Posted by: Andrea | May 13, 2008

Book Review: Forest Mage

So, I have another confession to make.  Not only do I watch sci fi (hooray for Battlestar Galactica!) but I also read fantasy.  I know!  Horror!  Except, not so much.  Because one of my absolute favorite authors is Robin Hobb, the author of my most recent finished book Forest Mage.  Hobb is the queen of fantasy trilogies and this one is no exception.  Mage is the second book in Hobb’s most recent trilogy, coming after Shaman’s Crossing (which I finished last year).  It’s the story of Nevare Burvelle, a ‘second son’ in a noble family.  In this particular universe that Hobb has created, every male’s role is determined by birth order (only males, it should be noted, as females just get married).  The first son is the heir, the second son is the soldier, the third son is the priest, the fourth son is the artist and so on.  Nevare is from Gernia, which is currently at war with the Specks, a tribal group that lives in the forest to the west.  The series starts at the end of the last Gernian war, during which the Gernians defeated many different native tribes during their expansion west.  Nevare’s story begins with his training as a young boy, during which he meets and become embroiled in the magic of these native tribes that have been conquered.  Nevare is ‘taken over’ by the magic and is claimed by the Specks as the one who will save their race.  Of course this will also require Nevare to betray his own, something he refuses to do.  However the magic has a mind of its own, eventually destroying every aspect of Nevare’s life and separating him from his family.

There’s an obvious parallel to the American battles and ultimate defeat of the Native American tribes of the plains in this series.  This is particularly evident with the use of the Speck Plague, a device the Specks use each year to attempt to drive out the invading troops.  It’s very reminiscent of the small-pox infected blankets that were given to Native Americans as a means of eradicating them.  Of course everything has a bit of a twist, with the Specks using germ warfare first.  Still, so much of this series strikes a chord with anyone at all familiar with American history.  These books are so complicated though, I find it hard to be able to review them without getting into an overly detailed description of the plot.  Which would definitely be boring and might ruin it all, so we’ll move on…

I’ve enjoyed this series so far.  I’m going to read the last one to find out what happens.  But at the same time, this book was hard going, much more so than any other Hobb book I’ve ever read.  Usually I devour her books because they are so amazingly well written.  But these were just kind of depressing.  And to be honest, they were most depressing because of one particular plot point.  Due to the magic, Nevare finds himself gaining an incredible amount of weight over a very short space of time.  Prior to this he was a young, fit, handsome cavalry officer with a loving family and fiance.  After the weight gain?  Every single horrible thing that can possibly happen to him does.  He faces ridicule, mockery, suspicion and is eventually accused of horrific crimes, seemingly all because he is fat.  I understand what Hobb is trying to do here and yes, perhaps at one point in history this was an accurate reaction to overweight people, but it made for some hard reading.  There was an attempt to compare how the Speck culture respects and reveres Nevare for his weight, but it didn’t really make it much better.  This book was all about how the magic has broken down Nevare until he basically has no choice except to do what it wants, even if it’s against his will.  Which seriously makes for one depressing book.  Like I say, I’m sure I’ll read the last one just in the vain hope that it’ll all turn out ok, but I’m not looking forward to it as I have to other books of hers in the past.  Honestly, overall I just found this particular series much less engaging than her other trilogies.

I know this isn’t the point of this, but if I could go on a tangent here, I can’t recommend enough Robin Hobb’s other series.  In particular, her Liveship series (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny) and especially her Farseer trilogies (Assassin’s ApprenticeRoyal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest).  I can’t even put into words how completely amazing these books are.  If I could get every single person I know to read Assassin’s Apprentice I’d die a happy woman.  I can’t say enough good things about these books and about Hobb’s incredible creative genius.  She is fantastic.  I know fantasy gets a bad rap and people usually won’t even look at a fantasy book much less open one.  But seriously, trust me, these books are so very, very good.  The Farseer trilogies (there are two, another one that takes place approximately 15 years after the first so six books in total) are historical fantasy, so there’s only just a bit of fantasy elements thrown into what is basically a very historically based book.  I could wax poetic forever about how great I think these books are, but I’ll leave it at this.  They’re amazing.  Just read them.



  1. I’ve tried to like fantasy…honestly, I have. I don’t know why it doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, I recently started the first book in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” series (touted as one of the best ‘science fantasies’ of all time) and I find reading it like wading through quick sand. Despite the fact that it was recommended by Joe M. over at SGA (whose taste in all things sci-fi lit I have come to trust almost implicitely), I have a feeling I will be putting it down without finishing it.

    Perhaps I’ll give your “Assassin’s Apprentice” a shot…

  2. Well the thing about Assassin’s Apprentice is that other than a few fantasy elements (Fitz can speak to animals telepathically and some other telepathy stuff) you could be reading a historical novel. It’s definitely not in any way science fiction, so maybe that’ll be a good thing for you, maybe not. The Farseer books struck me as particularly reminiscent of european medieval times, particularly in how the political system is set up. Her Liveship trilogy, in comparison, reminded me a lot of early America, particularly the early colonies and their shipping. What Robin Hobb is so good at doing is creating a fantasy world that is very familiar and yet new. She doesn’t overdo the fantasy elements either, just uses them sparingly enough to make it slightly different than reality, but not with elves and dragons and all sorts of other creatures turning up every ten pages. It’s a good mix, fantasy without being too fantastic. 🙂

  3. Aww…If you think it’s embarassing to read fantasy, imagine how those of us who WRITE it feel. I’ve been published twice in the last year, and I only talk about it with close friends and family. It’s kinda sad really, because writing convincing fantasy is actually very difficult.

    Anyway, I have always heard GREAT things about Robin Hobb, but I’ve never taken the time to read any of her work. I will say that she’s a very nice lady in person. I met her at an author signing last year.

    As for Gene Wolf…oy…

    That’s NOT what I would reccomend to a “fantasy newbie” for starters. I love some of his work, but some of his stuff is very hard to get into.

    Personally, I’d reccomend Robert Jordan or L.E. Modesit Jr. but that’s just because they’re two of my favorite authors. So I’m biased. I’d also reccomend “The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden” to anyone. It’s fantasy…but it’s definitely not what you expect.

  4. Oh see I have so much respect for fantasy writers! It takes a LOT of imagination to write it well, not to mention throwing in all the normal stuff about how hard it is to write anyway. What have you published? In a way I think it’s a tiny bit similar to how romance novels must feel. It’s like, hooray, I wrote a book! But then everyone else is all, yeah, whatever, it’s just a romance novel. But considering there are about a billion of those things out there, writing a romance novel that feels fresh and interesting and that readers actually enjoy? Very very hard.

    And yes, I’ve read those too. though I blame my mom and her closet full of them. Not my fault! Honestly!

  5. I think I’m just more a fan of what one might call “hard sci-fi”…stuffed full of lofty scientific jargon that I understand just enough of to enjoy the book. I’m a big fan of getting lost in the question “Could this happen?”. Granted, most of it definitely COULDN’T, at least not w/ our current level of technology and understanding. But you get the picture.

  6. Have you read any Iain Banks? He’s very popular here (TONS of books) but they’re probably the sort of dense sci fi that you’d like. I’ve only read one of his but it was good. He’s a favorite of a friend of mine, might be another one to keep an eye out for!

  7. Yeah…his book “Consider Phlebas” is on my summer reading list. I’ve heard he’s good. I need to come up with a SERIOUS plan for reading cause my list is getting LONG.

  8. I’ve published two short stories, one in a monthly magazine (Fantasy & Science Fiction… ) and one in an anthology from Tor Books. Which is probably because I have a two book publishing contract with Tor over the next couple of years (one out in late fall and one out next summer).

    My mom was a “major” romance novelist in the late 80’s and 90’s for Pocket Books. She won many awards and had several industry best sellers. And I was ashamed of it every time anyone asked what she did for a living.

    I am NOT ashamed of it any more.

  9. Charming: That’s a real accomplishment that you’ve gotten a publishing contract, congratulations! And congrats to your mom too, to be distinguished in any field is very impressive. I think there are a lot of bad romance novels out there but it takes so much more to write one well. I read a LOT of romance novels in my late teens (all out of my mom’s closet) and there are very few that I remember as standing out from the rest. But to win awards and to be a best seller obviously shows that your mom is a very very talented writer. I stopped reading romance novels primarily because it was pretty much ALL i was reading at the time and I decided it wasn’t good to read them exclusively. I think they’re wonderful to read from time to time but I started to really think about what these books were saying about relationships. I was young at the time, hadn’t really dated anyone. I kept thinking, wait, men in real life are NOT like this. Reading romance novels exclusively is just going to give me a totally false image of what men are like. Plus I pretty much read exclusively historical romance novels and as I got older the brooding semi-controlling man wasn’t really appealing anymore. Plus the storylines became very repetitive. But I still keep an eye out for some of my favorite authors. I really admire people who can write romances well. It is an extremely difficult field to write in and there’s very little recognition of that. Hey, if I had a romance novel published I’d be very proud!

    Essaytch: I’ve only read Against A Dark Background and found it good, but definitely complicated to follow the plot! I’ve heard his new one, Matter, is good but haven’t heard much about Consider Phlebus. Let me know how it is! I know what you mean about some sort of organization to the reading list. Mine is currently two full shelves of books I’ve acquired over the past year or so. It’s getting pretty daunting even looking at it!

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