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An interview with Robin Hobb

City of Dragons, the third instalment in The Rain Wild Chronicles, will be published in the UK on the 23rd of April 2012. In advance of the book's release, Robin Hobb has kindly taken time to expound on the inspirations behind the stories.

City of Dragons is the third in your Rain Wild Chronicles – which is fast becoming recognised in the contemporary canon of dragon lore. As we know, much of the popularity of dragons in the science fiction/fantasy genre stems from the legendary Anne McCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern novels. Did you take any inspiration from McCaffrey in writing your Rain Wild tales?

I read most of the Pern books many years ago. One thing I realized instantly was that they were SF, not fantasy. My first clue was the phonetic spelling of a chemical compound; I'll say no more than that, as to this day new readers are still discovering Pern, and I don't want to do spoilers for anyone! But I did read them as SF rather than fantasy, and when you look at the tale that way, it is delightful to unravel the various clues to the history of Pern.

I think Anne McCaffrey's dragons were part of the hordes of dragons that gave me inspiration for various parts of my stories. Smaug is there, of course, and The Reluctant Dragon, and a host of unnamed maiden-devouring dragon hoarding dragons as well. One thing that I think Anne McCaffrey did very well is making certain that her dragons and the culture that evolved on Pern make sense, biologically and socially. So I may have taken that from her books; I wanted to be sure that my dragons in my tale, though fantasy, had logical roots. And that these huge predators made sense in their ecology and biology.

Much like McCaffrey, within your stories, you play with boundaries, expectations, subverting rules about male heroes, creating empowered female protagonists, and personifying what many would call “monsters” or monstrous. (Your dragons are certainly beasts!) What makes you push the boundaries of modern sensibilities in each novel you write?

I think 'pushing boundaries' is one of the things that fantasy does best, and also one large reason why many of us enjoy fantasy. If I want to read about a world that has the same sensibilities, cultures and accepted rules as ours, I'd pick up a historical novel or a modern day novel. All fantasy, I think, begins with 'what if' and grows from there. We have historical fantasy or 'alternate history' in which the outcomes of wars are changed and the tale proceeds from there. But we also have full-fledged fantasy in which writers can explore worlds where the cultures have developed in very different ways or where magic exists and science never fully developed. So I don't really perceive any boundaries as existing in fantasy. If you can think of it, you can write a story about it.

The Rain Wilds gives you a vivid tapestry to write about the toxicity of our environment – both emotional and physical. As we progress in time, do you see more people heeding the advisories you lace into your printed words; or do you feel there is more of a need than ever for you and other writers to use fiction as a platform for awareness and change?

Rather than trying to write advice, I write stories. I don't intend to preach or warn; all my stories go back to the fantasy “what if”? The Rain Wild River and its sudden floods of acidic water actually takes it roots from the very real consequences of seismic activity. The hot acidic water of a lahar (a flash flood of water, mud, gravel and debris triggered by a restless volcano) can indeed flood down to a river and change the river's flow substantially as well as increasing the acid content. So what is going on in the Rain Wilds, outside of the magic that exists there, is actually a very natural event. There's not really much people can do to prevent volcanic eruptions, so I'm not really cautioning them about them, other than reminding readers that we still need to respect 'nature red in tooth and claw.'

As far as emotional toxicity, well, that exists in every form of literature and song that I'm aware of. So I don't feel I'm issuing advisories on that so much as recognizing that the things we do to other people in the name of 'well, it's my life' can have far ranging consequences, ones that echo far outside our own little circles. Stories ultimately are about people, even if the people are rabbits (Watership Down) or robots. That human element is what keeps us turning the pages.

I do know that some writers do write tales that are intended to increase awareness in their readers of various issues the writers are concerned with. I don't think I'd actually do well at that; when I get opinionated, I'm afraid I get heavy handed in expressing it, and I think the readers would quickly tire of it. I don't think any reader enjoys being pounded on by a writer, even if the cause is women's rights or an end to prejudice. That certainly NOT why I pick up fiction!

You have no fears about exploring non-conventional love stories and promoting same-sex relationships; how have readers responded to your open-mindedness?

I like to write about a variety of characters, and I think my readers enjoy reading about such characters. Again, it is what fantasy does best; it allows us to explore the 'what if' of very big questions, without necessarily offering answers to any of them. I think that in fantasy, sexual orientation, like race, culture and age, becomes but one facet of a character, and not necessarily the most important face of that character. If a character is a gay vampire with a gambling addiction, it's really hard to say what the most intriguing aspect of her is or which one will drive the story. And I don't think readers really want a one-note character who is 'the black one' or 'the gay one' or 'the child dying-of-an-incurable-disease' one. I like to read about characters with whom I share one key aspect that lets me identify with him, but at the same time is so different from me that I'm excited to journey with him in that adventure.

