There has been so many mixed reviews about the second volume of The Soldier Son trilogy that I simply couldn't wait to read Forest Mage. Surprisingly, most negative reviews which showed up early on had very little to do with the novel itself. It appears that much of the criticism hinged on the fact that this was nothing like the Fitz books.
Personally, I must admit that I'm getting sick and tired of hearing such claims when someone mentions Shaman's Crossing and/or Forest Mage. Funny how the people clamoring about this not being a Fitz book are probably the same readers complaining about authors like David Eddings, Terry Brooks and R. A. Salvatore for never taking a chance and producing something truly creative outside of their established niche. At least give Robin Hobb credit for coming up with an original series that is totally different from what we can find in today's market.
Frankly, Forest Mage is not Robin Hobb's greatest work of fantasy. And I mean no disrespect when I say this. She has raised the bar rather high in the past, accustoming her readers to spectacular and moving storylines in her previous series. Still, Forest Mage remains an enjoyable novel and is better than a majority of books out there.
The worldbuilding is again very interesting. While Nevare traveled west in Shaman's Crossing, this time Hobb exposes us to the eastern portion of Gernia. Gettys and King's Road, often mentioned in the first volume, become part of the story. The author creates a wonderfully arresting imagery, especially with her wilderness and forest scenes.
The rich prose which has characterized all of her books is still evident in Forest Mage, adding a little something to the reading experience.
As was the case with its predecessor, the main problem with Forest Mage is the book's pace. At times sluggish, it makes one wonder why the author spends so much time describing the minutiae of Nevare's day-to-day life in the narrative. I feel that much could have been truncated to insure a more fluid rhythm. It takes quite a while for the story to truly start move forward, nearly a third of the book.
The characterizations are, as always, top-notch. Three-dimensional characters that remain true to themselves continue to be Robin Hobb's trademark. And that deeply involved humanity, Hobb's subtle touch, can be felt in every chapter. There is a new supporting cast which helps Nevare undergo considerable character growth, chief among those Buel Hitch, Amzil and Olikea. And a few familiar faces make appearances at various times.
However, unlike Shaman's Crossing, in which Nevare had the help of many supporting characters to move the story along, in Forest Mage he must carry the story on his own shoulders. And as a stiff-necked second son of a battle lord, Nevare doesn't possess the appeal of a Fitz or an Althea. Robin Hobb always "mistreats" her main characters, both in emotional and physical ways. Nevare is certainly no exception. Hell, but Forest Mage can be depressing at times. Poor Nevare. As a noble character who always tries to do what he thinks is right, I feel that readers have a hard time relating to forlorn Nevare. Perhaps because it was so easy to relate to Fitz and Althea. . . I believe that this is what puts off a number of readers.
On a more positive note, we learn much about the Specks and the Plainsmen. The emancipation of women appears to be a concept the author wants to continue to explore. In addition, environmental issues will likely play a key role in the final volume. Robin Hobb has set the stage for what should be a very interesting finale, with Nevare fulfilling his destiny.
Approach this novel with an open mind. Some will enjoy it and some won't. And if all you wish for is another Fitz book, go reread The Farseer and The Tawny Man series.
The final verdict: 8/10
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