Thursday, February 13, 2020
February 13, 2020: Fantasy Stories I Love: Robin Hobb
[Since I’m teaching the Intro to Sci Fi/Fantasy class this semester, for my annual Valentine’s series I wanted to focus on fantasy authors & stories I’ve loved. Leading up to a weekend post on an emerging community who deserve more love!]
On the prolific author who helped change epic fantasy’s trite narratives of gender and sexuality.
I’m not sure exactly what percentage of my high school time was spent reading epic fantasy series by David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Tad Williams, but I know it was a very high percentage indeed. Each of those authors and series offered a distinctive and interesting spin on the epic fantasy genre, and it’s been fun to watch my older son get into Eddings (as of this writing he just finished reading every one of Eddings’ novels) and to imagine him continuing to trace his own journey through these genre titans (while, I’m sure, finding his own that he’ll share with me). But revisiting Eddings through his reading has reminded me of a shared limitation of which I was only dimly aware when I was a teenage reader: in how these authors and series depict female characters, and as a result themes of gender and sexuality. They’re not identical by any means, and each series does include powerful female characters to be sure; but I would nonetheless argue that the ultimate role of even those powerful heroines is as love interests for the male leads, and ones who need rescuing and protection at least as often as they hold their own alongside those heroes. These series might not be sexist, that is, but neither are they particularly nuanced (much less progressive) when it comes to gender and sex.
Which is why finding the fantasy fiction of Robin Hobb was such an eye-opening and important moment for me. Beginning with 1995’s Assassin’s Apprentice (which I’ll be teaching in a couple months in my Intro to Sci Fi/Fantasy class), the first book that novelist Megan Lindholm wrote under the pseudonym Robin Hobb, Hobb has now published 16 novels (along with numerous short stories and a novella) in the Realm of the Elderlings world, a collection of interconnected epic fantasy series set in different corners of the same universe. Those series include a number of different themes and threads—one part of the world, the focus of the Liveship Traders and Rain Wild series, is nautical and features pirate stories; another, the focus of the Farseer, Tawny Man, and Fitz and the Fool series, includes fantastic elements centered around the bonds between humans and animals—but one thing they all share is an interest in pushing far beyond the traditional depictions of gender and sexuality in epic fantasy. Indeed, as the Elderlings books have evolved, Hobb has deepened both those elements and the ways they challenge epic fantasy tropes: the first, Farseer series feels the most traditional (it tells the story of a young boy who turns out to have a vital role to play in a mythic battle); while the most recent, the Fitz and the Fool series, focuses on that same character as a middle-aged man through the lens of his complex relationship to a character whose gender and sexuality are themselves central themes.
It's difficult to write too much more about that latter series, and particularly about the character of the Fool (present throughout the Elderlings books but increasingly central in the later series), without spoiling more of Hobb’s plots and world-building than I’m willing to do here. But I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler (since these elements were present in that earliest series) to note that, while the Fool is a deeply mysterious and ambiguous character (especially because these books are narrated in first-person by Fitz, who can thus never truly know any other character in the most internal way), they are also one of the first (and to this day still one of the only) transgender characters I’ve ever encountered in epic fantasy. To be honest, when I read that first series in high school I had very little understanding of that identity, or even of LGBTQ identities overall; my high school, like America in the early 90s overall, did an excellent job pretending such identities simply did not exist. If and when my son gets to Hobb, I’ll be very interested to see how his engagement with this character and these themes is influenced by the far more present conversations about those identities in 2020. But while I didn’t quite have the tools yet to understand what Hobb was doing with characters like the Fool, I knew that it was radically different from any epic fantasy I had read—and very important (while at the same time wonderfully readable and entertaining) as a result.
Last loving tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Favorite fantasy authors or stories you’d share?