Key Descriptors: War academy, classism, racism, colonialism, feminism, slow-paced, character heavy, coming of age, prose
Premise: The first son is the heir son, the second son the solider son, and the third son to the priesthood. This is as the Good God demands of his nobles, and thus Nevare has been destined to be a Cavalla officer from the moment of his birth. However, when his father places him in the care of a man from the Plains Tribes in order to learn skills the Cavalla Academy cannot teach, Nevare touches a magic stronger and more ancient than he can understand. With the magic of a foreign people coursing through him, will Nevare remain loyal to his country, or will be serve the interests of the forest?
Review: Well, I’ll start off by saying this: I now understand why some people complain about Fitz in the Farseer novels. If they feel about Fitz the way I do about Nevare, I can’t blame them for becoming frustrated. Nevare isn’t a bad protagonist, per se, but he is a bit much at times. In Shaman’s Crossing, Nevare is quite a bit more tolerable than in Forest Mage – part of the reason I chose to combine these reviews into one. When deciding whether to read Shaman’s Crossing, you should consider whether you’ll like the abrupt change in tone present in Forest Mage.
In Shaman’s Crossing, Nevare is a young, naive, and impressionable young man. He’s excited about going to academy, he’s swooning over the girl who has been tentatively promised to him as his future wife, and he’s making fast friends with his fellow students. I enjoyed the academy aspects – I’m a sucker for school-based novels. All in all, his biggest flaw is that he’s a real dunce when it comes to seeing women as people as opposed to passive objects to be passed around. Hobb is a little heavy-handed and (I hate using this word given the negative connotations…) a bit preachy in this regard, as well as when some of the academy boys end up giving monologues about why they won’t tolerate the bullying and abuse being heaped on them. These flaws did not overly dampen my enjoyment of the book.
Nevare is incredibly dense when discussing the challenges women face with both his sisters and his cousin. His cousin, in particular, is keen on giving women more choice in their lives. Unfortunately, Nevare simply cannot see why any woman wouldn’t want to live the life of a happy housewife. He has a few “ah ha!” moments, but they don’t seem to “stick” when he interacts with women later on. Epiny, Nevare’s cousin, is a very interesting and forthright character whose screen time I enjoyed. She undergoes a great deal of character development, becoming a competent and confident young woman over the course of the two books. I would have very much enjoyed a book from her perspective rather than Nevare’s.
However, in Forest Mage…. I actually skipped about four full chapters because I just couldn’t handle the way Hobb dwelled on Nevare. It turned into full-on misery porn. Slight spoilers for the first few chapters of the book ahead, be warned. To be blunt, Nevare becomes very, very fat in Forest Mage. This is due to the magic requiring a large, well-fed body to sustain it. This would be fine, except for the fact that the entire first 35% of the book is dedicated to him whining about this, second-hand extreme cringe moments with his (former) future wife, his father repeatedly shaming him, et cetera. There are pages upon pages of description of how much he loves eating. I think it’s great to highlight the challenges and discrimination people face due to being overweight, but this is overkill.
The final third of the book deals with some interesting perspectives on rape/sexual assault as well as false accusations thereof. I was a little uncomfortable with how it was presented, given that false accusations are incredibly uncommon in real life…. while they’re obviously an issue, I’m not sure it’s right to have a protagonist who is falsely accused as a sympathetic figure, particularly when the evidence against him genuinely is quite damning. I simply don’t think it’s responsible in a social sense, as it reinforces backlash against victims who come forward. In the real world, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, et cetera, it probably IS a duck. I didn’t like that this book implies that people accused of sexual assault may not have actually done it even when there is a preponderance of evidence against them. It was plot friendly, in that the forest magic set him up for the false accusations, but perhaps not reader friendly.
On a positive note, both these books have the typical thoughtful prose evident in all of Hobb’s books. If you enjoyed Realm of the Elderlings, you should also give Soldier Son a try with the understanding that they aren’t quite up to the same standard.
If you enjoyed Shaman’s Crossing and Forest Mage by Robin Hobb, you might also enjoy:
- The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
- Inda by Sherwood Smith
Applicable /r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Slice of Life