At last I have finished reading Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son Trilogy, which started with the book Shaman’s Crossing. Overall the series was a rather bumpy ride. It was an understatement to say that the first book was a disappointment, but the second book began to show promise in places. Now we’re on the third and final book of the trilogy, and things are… interesting to say the least. Renegade’s Magic follows on from where Forest Mage left off, with our protagonist Nevare assumed dead by both his enemies and friends alike. With no other option left, he retreats to the forest and embraces the magic within him. He eventually becomes unable to suppress the speck self within him, known as Soldier’s Boy, and becomes a prisoner in his own body. Nevare still wants to protect his friends and family from his old life but Soldier’s Son has no love for them and will do anything to stop Gernian expansion.
From a narrative point of view the book is rather strange. For most of the story Nevare is trapped inside his own body, with Soldier’s Boy at the helm for most of the book. The story is still told from Nevare’s point of view, even when Soldier’s Boy is in control. This creates a sense of disconnection from the book’s action since Nevare is basically sitting back all relaxed inside his mind while Soldier’s Boy does everything. In fact most of the action in the Speck plot line is experienced from the back seat while Soldier’s Son takes front. Since most of the book revolves around the Speck plot line this gets rather tiresome and I can’t help but feel that Nevare seems rather passive in this book as a result. All throughout I’m just sitting around and waiting for Nevare to get his head in gear and kick the magic’s ass and get back to the other world.
There is a small silver lining in that Nevare can see into Soldier’s Son’s thoughts on occasion and give us insight into his character, making us connect with him a bit when he is in control. The antagonism between Nevare and Soldier’s Son is also quite interesting, and the fact that one of Nevare’s primary antagonist’s was an aspect of himself was quite interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where the two interact, but it seemed to me like they didn’t happen often enough and a lot of the time they hardly interact. Soldier’s Boy just goes about his business while Nevare watches, and this is how things proceed for a sizeable portion of the novel. It is generally quite boring.
The characters introduced in the Speck plot line aren’t quite as compelling as the ones present in previous books, and I had a hard time getting behind them. We see nothing important side characters such as Epiny, Spink and Amzil until near the end. Until then we get occasional contact with them when Nevare contacts them via dreams but it doesn’t feel the same as real world contact and in the real world we’re still stuck with Soldier’s Boy and his boring Speck allies. Tree Woman, now known exclusively as Lisana is strange since for some reason Nevare is now fond of her and it is through her that he and Soldier’s Boy finally bond. This change always seemed rather abrupt since I always got the impression that Nevare hated her. She also seems to have turned out to be an ally of sorts for both characters, because she and Soldier’s Boy actually love each other. Her transition from villain to ally is something I have mixed feelings on and I am not certain on whether I prefer as a villain or an ally.
The biggest problem for me was the book’s climax and the build-up preceding it. I had a bit of difficulty following the end of the Speck plot line. My problems start just after Nevare/Soldier’s Boy enters his tree, similar to Tree Woman. Soldier’s Boy basically disappears from the plot entirely due to some magical ritual which I can’t quite follow, essentially negating any role he might have in the climax. Nevare somehow manages to escape the tree through means which I don’t fully understand. Then he goes back to Spink and Epiny, and deals with Carsina’s mad with grief former fiancée, Captain Thayer so he can rescue Amzil. As far as I can tell, he does nothing which solves the overall Speck/Gernian conflict and the issue is instead dealt with via fictionalised retelling of Nevare’s exploits gaining the Queen’s favour. The solution felt a bit deus ex machina since Nevare made no deliberate action to solve the conflict, though I could be misunderstanding things. To me, it felt like Hobb abandoned the overarching conflict and dumped it entierely in favour of Nevare’s personal story arc even though most of the Speck plot line had been building up for some epic solution which would utilise skills from both Nevare and Soldier’s Son’s experiences. I was disappointed by the ending as a result.
I felt like Renegade’s Magic was a weaker instalment in the series because of its flaws. I do not believe it has the same number of flaws as Shaman’s Crossing but I couldn’t shake the feeling the the ending was a bit of anti-climax. I was hoping the final conflict would be an escalation of stakes but instead it seemed to wrap up the leftover plot threads Nevare left behind after he ventured into the forest rather than dealing with anything new. I was hoping the series would pick up steam after the previous book, but it did not. As a result I feel that both this book and the series as a whole are a rather mediocre venture into the realms of fantasy. Since this trilogy is my first foray into Robin Hobb’s writings, it may be a while before read the works she is better known for. I will read her other stuff eventually but after this experience, I am more reluctant to make the commitment than I would have hoped.
IN A WORD: CONFUSING.