The Tawny Man Trilogy: Book II
I take back what I said at the beginning of my post on Fool’s Errand: actually, you should read The Liveship Traders before embarking on The Tawny Man, otherwise there are going to be vast swathes of this book that don’t make any sense to you. Until I reread these books, I’d always thought of them as a continuation of The Farseer, but now I’m beginning to realise that actually they blend and merge and continue threads from both of the earlier trilogies, weaving them together into a rich story with a flavour all of its own.
This middle book of The Tawny Man trilogy perhaps isn’t quite as smooth and pacy as the first (although I still devoured it in the course of one day, despite the 600 pages). It carries on some threads from the first book, goes a fair way towards tying them up, and then busies itself laying the foundations of the final book. It also features a scene which, for me, is the most painful in any of the three trilogies and which leaves me with a stronger than usual desire to shake Fitz until his teeth rattle. More of that in a moment.
Freed from his Piebald kidnappers, Prince Dutiful has returned to court to go through the formal ceremonies of betrothal with the Outislander Narcheska, Elliania. On the surface, all is going as planned, but Fitz grows increasingly disturbed at signs that the match is not as simple as it seems to be. The Narcheska and her taciturn uncle Peottre seem to have reservations, not only about Dutiful but about the Six Duchies as a whole; so who is forcing them to continue? Who is the Lady he overhears them speaking about, and what is the meaning of the serpent tattoos that have been inked into the little Narcheska’s back, which cause her so much pain? While he tries to fathom this out, Fitz has plenty of other matters to keep him busy. His adopted son Hap is threatening to go to the bad, left to his own devices in Buckkeep Town. Chade is determined to force him into becoming Skillmaster and forming a coterie for Dutiful, whether Fitz likes it or not. And people are trying to kill him. Again. So many people have been trying to kill Fitz during the course of his life that he isn’t really surprised by it any more; but, to make matters worse, these people have a very good reason to want him dead. They are Piebalds, seeking vengeance for those he killed and maimed while rescuing Dutiful from their clutches and, even worse, they may know who he really is. And the Fool is being mysterious again:
In the world the Pale Woman seeks to advance, you do not exist… She sends death for you, and I try to snatch you out of the way. So far, we have always matched her, you and I. But it has been more your luck than my cleverness that has saved you… And the deeper we go in this game, the worse the odds become… But there isn’t any way to stop. The only thing that stops this is if you die.
The question of identity is one that troubles Fitz a lot in this book, mainly with reference to the Fool. A deputation of Bingtown Traders comes to Buckkeep, ostensibly in the hope of forming an alliance against Chalced, but in reality to find out more about the Six Duchies dragons (whom we saw at the end of Assassin’s Quest). The official party includes some familiar faces, namely Serilla and Selden Vestrit, but among the wider company there’s one other person we’ve seen before: Jek. Seeking out Lord Golden, whom she knows as an acquaintance of Amber’s, Jek meets Fitz and makes the connection with a certain liveship figurehead. Amber’s rare moment of emotional honesty casts a dark shadow, as Fitz begins to realise that the person he trusts most in the world has lives and personas that have been entirely kept from him. Worse, he feels betrayed and ridiculed, as he pieces together scurrilous court gossip with what he hears from Jek; and the upshot is what I can safely call one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever read.
In itself, it’s not that bad. What makes it so painful is Hobb’s skill at characterisation. Over the course of four books, she’s made both Fitz and the Fool into incredibly realistic characters whom I do care about, deeply, and so it’s shocking to see how adept they can be at hurting one another when they really want to. And it’s the most plausible kind of argument, where neither is in the right and neither in the wrong (though Fitz, as usual, goes crashing into a delicate emotional situation like a bull in a china shop). Words are spoken in the heat of the moment that, as the Fool points out wearily, never needed to be spoken aloud and can now never be unspoken. It’s an important scene, because it’s one of the moments that we come closest to finding out who and what the Fool is. For a major character, he remains strikingly enigmatic and Hobb isn’t about to give us any direct answers – she never does – but she teases us with hints:
You seek a false comfort when you demand that I define myself for you with words. Words do not contain or define any person… You know more of the whole of me than any other person who breathes, yet you persist in insisting that all of that cannot be me. What would you have me cut off and leave behind? And why must I truncate myself in order to please you?
Meanwhile, when not mortally offending people, Fitz is focused on other challenges. Kettricken has extended the hand of friendship to her Witted subjects and wishes to find a way to ease their persecution, which opens up the possibility of more danger to Dutiful and to Fitz himself. But the most daunting task is to help Dutiful prepare for a test set for him by the Narcheska, as a way to prove himself worthy of her. He must undertake a quest to one of the ice-islands in her northern archipelago, where he will find a great black dragon sleeping encased in a glacier; and he must bring her its head as a bridal gift.
To anyone who isn’t familiar with Hobb, this must sound fairly standard fantasy fare. Prince goes on quest to kill a dragon and then marries the princess. Same old, same old, right? Nope. Things are never that straightforward in this world. Dutiful must kill the dragon in order to win his bride with its head. But the world has shifted on its axis since a real dragon flew over Bingtown, and other interests are now at stake. To make things more difficult for Fitz, the Fool claims that they must, instead, free the Outisland dragon so that it can mate with Tintaglia and preserve the future the Fool has struggled to bring into being. Their path is finally becoming clear. But Fitz is beginning to realise that sacrifices may have to be made for that future; and not all of them are sacrifices he’s willing to allow – not even for the Fool’s dreams of dragons.
In today’s cover feature, we see a range from the very successful (the US cover showing the Fool’s tattoos is much more beautiful than my edition with the Narcheska and Peottre) to the less satisfactory. Credit must go to the Spanish edition for doing something different, but one can’t help feeling that the illustrator is having difficulty thinking beyond Assassin’s Creed. And I’m sure that the German edition, which bears virtually no relevance to the story (except that there are people on horses), has just stolen someone else’s cover art again, although I must admit I don’t immediately recognise this one. Can anyone help me out?