Forest Mage by Robin Hobb

Synopsis:
The strange adventure of magic-possessed soldier son Nevare continue, as he finds himself expelled from military academy when his weight skyrockets after a bout of the Speck plague.

Review:
Forest Mage is the second book in Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy begun in Shaman’s Crossing. Interestingly, I found echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead in the clash between the progress-loving “human” Gernians and the forest-dwelling dappled Specks, and spent a good deal of the read worrying that Hobb’s story was going to play out in the same way and with the same moral, but this ended up being a very different story. (The parallels are extremely interesting to me–if you’ve read both, please comment!)

Hobb’s main strength is in her risk-taking. Nothing is precious to her, in that she’s comfortable giving her characters deep-seated desires and then forcing them to live without them. Unlike George RR Martin, whom I greatly admire, Hobb strives to give her universe a higher order beyond what Thomas Hardy called “crass casualty.” Everything happens for a reason–though that reason might be painful, or tragic, or grandly exalted. In Forest Mage, it’s the magic that works behind the scenes to give purpose to all it touches, regardless of culture, ethic, or creed. It possesses, rather than inspires, and it’s Nevare’s battle to maintain his freedom of will in the face of the magic that so grossly possesses him that fuels this narrative.

Nevare is an unlikely candidate for free will. In Gernian culture, all first sons are heirs, second sons soldiers, third sons priests, and fourth sons artists. Daughters are used as barter for powerful marriage alliances. As second son, Nevare has never questioned his destiny as soldier, though his natural obedience raises questions about his fitness as an officer, and ultimately jeopardizes his career at the Academy. It’s that same obedience, or willingness to be led, that brings the magic to him in the first place in Soldier Son. Throughout Forest Mage, Nevare is repeatedly told that the magic has a purpose for him and that he needs to stop fighting it, but Nevare himself doesn’t even know that he’s resisting it. He gradually comes to the realization that he is tired of being told what to do, and of being torn between his duty to his people and his duty to the magic, and seeks to integrate his split personality. This takes a force of will that Nevare didn’t know he possessed–and might not be strong enough to master. Hobb left the book, in true book 2 fashion, both resolved and open-ended, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it resolves.

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