One of the super powers of fantasy is that we can write stories where something that is shocking or unacceptable or even just frowned upon becomes ordinary in the fantasy setting. Then, as we explore it in that setting, we may find ourselves asking just why it is shocking, unacceptable or rude in our real existence. Thus we have SF stories that look at euthanasia, radical population control, engineered babies, society controlled by artificial intelligence and ask 'what if'. And we have fantasy tales in which someone gets three wishes, or discovers a talent for magic or becomes a blood-drinker by preference, and we again ponder 'what if'. That's what our genre is about. No boundaries, and no holds barred.

About.com has a wonderful article on Anne McCaffrey's legacy, which mentions her acclaimed novel, “The Ship Who Sang.” While very different from your own Liveships, it made me wonder how these sentient dragonwood entities sprung from your vivid imagination?

My husband is a marine engineer, from a long line of maritime ancestors. In the early years of his career, I was often able to spend part of a summer or a few days on board one of the boats he worked on. I soon came to see that there is a reason why ships are named, for each vessel truly did seem to have its own personality. There were boats that always seemed to do okay, no matter the storm or maintenance issues, and other ships where the tiniest problem seemed to set off a chain reaction of bad luck and worse headaches. The ships, regardless of who was the current crew, seemed to have genuine personalities of their own. For generations, sailors have anthropomorphised their ships. I just took it one step further.

The Rain Wild Chronicles are – like the river you name the books in honour of - a steaming brew of intrigue, toxic relations, rites of passage and personal renewal. How have you seen the Chronicles evolve since Dragon Keeper, and how has this 'world' evolved since your earlier Liveship and other related collections of novels?

Rather than an evolution, I see it as a natural progression. People and dragons change and grow, and as they do, their relationships change. So the progression of the story, the plot, is affected by the characters.

Without doing a lot of spoilers for people who haven't read the Liveship Traders or the Rain Wild Chronicles, I'll mention that a great deal of the plot has to do with very large predators moving back into their niche. There's a very interesting parallel going on in our own natural world right now. The aspen groves are recovering because wolves have been reintroduced to some of our parks and natural areas. The decline of the aspen groves, which reproduce largely by a form of cloning, was in turn affecting all sorts of wildlife from deer to birds to small mammals. The groves were declining because of over grazing. Now of course the reintroduction of wolves is also going to affect the hunting by other predators, such as humans, and it may also impact ranching activity. So, if you change one factor in the natural world, as a writer, you gain a huge playground for other changes and plots.

The Rain Wild Chronicles are a natural outgrowth of all that happened in the Liveship trilogy, including the welcoming of a freed slave population to the Rain Wilds, and the development of new shipping technology. I really feel that fantasy cannot fulfil its full potential if it's written about a world that is static. The end of a story shouldn't be that all situations have safely returned to what they were at the beginning. A story should end when a new balance is reached, and where the next story would logically begin.

Our Robin Hobb reviews

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The Realm of the Elderlings is a glorious, classic fantasy combining the magic of Le Guin's The Wizard of Earthsea with the epic mastery of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It is a master class of characterisation, imbued with the richest of narratives, all combining to produce one of the very finest fantasy series ever written.

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Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Keystone. Gate. Crossroads. Catalyst. Fitz is about to discover the truth about the Fool's prophecy. Having been resurrected from his fatal tortures in Regal's dungeons, Fitz has once more foiled Regal's attempts to be rid of him. Now, back in his own body, and after months of rehabilitation, Fitz begins the painful and slow process of learning the ways of a man again. Under the watchful eye of Burrich, old King Shrewd's Stablemaster, Fitz must learn to cast off the wild but carefree ways of the wolf and enter once more the human world: a world beset ever more viciously by the relentless Red Ship Raiders who are now left free to plunder any coastal town they please. But more immediately, a world in which he finds he is utterly alone. Regal has stripped the kingdom of its riches and retired to the inland city of Tradeford. Of Verity, on his quest to find the legendary Elderings, there has been no word; Molly, Kettricken and the Fool have all vanished. Unless Fitz can find Verity and help him in his quest, the Six Duchies will perish and there will be no safe place to live.

