, one hopes for an ending that is, well, perhaps not happy, but that somehow gives everyone what they deserve. This one doesn’t. It is tragic and heartbreaking. It is the antithesis of cathartic. I felt deceived, betrayed. I literally felt sick and my brain didn’t function properly for two days.
I sought the help of the Internet (you will find innumerable discussions of the ending there!) and it helped me make sense of the ending, to understand why this was in character for both Fitz and the Fool. That helped me accept it but it was still a crushing experience.
Just like with my photography courses, I am glad I did it, but I am also glad it’s over, because it took a lot out of me. And yet I will absolutely do it all over again.
You may also want to read this review, which is both well-written and entertaining, and covers aspects of the trilogy that I haven’t gone into. But then again, you might as well just skip it and read the books.