For the first time since Assassin's Apprentice was published, there are a lot of mixed reviews for this new Robin Hobb novel. And in light of all this, many readers appear reticent to pick up the first volume of the Soldier Son trilogy. If you have been reading my book reviews for a while, you are aware that I've harbored doubts concerning some of Hobb's works in the past. And she has proven me wrong each and every time. Hence, regardless of the aforementioned mixed reviews, I read Shaman's Crossing with an open mind. Having learned my lesson, I will never again doubt Robin Hobb's ability to rise to the occasion when she releases a new book.
One of the most interesting aspect of this novel is the setting. Indeed, the habitual medieval European environment is replaced by a setting that resembles the late 1700s North America. Firearms and technology are thus part of the every day life. And that change of scenery is very, very refreshing.
The prose is above and beyond what is currently the norm in the market today. The narrative flows truly well, which adds a little something to the reading experience.
Once again, the characterizations are of the first order. That deeply involved humanity, for which Hobb has always been known, is present on basically every page of Shaman's Crossing. Every single character populating this tale is three-dimensional. And respecting the author's trademark, the remain true to themselves.
I've read several reviews complaning that Nevare is nothing like Fitz. Which, in my humble opinion, is unfair. A character such as Fitz is a special something that rarely occurs. Some very successful writers have incredible writing careers without ever creating such an amazing character. I'm persuaded that Fitz will remain a crowd favourite for many years to come. So it's really unfair to ask Nevare to fill his shoes. This soldier's son undergoes massive character growth in this first volume, and he is a very interesting character in his own right.
The worldbuilding is much more impressive than that of previous series. There is a whole lot going on, both in the narrative and behind the scenes. And somehow, I feel that this book barely scratches the surface. Hobb offers us a few tantalizing glimpses of the Plainsmen and their culture; the mysterious and magical Specks; the clash between old nobility and the new battle lords; the growing rift between the king and the nobility; the repercussions of Gernia's eastern conquests; the aftermath of the war with Landsing, etc. It's too early to tell, but this could well be Robin Hobb's most ambitious work to date.
The main problem with Shaman's Crossing is the pace. Not that it's too slow or sluggish, far from it. It has more to do with the fact that 2/3 of the novel chronicles Nevare's youth and his cadet life at the Academy. We do learn a lot about the main character and his fellow cadets, but it's true that there is little action.
As is often the case with trilogies, the first volume is inevitably the introduction to a larger tale. Yet more than half of Shaman's Crossing feels like an introduction to the introduction. And I will admit that perhaps the military life at the Academy might have been overdone at times. Having said that, I will also say that I've enjoyed every moment of it. But like a lot of readers, I would have liked to learn more about what was going on in the rest of the world.
The novel nevertheless contains a number of powerful scenes, chief among those that which gave the book its title and cover art. Dewara proved to be a fascinating character.
Analyzing this book as a whole, I get the feeling that Mrs. Hobb has been laying a LOT of groundwork for the rest of the series. There is a vast amount of information passed on to readers. The authors goes to great lengths to impart knowledge on the history of the land and its cultures, on the political system that governs Gernia, on the social structure, etc. As was the case with the Liveship Traders, the emancipation of women appears to be a concept that will continue to have a certain importance in the story. In addition, Shaman's Crossing is imbued with a spiritual dimension which was absent in her previous works. And everything seems to hint that environmental issues will likely play a major role in this trilogy.
All in all, a very interesting and refreshing debut to what could be Robin Hobb's most ambitious series yet. I will eagerly await the release of its sequel!
The final verdict: 8/10