"At the end of Royal Assassin Fitz had taken poison and died. Although we were sure that this was not the end for him, we eagerly anticipated how Robin Hobb might bring him back to life for the final installment of the trilogy. She did not disappoint." Fantasy Book Review

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The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

The Liveship Traders series continues with the second book, The Mad Ship. Althea Vestrit continues her quest to reclaim her rightful inheritance, the liveship Vivacia. The Vivacia has been seized by pirates led by the enigmatic Kennit, a man who believes that destiny leads him to become King of the Pirate Isles. The Vestrit family are nearing financial ruin which leads them closer to the mysterious Rain Wild Traders who own the ship. Amidst these events the mad ship, Paragon is once again launched despite the history of death and despair that surrounds him.

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Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

No other than Orson Scott Card described the Liveship Traders trilogy as a 'masterclass in writing'. The story is unique, the character development excellent. In just a few chapters the characters are well drawn and take on a life of their own. Highly recommended.

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Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb. Again. Should be higher. Again. This is the third trilogy with Fitz as the lead. Read The Farseer Trilogy, then read The Tawny Man trilogy, then read this trilogy, which begins with Fool's Assassin. You won't regret it. 

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Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Honesty is the bedrock for any relationship. But how can Fitz – royal bastard, trainee assassin, holder of secrets crucial to the security of the kingdom – bare his soul to his beloved Molly? Danger lies all around him – from the raiders savaging the coastal towns, and from within the court. The king has been struck down by a mystery illness and his eldest son, Verity, is bound up in the defence of the realm. When Verity leaves the court in search of the mythical Elderlings, Fitz finds himself friendless apart from his wolf, Nighteyes, and the king’s strange, motley-clad fool, exposed to Prince Regal’s malign ambitions. He will be asked to sacrifice everything – his heart, his hope, even his life – for the sake of the realm.

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City of Dragons by Robin Hobb

The Rain Wild Chronicles have developed into a superb continuation of the Liveship Traders trilogy and I highly recommend that you join the Lords of the Three Realms in the City of Dragons and experience the same reading delights that I did.

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Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb is rightly classed as one of the finest authors the genre has ever been fortunate enough to have. The Farseer Trilogy established this status – does the Liveship Traders keep the high standard? The answer is yes, the quality of the writing is once again excellent and the characters are full and lifelike. I did enjoy the trilogy but not to the same degree as The Farseer Trilogy. There is something about the characters that stopped me from getting completely behind them. They are undoubtedly well written but also often highly annoying (this may be intended, if it was, then it was done superbly well.)

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Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb

The triumphant conclusion to the tale of the Farseers, in which kingdoms must stand or fall on the beat of a dragon’s wings, or a Fool’s heart. A small and sadly untried coterie – the old assassin Chade, the serving-boy Thick, Prince Dutiful, and his reluctant Skillmaster, Fitz – sail towards the distant island of Aslevjal. There they must fulfil the Narcheska’s challenge: to lay the head of the dragon Icefyre, whom legends tell is buried there deep beneath the ice, upon her hearth. Only then can their marriage proceed, and put an end to war between the two kingdoms. Having abandoned the Fool in Buckkeep, Fitz is guilt-stricken; but determined to keep the fate of his beloved friend at bay, since prophecy foretells the Fool’s death if he ever sets foot on the isle of the black dragon. But as their ship draws in towards Aslevjal a lone figure awaits them…

"It was with both anticipation and regret that I began the final book of The Tawny Man series. This is the ninth book set in Robin Hobb’s immaculately built world of The Six Duchies and it has been a staggering achievement to maintain such a level of literary excellence through so many books. Not one of the nine is weak; each is as lovingly created as the last. This is epic fantasy at its very best; the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of the White Prophet and his Catalyst. The Fool’s Fate hangs over the entire book – will the prophecy come true and see his death or can destiny be changed without risking the future of the world?"

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Shaman's Crossing by Robin Hobb

Nevare Burvelle was destined from birth to be a soldier. The second son of a newly anointed nobleman, he must endure the rigors of military training at the elite King's Cavalla Academy--and survive the hatred, cruelty, and derision of his aristocratic classmates--before joining the King of Gernia's brutal campaign of territorial expansion. The life chosen for him will be fraught with hardship, for he must ultimately face a forest-dwelling folk who will not submit easily to a king's tyranny. And they possess an ancient magic their would-be conquerors have long discounted--a powerful sorcery that threatens to claim Nevare Burvelle's soul and devastate his world once the Dark Evening brings the carnival to Old Thares.

