Review of “The Tawny Man Trilogy” by Robin Hobb

This epic fantasy trilogy is actually a continuation of The Farseer Saga trilogy. I would say it is more accurately a hexalogy (a set of six related books), except that I understand the author will be going back to the same characters in a new series next year (a development about which I am more than delighted) so the story may encompass even more than six books.

Background (Big Spoilers for the Farseer Series – Skip to Evaluation for NO Spoilers)

Fitz was born out of wedlock to Chivalry Farseer, the King-in-Waiting of the Six Duchies. At age six, Fitz was taken away from his mother by his grandfather and handed over to Verity, Chivalry’s brother, at Buckkeep Fortress.

With Fitz’s existence known, Chivalry was forced as a point of honor to abdicate his right to the throne and to leave Buckkeep. Fitz’s care was given by Verity in part to Burrich, the Stablemaster of Buckkeep and Chivalry’s right-hand man. A third brother, Regal, was jealous of Chivalry and Verity, and when Fitz came, Regal began to hate Fitz the most of all of them. Regal resolved to get rid of all three of them so he could rule after the death of their father, King Shrewd.

The others ignored Regal, because the Six Duchies had bigger (or so they thought) problems. They were being besieged by pirates from the Outislands, who traveled in distinctive red ships, raiding the shores and stealing the wealth of the Six Duchies. Then the Outislanders began kidnapping villagers and by some unknown process returning them as zombie-like monsters. Because this practice began with the village of Forge, such people, no matter their origin, were ever after known as “Forged.”

People who were Forged could not even be detected by the Skill. This was magic common to those in the Farseer line enabling a person to reach out to another’s mind, no matter how distant, and know that person’s thoughts. If the other person were Skilled also, the two could even communicate through mind-speak, and if one had evil intent, he or she could control or even kill the other person via the Skill.

Some people also had a magic called the Wit. This was the ability to form a special, and mutual, bond with an animal. Fitz was witted, and had such a bond with the wolf, Nighteyes.

As The Farseer Series ends, the Outislanders have been defeated, and Chivalry, Verity, and Shrewd are gone. Verity’s Queen Kettricken now rules Buckkeep and has a son who is heir to Verity, Prince Dutiful. Chade has come out of hiding to be the Queen’s counselor. Burrich and Molly, thinking Fitz dead, have married. Fitz lives as a hermit in an isolated cottage outside Buck with his wolf Nighteyes and with the young boy Hap brought to him by the minstrel Starling. During the day, Fitz still wrestles with being drawn to the Skill, and at night, he dreams of dragons.

Specifics (or skip to Non-Spoilery Overall Evaluation and Rating)

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Fool’s Errand (No Spoilers except for the previous Farseer Saga)

This story picks up fifteen years after the end of the The Farseer Saga. Fitz, now 35, still lives in his isolated cabin with his Wit-bonded wolf, Nighteyes, and his foster boy, Hap, 15, who has been with Fitz for seven years. Hap was brought to Fitz by the minstrel Starling, who still occasionally visits with Fitz. Otherwise, Fitz has been mostly alone, and is going by the name of Tom Badgerlock. As the story begins, Fitz receives a very unexpected visit from Chade, his old mentor from his days at the royal court. Chade brings news of all the people from Fitz’s past, including Fitz’s daughter Nettle, now 15, raised by Molly and Burrich along with their five boys. Chade also tells him news of Prince Dutiful, 14, who, unbeknownst to almost everyone, is also Fitz’s child. Chade asks Fitz to return to Buckkeep and instruct both the Prince and Nettle in the Skill.

Fitz refuses, but Chade’s visit awakened something in him, and Nighteyes tells Fitz he senses change in the air. “Changer” is what Nighteyes sometimes calls Fitz, similar to the name “Catalyst” given to Fitz by his old friend Fool. Hap is restless too; he is growing up, and wants to be an apprentice to a woodworker in Buckkeep Town.

Fitz’s unquiet is exacerbated further by a visit from Fool. Fool too wants Fitz to come back, to be The Catalyst again. The matter is settled when Chade sends a message urgently calling Fitz back to Buckkeep. Prince Dutiful is missing. Fitz returns as “Tom Badgerlock,” servant to Lord Golden, who is actually Fool.

In the years Fitz has been gone, prejudice and animosity have increased toward those who are witted. A renegade group of Witted calling themselves Piebalds have taken to exposing families “tainted” by the Wit. Some of those outted end up drawn and quartered by the fearful and superstitious masses. Prince Dutiful is witted, and Kettricken and Chade fear the Piebalds have taken him, either to disclose his nature, or use the threat of disclosure to blackmail the queen. Furthermore, in two weeks, Dutiful is scheduled to be betrothed to a princess from the Outislanders, an alliance deemed essential to maintain peace. Kettricken and Chade beg Fitz to find the prince and get him home safely before the Outislander delegation arrives. He has sixteen days. Fitz, Nighteyes, and the Fool set out to find Dutiful.

Much of the plot of Book One is palpably saturated with Fitz’s anguish and loneliness. I cried myself to sleep after finishing this one.

