Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: The Soldier Son Trilogy

The conflict between nature and the progression of mankind is one that is often explored in fiction. Usually, this is done in the form of children's stories wherein we are told repeatedly to protect the environment and that anyone who pollutes the environment does it purely out of maliciousness (thank you, Captain Planet!). Obviously, that's such an oversimplification that it's pretty much false. However, for someone with a more subtle approach, the conflict provides fodder for a much more intriguing kind of story, one full of moral shades of gray. The beauty of nature, which has sheltered us for so long, which provides the ecosystem and resources we need, versus the technology of man, which consumes so much and is constantly progressing as our population grows and grows. Which should we choose? Which can we choose? And can there not be compromise? In The Soldier Son, Robin Hobb explores this very issue, along with a few others.

Going into these books, my only previous experience with Robin Hobb had been her Farseer trilogy, which I would rank as one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written, so expectations were pretty high. Immediately, I noticed some stylistic similarities with Farseer. Both are written in first person and tell the story of a young boy as he grows into a man. Both Fitz from Farseer and Nevare from Soldier Son begin their tales at around six years of age, and the story takes us through their childhoods into their adult lives.

But that is where the similarity to Farseer ends. Fitz was the bastard son of a prince, taken in by the royal family and trained to be an assassin. Nevare, by contrast, is the son of a noble. More precisely, he is the second son of a noble, which in this setting means that he is destined for the life of a military officer. You see, in the nation of Gernia, sons must follow in their father's footsteps, but since nobles can only have one heir, there is a system in place so that birth order determines occupation. The first son is the heir, the second is a soldier, the third is a priest, the fourth is an artist, and so on and so forth.
"My father was a sewage worker. FML."
The setting of Soldier Son  is also at a higher level of technology than you usually see in fantasy. Gernia boasts a standing army equipped with muskets and flintlock pistols, which gives them a distinct advantage against "savages" such as the Plainsfolk or the forest-dwelling Specks. Not only does the weapons tech make Gernians more lethal, but the iron pellets fired by the guns also disrupt magic. You see, magic exists, but the Gernians regard it as a thing of the past. Iron damages magic, and iron, as the Gernians see it, is the way of the future, and therefore Gernia is the way of the future, and therefore those savages will be much happier living as Gernians.

Yeah. It's a very imperialistic society. This, of course, causes a problem for Nevare when, through a series of events, he becomes taken in by the magic of the mysterious race of people known as Specks. The Specks live in the forests outside Gernia, where the Gernians are trying to cut a path through and build a road for trading. You see, magic is a living force in this setting, and the magic of the Specks has very specific for Nevare. Our hero ends up becoming divided in half. Nevare becomes the good Gernian son, going to the academy to become a soldier, whereas another part of him, Soldier's Boy, studies with the spirit of a Speck woman. This of course sets up a huge inner conflict. Nevare, taken as a whole, is of both peoples, and as the story progresses, he's pushed more and more to choose one of them.

The conflict in Soldier Son is probably the grayest I've ever seen in any work. Neither the Specks nor the Gernians is portrayed as good or evil. In fact, the text acknowledges that both of them have legitimate points, both of them have heroic characters championing their cause, both of them have extremists hungry for the blood of the other side. Nevare's predicament is easy to empathize with, because it is a truly difficult problem. When Nevare angsts about how he can't choose one over the other, it's perfectly understandable. I myself didn't want either side to lose.

It could have turned into a long dissertation in which Hobb preaches her views to us, but it doesn't, even when the subject matter is asking for it. And that is truly respectable.

Hobb and Vaughn are the only two writers I know of who have pulled off such a feat (by the way, you should really read Y: The Last Man)
This conflict does lead to a rather baffling approach to story structure in the last book, though. You see, when the central conflict gets resolved (through a surprisingly clever and subtly foreshadowed third option), there's still 100 pages left in the book. These pages are then devoted to resolving all the remaining subplots. While on the one hand I commend Hobb for not ending with a heap of unanswered questions, on the other, I really couldn't shake the feeling that the book should have ended already.

Strong characterization and a look at a truly fascinating moral question go a long to way to make the Soldier Son trilogy a series I would definitely recommend. It's not as good as Farseer, of course, and I've certainly read other, better novels, but for I don't regret my time reading this trilogy, and neither will you.

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