Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rant on Robin Hobb's 'The Liveship Traders'

I feel almost treacherous complaining of this as I well and truly love the series and think that Robin Hobb is a masterful world builder who takes conflict to its natural (and often painful) conclusion. This is not an author that shirks repercussions by any stretch of the word. However, there are two niggling issues I have with the story. The first, and simplest, is how Robin Hobb doesn’t bother to equip some of her new scene first paragraphs with a pronoun. Now this isn’t an issue in a one-character story but it does get annoying when you have at least a dozen POV characters who switch about once per scene. I’ve gotten really good at picking up the nuances of the paragraph and sussing out which POV is manning which scene but it would be easy for her to fix that little bug. Especially since this isn’t her first trilogy.

The second niggling issue is how bad the Chalcedean nation is. They are completely morally reprehensible by most social standards and seem to have no redeeming features whatsoever. They are a war-like race of violent men who were the first to traffic in slaves and who coldly rape any unescorted woman they lay their eye on. They even try to rape, under the view of their crewmen, the female servant of a 'guest' aboard their ship even though the woman didn't count as 'unattached'. While this isn’t an impossible combination of social traits, it does smack a little bit of the typical fantasy Dark Kingdom of Evil. Of course, Robin Hobb does do some pretty nifty things like showing how even an evil nation like Chalced influences the world around it - not through war but through changes in fashion and social norms which is something often ignored by fantasy authors, but still … the Chalcedeans are a terrible people.

On the other hand, the one Chalcedean POV character is drawn artfully enough and I even came to understand his particular honor code and way of thinking. Kyle Haven, an immigrant to Bingtown, was a sometimes charming and always dominant man who strongly believed that he had to independently save the fortunes of the family he married into. Due to his history, he saw nothing wrong with turning the family ship into a slaver to do so. Nor did he see anything wrong with demanding his son obey him absolutely (and without hating him) and expected everyone to understand that he was only trying to do his best. In truth, he WAS trying to do the right thing. It just happened to be the wrong thing and he was too arrogant to see it. I saw him as a sympathetic villain whom I nonetheless rooted against.

Now that I am halfway through the third book, I change my mind. When compared to his people, Kyle Haven is a revolutionary figure who single-handedly pulled away from a brutal heritage to come to terms with female strength. His ability to at least try to reason with women, his complete non-violence to his wife, generally non-violent treatment of his wayward son, and complete lack of rape and general self-restraint shows him to be a shining example of how nurture doesn’t determine who you are. I now applaud him and hope that by the end of the novel he is brought back into the fold as a more humble and deeply changed man.

The trouble is, I'm not sure if the author intended that contrast!

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