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Golden Fool (Spoilers for Book One)

As Book Two begins, Fitz and Dutiful are both reeling from the loss of their wit-bonded partners. As Fitz mused, grief was not a matter of waiting for the hurt to pass, but rather of becoming accustomed to it. He feels gutted. And yet he finds, as he was taught by a witted mentor in Book One, “…what a bonded one leaves behind for his partner is deeper and richer than memories. It’s a presence. Not living on in the other’s mind, not sharing thoughts, decisions, and experiences. But just – being there. Standing by.” Still, as the minstrel Starling observes of Fitz, “You’ve the saddest song of any man I’ve ever known.”

Meanwhile, Fitz has a new assignment from the queen. He is to be an instructor to Swift, Burrich’s ten-year-old son, who has come to Buckkeep asking asylum as one with the Wit. Swift is hostile and suspicious, and it will not be an easy task. Fitz is also having difficulties with his foster son, Hap, who is unhappy with his apprentice work, and spends all his time chasing after a girl whose father does not approve of Hap. Fitz’s daughter Nettle reaches out to Fitz at night through skilling and wants to know who he is. Prince Dutiful still resents Fitz for what Dutiful experienced during his rescue. Chade’s serving man, Thick, seems to have an irrational hatred for Fitz, and expresses it through a surprising and remarkably strong ability to Skill. The Outislander delegation is at the Court, and something not right is up with the princess, Narcheska Elliania, who has been promised to Dutiful. To top it all off, the Piebalds are looking for revenge, especially against “Tom Badgerlock.” As usual, nothing is ever easy for Fitz.

Elliania tells Dutiful at their first public encounter that she will not marry him unless he proves his worth by going to the forbidding island of Aslevjal, slaying the dragon Icefyre that lives under the ice, and bringing back his head. To the dismay of his family and advisors, Dutiful accepts the challenge. Fitz agrees to help him, in part, by creating the Skilled Coterie for which Chade has always lobbied.

The Fool, meanwhile, insists to Fitz that the dragon must live, that saving the dragon is necessary to saving the world. He knows he asks something huge of Fitz: “Do you keep your vowed loyalty to the Farseers or do you save the world for me?”

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Fool’s Fate (Spoilers for Books One and Two)

A large party sets out to assist or at least witness the slaying of the dragon Icefyre by 15-year-old Prince Dutiful, a task he has sworn to undertake to win the hand of Elliania from the Outislands. Elliania and her uncle/guardian Peottre are in the party as well as some Outislander guards.

Fitz conspires with Chade to keep Fool from boarding the ships to the island of Aslevjal, where the dragon is supposedly entombed under the ice. Fool was convinced it was his destiny to go along and there die, and Fitz wants to avoid that outcome. But of course, the Fool manages to get there nevertheless.

Also on the journey are the Prince’s Skilled Coterie, which includes Thick, who is terrified of the sea. Fitz must spend almost all his time taking care of him. The Prince also brought along his Witted Coterie, among them being Swift, Burrich’s wayward son. Nettle communicates to Fitz that Burrich is despondent over Swift’s disappearance, and Fitz tells her to let Burrich know “the wolf” is sheltering Swift and will bring him safely home. From that message, Burrich deduces Fitz is alive, and soon Burrich is a part of their voyage as well.

Everyone comes together in an exciting, tension-filled dénouement, all the more powerful because Hobb is not an author to protect even her most beloved characters from death.

Indeed, the ending is packed with emotion, and seems as realistic as possible for a fantasy set in a world of dragons and magic. But Hobb never once puts the aspects of being human in second place to fantasy elements. Hope, despair, loss, love, and survival are always more important than “magic.”

Overall Evaluaton – No Spoilers

This is a wonderful series, which really should be read as part of a six-book saga rather than a trilogy, with The Farseer Series preceding this one. (In fact, one of the mysteries of The Farseer Series – about Forging – is not uncovered until the third book of this series.) The characters are unforgettable, and their lives in this story full of fantasy are nevertheless richly exemplary of “the human condition.” This is a tale made up of a lot of pages, and perhaps there is a bit of repetition. But I didn’t regret reading any of it, except for the matter of all the kleenex I went through, and for the reluctant necessity of leaving the world of the Farseers when the saga was over.

Rating: 4/5

Fool’s Errand published by Spectra, 2002
Golden Fool published by Spectra, 2003
Fool’s Fate published by Spectra, 2004

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5 Responses to Review of “The Tawny Man Trilogy” by Robin Hobb

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    You lost me at fantasy. :/

  2. Belle Wong says:

    You’ve sold me. Thanks for the spoiler warnings. Off to see if I can add the first book in the Farseer series to my stash.

  3. thektulu7 says:

    I would recommend not only to read the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but to read the Liveship Traders trilogy after Farseer. Yeah, it’s a separate story, with different characters in an entirely different setting. But all three trilogies are connected, with Liveship characters making semi-major appearances in Tawny Man. And there is a pivotal scene in book two of Tawny Man that has its origin in Liveship Traders.

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