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The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

The Willful Princess

For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.

I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb aka Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden

The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.

The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.

Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.

For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Margaret Ogden aka Megan Lindholm or Robin Hobb

 

“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.

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