"It happens far too often that books that are not worthy of wide recognition achieve it, and those that are worthy of it only achieve success in smaller amounts. It is a never ending source of frustration for fans of those books and authors, for they see actual talent being ignored in place of flashy and insubstantial books that do nothing but cater to the lowest common denominator."

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Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

You may have already noticed that we absolutely loved The Farseer Trilogy. Robin Hobb is a much praised and admired author due to the fact that she is a storyteller of rare skill with a unrivalled command of the English language. There is also, of course, the fact that her books are highly enjoyable and feature many strong and memorable characters. The experience of reading of a Robin Hobb book is one to be cherished; there are no safer hands that you could place your leisure time in. From the first page to the very last you are treated like royalty with a tale that will last with you for a long time. I could not recommend Robin Hobb’s books highly enough – the Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies are a must for every fantasy enthusiast. As a body of work, the nine books are arguably the finest fantasy series ever written.

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Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Rarely will I not make it through a book. I can count on one hand the amount of books that have failed to see me make it to the last page. Even if I don’t like the book, I’ll try and finish it in case I miss something. And really, it has to be a poor book to put me off from being able to push through. Think about it, I made it through Brisingr!

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Forest Mage by Robin Hobb

At times I became very angry with the book, not with how the author has written it but at the characters themselves and how they were treating poor Nevare. And this is exactly what a book should do and Forest Mage does it amazingly well. Nevare's father, plus his former fiancée Carsina, really made my blood boil and I realised that only excellent writing can provoke such a response in me as a reader. So I find myself unhesitatingly recommending the first two books in the Soldier Son Trilogy. There is a lot of suffering and unhappiness, and many of the characters are simply surviving, which I found an interesting and powerful contrast to the ambitions and hopes that were so important  to Nevare in the first book.

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Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Dragon Haven is an excellent novel that benefits from prior hard work in the previous instalment. A tale rich in plot and characterisation it forms a worthy and exciting addition to Hobb’s delightful world of the Elderlings.

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Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

Happy endings never last... Years ago, they freed a dragon from the glaciers on Aslevjal. Then they parted ways, the Fool returning to far-off Clerres, while Fitz finally claimed a wife, a family, and a home of his own. Now, betrayed by his own people and broken by torment, the Fool has made his way back to the Six Duchies. But as Fitz attempts to heal his old friend in Buckkeep Castle, his young daughter Bee is abducted from Withywoods by pale and mysterious raiders who leave ruin and confusion in their wake. Fitz must find a way to rescue his beloved Bee. At the same time it is the Fool's fiercest wish to return to Clerres with the best assassin he has ever known, to gain vengeance and justice. Can Fitz bear to take up the tools of his old trade again, even to avenge his dearest friend and save his child?

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The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb

Fitz has succeeded in rescuing Prince Dutiful from the clutches of the Piebald rebels, and has returned with him to Buckkeep castle. With Dutiful safe again, Queen Kettricken can proceed with plans to marry him to the Outislander princess, Elliania, but with tensions building among the peoples of the Six Duchies over Kettricken’s tolerance of the Wittted, even Buckkeep is no longer safe. A reluctant Fitz is assigned to protect the young prince, and also train him in the Skill, and in doing so he finally makes contact not only with his estranged daughter, Nettle, but with someone in Buckkeep who may possess a greater Skill talent than Fitz. And who may represent a terrible threat to the Farseers. Meanwhile, Elliania arrives, and before she will accept Prince Dutiful’s betrothal challenges him to undertake an impossible quest. He must kill a legendary Outislander dragon.

"The Golden Fool is the second book in Robin Hobb’s The Tawny Man series. First published in Great Britain by Voyager in 2002. Fitz has succeeded in rescuing Prince Dutiful from the clutches of the Piebald rebels. But once again the cost of protecting the Farseer line has been dear: Nighteyes is dead."

