Thursday 25 September 2003

Robin Hobb: Fool's Errand (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2002
Review number: 1185

The start of the third of Robin Hobb's fantasy trilogies returns to the background and characters of her first (the second, the Live Ship Traders series, is set in a distant part of the same world). Following the cataclysmic conclusion to the Red Ships War in the Farseer series, the royal assassin Fitz has hidden himself away in obscurity for over a decade. Rather than being recognised as the reluctant saviour of the Six Duchies that he actually was, he is regarded with hatred as a practitioner of the forbidden magic known as the Wit. This ability to bond with an animal in a close, telepathic, relationship, is viewed with suspicion and is the occasion for malicious tales and lynchings - like a medieval accusation of witchcraft. Fitz settles into an eremetic existence in a cottage in the middle of a forest, accompanied by his wolf Wit partner Nighteyes and bringing up a foundling boy.

Most people think Fitz dead, but there are some who know the truth. In the chaos following the war, with the Queen acting as regent for her son, the last heir of the Farseer line, and trying to bring order back to the Six Duchies and restore what the war had destroyed, it seems to her and her advisers that Fitz's unique talents are needed once again. And so Fitz is dragged, reluctantly, into a new adventure.

Fans of Hobbs' other novels will not need a recommendation. The third trilogy is perhaps not the best place to start if not, though Fool's Errand is one of Hobbs more cheerful novels. (Like Holly Lisle, Hobb tends to put her characters through absolute misery, which is not to everybody's taste and which certainly becomes wearing if you read too much in a short period of time.) As usual with Hobb, I got to the end of the novel with the feeling that after a few months wait I would be keen to move on to the next in the trilogy.

Saturday 20 September 2003

Iain Banks: Espedair Street (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1988
Review number: 1184

Ever since I first read it, not long after it first came out, Espedair Street has been one of my favourite Iain Banks novels. It is his first more or less mainstream novel, neither experimental nor genre fiction, and every time I read it it still manages to amuse and move me.

Espedair Street is a novel which is pretending to be a rock star autobiography; the story of (fictional) seventies band Frozen Gold as told by bass player and song writer Danny Weir (known as Weird). It is told using one of Banks' favourite devices, the series of flashbacks which converge to and explain the present (Danny living as a recluse, pretending to be his own caretaker in a bizarre Victorian folly in Glasgow). Espedair Street is about the emptiness that can come to fill the life of someone who has realised all his dreams on a massive scale. It's about lots of other things too - the hedonistic life of a seventies rock star (modelled on the excesses of bands like Fleetwood Mac); the things that we do that we regret and feel guilty about later, and the effects that these have on us; Glasgow and the people who live there.

Much of the pleasure (and certainly the humour) provided by Espedair Street (named after a place in Glasgow where several important events in Danny's life occur) is derived from the accuracy with which much of it mimics "warts-and-all" rock journalism, and it has in fact been turned into a radio serial which takes precisely this form, complete with music written by Banks himself. This makes it immediately believable as a novel, the ludicrous actions of band members being no madder than many documented of real musicians.

Espedair Street's main weakness is the sentimentality of its ending; this quality begins to creep into Banks' writing from this point onwards, making it more accessible but bringing occasional disappointment.