The second book of Robin Hobb’s Soldier’s Son Trilogy, Forest Mage continues on where Shaman’s Crossing left off. Nevare Burvelle has made a startling recovery from the Speck plague which ravaged the Academy at the end of the previous novel, too good of a recovery in fact. He has gained weight at a considerable rate, quickly becoming obese. When he returns home to his brother’s wedding his father accuses him of gluttony and won’t listen to reason, causing him no end of grief. To make matters worse he still has dreams about Tree Woman, the speck woman who he seemingly killed in the previous novel and his magic begins to increase its grip upon him. After the Speck plague reaches his home, he moves to the remote outpost of Gettys, where the magic begins to increase his grip on him even more.
In terms of pacing the book moved at a similar pace to Shaman’s Crossing, taking a while before the plot truly kicks off. To me this is when Nevare flees to Gettys, which introduces a number of new characters which have a strong impact on the rest of the book’s development. While it was interesting exploring the consequences of the magic’s effect on his body, I felt like it went on a little bit too long. Even after reaching Gettys the action seemed to slow down to the same relaxing pace, with a lot of the conflict in Gettys taking a long time to finally pay off.
However the conflict is still an improvement compared to that of the previous book. I felt like there was more of a real world element to the conflict, with Nevare actually meeting a number of Specks and Speck aligned people. The most notable of these are Olikea, who becomes lover to his speck self, and Buel Hitch, a Gernian also taken in my Speck magic in a similar fashion to Nevare. There is also a lot more conflict with the people at the outpost. While the novel still moves at the pace of a slug, the conflict is at the very least a step up and I found myself gripped by it more so than the previous book.
The new characters in this novel are interesting. In addition to Hitch and Olikea there is also a woman named Amzil, a young widow who Nevare befriends on the road to Gettys and later reappears. She is an interesting example of a potential love interest, and I say potential since Nevare actively decides not to romance her for the entirety of the novel. Regardless she is interesting since she is not only a widow but also has children. Since she is such an unusual character to have as a love interest I found myself genuinely intrigued by her presence, especially with the presence of seductive Specks, Tree Woman and Olikea being Nevare’s primary lust interests for most of the novel. Olikea however is a rather weak character and to me she only serves as a means of showing Nevare the Speck’s world and provide exposition relating to magic.
Hitch is much more interesting, since towards the end he is revealed to actually be an antagonist. However he is unique in that he is a very reluctant one due to the fact that he is essentially a slave to the magic same as Nevare. Despite this he makes for a very effective antagonist, setting up most of the conflict leading up to the climax. The best part being that his plan actually works, leaving Nevare framed for murder. After later events come to pass, Nevare is believed to be guilty by all save for his friend Spink, cousin Epiny and Amzil. The fact that Hitch pulled this off despite his reluctance to do so made him all the more interesting as a character in my opinion.
The climax of the book was also very interesting. Carsina, Nevare’s former love interest who rejected him earlier in the novel over his weight, catches the plague and the two reconcile after she briefly wakes up from the grave, only to die again. This was a very interesting way of redeeming the character but what I really liked is how this kicks off the final part of the climax since Nevare gets accused of necrophilia after finding Carsina’s corpse in his bed, earning him the ire of Carsina’s new husband. This cumulates in a trial but Nevare escapes and in a clever use of magic he manages to erase everyone’s memories and convince them he died in the attempt. Since this is the first instance where you start to see just how powerful the magic can be I enjoyed the climax a lot and it felt like a satisfying pay off to everything that came before it.
As a whole the book still has its flaws, but it was a much more enjoyable than what came previously. Although I have yet to read the third book I can’t help but get the impression that the trilogy has found its feet. This book did redeem the Soldier’s Son trilogy but it is still far from being a masterpiece. However I did like the more direct antagonist of Hitch, as opposed to the more distant Tree Woman. My only complaint is that it still progresses at a rather slow pace. However this allows for a lot of character drama so this is not necessarily a bad thing. Overall, I actually quite liked reading this book and I’m starting to get a better picture of Robin Hobb’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I’m actually quite excited for the third book and I’m hoping it too will prove an interesting read.
IN A WORD: IMPROVED