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Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

Prince FitzChivalry Farseer's daughter Bee was violently abducted from Withywoods by Servants of the Four in their search for the Unexpected Son, foretold to wield great power. With Fitz in pursuit, the Servants fled through a Skill-pillar, leaving no trace. It seems certain that they and their young hostage have perished in the Skill-river. Clerres, where White Prophets were trained by the Servants to set the world on a better path, has been corrupted by greed. Fitz is determined to reach the city and take vengeance on the Four, not only for the loss of Bee but also for their torture of the Fool. Accompanied by FitzVigilant, son of the assassin Chade, Chade's protégé Spark and the stableboy Perseverance, Bee's only friend, their journey will take them from the Elderling city of Kelsingra, down the perilous Rain Wild River, and on to the Pirate Isles. Their mission for revenge will become a voyage of discovery, as well as of reunions, transformations and heartrending shocks. Startling answers to old mysteries are revealed. What became of the liveships Paragon and Vivacia and their crews? What is the origin of the Others and their eerie beach? How are liveships and dragons connected? But Fitz and his followers are not the only ones with a deadly grudge against the Four. An ancient wrong will bring them unlikely and dangerous allies in their quest. And if the corrupt society of Clerres is to be brought down, Fitz and the Fool will have to make a series of profound and fateful sacrifices.

"This review isn’t for those new to this series, it is for those who, like me, want to know if this denouement provides the fitting ending we all so desperately craved. I believe it does, it may not be my favourite Elderlings book and series but it is a touching and satisfying end to the life, loves and adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer."

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Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb

Dragon blood and scales, dragon liver and eyes and teeth. All required ingredients for medicines with near-miraculous healing powers. The legendary blue dragon Tintaglia is dying of wounds inflicted by hunters sent by the Duke of Chalced, who meanwhile preserves his dwindling life by consuming the blood of the dragon's poet Selden Vestrit. If Tintaglia perishes, her ancestral memories will die with her. And the dragons in the ancient city of Kelsingra will lose the secret knowledge they need to survive. Their keepers immerse themselves in the dangerously addictive memory-stone records of the city in the hope of recovering the Elderling magic that once allowed humans and dragons to co-exist. In doing so they risk losing their own identities, even their lives. And danger threatens from beyond the city, too. For war is coming: war between dragonkind and those who would destroy them.

"Blood of Dragons is everything you would expect from a resolution to a Hobb series. It carries on the plot of Kelsingra, gives us more knowledge of the Elderlings than ever before, (though still leaving mysteries), and also resolves many plots in deeply satisfying ways. Even if it leaves a couple of threads hanging slightly, there's no denying it makes a beautiful tapestry out of the Rainwild Chronicles and one which should grace the wall of any fantasy reader."

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Renegade's Magic by Robin Hobb

The people of Getty's town remember the death of their cemetery soldier vividly. They remember believing him guilty of unspeakable crimes, condemning him, and then watching as other men of his unit beat him until he no longer drew breath.

But Nevare Burvelle didn't die that day, though everyone believes they saw it happen. He was cornered by a power far more intractable than an angry mob.

When he was a boy, the magic of the Specks – the dapple-skinned tribes of the frontier forests – claimed Nevare as a saviour; severing his soul in two, naming his stolen half Soldier's Boy and shaping him into a weapon to halt the Gernian expansion into their lands and save their beloved ancestor trees.

Until now Nevare has defied the magic, unable to accept his traitorous fate. But the magic has won: it has extinguished his once golden future, devastated his family and has now turned his own people against him. Faced with endangering the only loved-ones he has left, Nevare has no choice but to surrender to its will and enter the forest.

But surrendering to his Speck destiny is only the beginning of his trials. Before he submits completely, Nevare makes one desperate last attempt to deter the Gernians from the Barrier Mountains without causing them harm. But the magic accepts no compromise. Exhausted, Nevare can no longer suppress his traitorous Speck self, Soldiers Boy. Losing control, he becomes a prisoner in his own body; able only to watch helplessly as his other half takes

Soldier's Boy is determined to stop the Gernian expansion at all cost, and unlike Nevare, he has no love, nor sympathy for his spirit-twin's world.

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The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

One of the darkest legends in the Realm of the Elderlings recounts the tale of the so-called Piebald Prince, a Witted pretender to the throne unseated by the actions of brave nobles so that the Farseer line could continue untainted. Now the truth behind the story is revealed through the account of Felicity, a low-born companion of the Princess Caution at Buckkeep. With Felicity by her side, Caution grows into a headstrong Queen-in-Waiting. But when Caution gives birth to a bastard son who shares the piebald markings of his father’s horse, Felicity is the one who raises him. And as the prince comes to power, political intrigue sparks dangerous whispers about the Wit that will change the kingdom forever…

"If you’re a fan of the Elderlings trilogy of trilogies, then you’ll definitely want to pick this novella up. However, if you’re new to Hobb, I would recommend going back to the beginning, as there is enough to persecute a readers mind as to make it frustrating."

Read our review