The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm
The Inheritance and Other Stories is a collection claiming to be written by Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb. For the record, both are pseudonyms used by Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, a Californian author who began publishing under her maiden name but, when she found her books were not selling so well, changed names and wrote something different which sold slightly better. A very practical way for an author to break with the past and start over again. “A Touch of Lavender” (1989 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award and Hugo Award for novella) is a remarkable story which recognises that, no matter how talented a musician, there must always be people who not only listen but also hear the quality of that music. In the midst of it all, there are aliens and a government that’s largely indifferent to the welfare of its people unless it believes it can panhandle the aliens into giving them the secrets of their technology. It’s touching in every sense of the word, engaging our emotions early on and giving us a ride through to the bitter-sweet ending. This clearly deserved the shortlisting for the two top awards.
“Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” (1989 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award for novelette and second place winner for the Sturgeon Award) Frankly, I’m amazed this story was also such a success. According to the introduction, this was the only story the author wrote with the expectation her husband would read it. She wrote it for him and, to some extent, about her feelings for him. So it captures her time working as a hard-seller in Sears and introduces a vaguely supernatural element as the hook on which to hang a rather strange piece of romantic fiction. I suppose it has some nice lines and says something about writer’s block, offering hope for those who find their Muse deserting them. But, for me, it’s a rather pallid story. Even more extraordinary is “Cut” (2001 — shortlisted for the Nebula Award for short story). This is almost a non-fictional discussion on or, if you prefer, a fictionalised introduction to, the issue of female circumcision. Sadly, it’s superficial on the physical and moral aspects. It’s not even good feminism. Instead what we have is a slightly emotional rant with little or no argument developed or reasoned conclusion reached.
“The Fifth Squashed Cat” (1993) is a minor piece of magic as an excuse for debating which has the better life: a kind of hippy drop-out who wanders the world sucking on the odd bone when her energy levels need topping up, or a reasonably talented wage-slave who maximises her opportunities within the conventional world of work. The only reason I quite like it is Megan Lindholm makes the ostensible heroine the victim of her own scepticism assuming, of course, you think working for a living makes you a victim. “Strays” (1998) is more interesting as two young girls from slightly different sides of the tracks meet up and form a loose alliance. There’s a more real sense of place as our “Amazon” commands the feral cats. So, while it’s a fairly slight story, it has a grittiness making it reasonably memorable.
There are three original stories in this collection. I’m not sure “Finis” would ever be accepted in a professional magazine. It features the kind of primitive hook beginners come up with. A few readers might not see the ending from a mile off. Most would snort derisively when their worst suspicions were realised. “Drum Machine” is also in need of an editor’s tender loving care. When you conflate two entirely separate ideas in a single story, you need to do a better job of synchronising the outcome. I suppose the point of the story is that randomness throws up the best and the worst at the extremes and the mass of the average in the middle. But it ends up neither really being about the system of choice allowed in this future USA’s desire to control the gene pool, nor about whether talent necessarily requires originality.
Two of Robin Hobb’s contributions revisit the Rain Wilds of her popular Live Traders series. “Homecoming” (2004) is a nicely told story of corruption and greed that sees a group of nobles exiled to the Rain Wilds only to find the cities of legend lost to the swamp. After initial defeatism, our heroine begins the process of adapting to her surroundings, breaking out from the patriarchal mould of her culture as the men argue and sit around waiting for rescue. She’s making good progress when an entry to a subterranean city is found. The moment the first reports of treasure are received, the men abandon the emerging tree village and go looting. In the end, many die and the few who remain are left to make use of their newly acquired knowledge of their surroundings to do more than merely survive. This is a nicely balanced story as our heroine slowly realises her more indomitable qualities and crafts a new society. “The Inheritance” (2000) is set generations later as a meek, Cinderella country mouse finds advice from an unlikely quarter. This is not so much a fairy godmother as a tough-minded social and commercial guerilla who will encourage the girl into a new life. Although it has a somewhat romaticisied veneer, the overall feel is positive in terms of gender politics.
Finally, we come to “Cat’s Meat”, the third new story. This is another, not-terribly-politically-correct story about an abused woman and her son. I acknowledge the age of this author and perhaps this explains why she seems out of step with what I understand now to be called third-wave feminism. Although to some extent this wave seeks to avoid some of the activism of the earlier waves, it more sincerely embraces a condemnation of gender violence, that the vulnerable not be oppressed by the physically stronger. Although this is set in an unenlightened era before the notion of female emancipation had taken root, it lacks any real sense of authorial condemnation. The woman and child have to rely on the cat for protection. Fortunately, it has no compunction about killing to protect its territory. None of this, women are strong enough to stand up for themselves rubbish for this author. It’s a depressingly familiar tale of a weak woman deciding the best form of defence is to run away.
Taking an overall view, The Inheritance and Other Stories is rather disappointing. I bought it because I had encountered a couple of novellas by Robin Hobb in anthologies and was interested to see more of “her” work. Looking at the two personas, Robin Hobb is the better at slightly greater length. There’s only one really outstanding story from Megan Lindholm with the shorter stories being distinctly uninspiring. So, unless you’re already a fan of either or both authors, I can’t honestly say I recommend this collection with only three of the longer stories being worth reading and a lot of iffy, somewhat romantic, ideas about women and their role in society, and how cats can influence our lives.
For a review of a novel by Robin Hobb, see The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince.