Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Rain Wilds Chronicles (by Robin Hobb)


I got some exciting news this week. I'll be speaking at the academic conference at Worldcon 2014 - otherwise known as Loncon 2014 - on Robin Hobb's Tawny Man trilogy. Hobb is one of the convention's invited guests, and since I've loved her books since I was a teenager, I'm a little nervous!

Some spoilers follow.

Hobb has written four series set in a particular fantasy universe, the Realm of the Elderlings. Over the past month I've been catching up on the most recent and the only one I hadn't read, the Rain Wilds Chronicles. This was partly in preparation for Loncon, but mostly because of the announcement that a fifth series will be coming out soon which, like the first and third, will focus on two of mine and OldHousematetheRomeone's all-time favourite literary characters, Fitz and the Fool. It would be hard to exaggerate just how in love with these two - well, Fitz anyway - we were when we were in school. We had significant disagreement over our feelings about where things were left at the end of the Tawny Man trilogy, which at the time we read it (aged about 20 I think) she loved and I hated. Now older and wiser, I no longer hate the ending (in fact, I like it a lot), but I'm also very, very happy that it wasn't the end after all. I would read about these characters sitting and watching paint dry.

Anyway, to my eternal disappointment, neither of them were in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, but I enjoyed the books very much anyway. My 18-yr-old self would have absolutely loved them, as they're rather happier and more romantic than the earlier books. The older and more bitter me was a bit over-whelmed with the candy-sweet romance in places - it seems the more time goes by, the happier Hobb's books get, and the more miserable and cynical I get! But I raced through the series and enjoyed the various enrichments of Hobb's mythology, even if it was frustrating spending most of the series wanting to scream at the characters 'It's over there!'

One of the central elements of the Realm of the Elderlings mythology is that there was once a great civilization of Elderlings (people who lived alongside dragons and took on dragonish attributes) and dragons. Something terrible happened, the Elderlings all died off and the dragons disappeared, leaving remnants of their civilization buried in mud or hidden in the mountains. Throughout the series these relics have been plundered by those wanting to make money out of them, and a whole culture (that of the Bingtown and Rain Wilds Traders) has grown up around the excavation and sale of magical Elderling items. It's a rather nice evocation of the way ancient archaeological discoveries were treated during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To the eternal dismay of modern archaeologists, sites were destroyed with no records made of their state at discovery and their treasures collected and sold or scattered around the museums of Europe and North America. Real archaeologists, much as they might like to be seen as cool adventurers, would hate Lara Croft or Indiana Jones.

The story of the Rain Wilds Chronicles revolves around the search for and discovery of Kelsingra, a lost Elderling city, alongside the recovery of dragons as a species. (I'm pretty sure Fitz and the Fool discovered Kelsingra, or somewhere very like it, back in the Farseer trilogy, but the geography is deliberately a bit vague at this point. It was either an outer suburb of Kelsingra, which is apparently huge, or a smaller Elderling city further into the mountains). One of the main characters is Alise, a scholar who has studied Elderling civilization through their surviving art and literature. Alise is an armchair scholar until she joins the expedition, not an archaeologist (in modern terms she'd be closer to a Classicist), but she's the only person who seems really interested in the history of the lost city, rather than its treasure (the new Elderlings are interested in how they can use it to live in, which is a different sort of interest in treasure). When they arrive, she's desperate to study the city, to sketch and record everything they find before the treasure hunters arrive and it's destroyed.

Sophia Schliemann, wife of Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy and Mycenae, wearing excavated jewels

For the most part, we Classicists and archaeologists would be firmly on Alise's side. But an interesting dilemma is raised when the new generation of developing Elderlings start wanting to use the city, rather than record and preserve it in the state in which they found it. Alise comes into conflict with them, as she wants everything kept as it is, in a fossilized state. I have to admit, I'm on the side of the young Elderlings on this one. Obviously, I'm all in favour of preserving historical sites as far as is practical, and definitely of preserving historical texts (the desperation of Classicists to find lost texts can be matched only by the desperation of Doctor Who fans looking for missing episodes). But I think there comes a point where the interests of the living have to outweigh the interests of the dead. Of course I believe that history is valuable and important or I wouldn't do what I do, and the looting and destruction of museum artefacts in times of war is heart-breaking, but any time we reach a point where the preservation of historical sites and artefacts is placed above the needs of the living, we've gone too far.

One of my favourite archaeological sites is Diocletian's palace in Split, in Croatia. Diocletian was a late Roman emperor, responsible for the last great persecution of Christians (he was followed by Constantine the Great). Within his 'palace', which is huge, are sections of the Roman architecture which have been preserved and which are fascinating to see. But throughout other parts, the 'palace' has been in constant use over the last 1500 years or so, and the Roman base has been built on and added to throughout the centuries. It's now a bustling place full of flats, restaurants and markets, and it's absolutely gorgeous. It's good to preserve history, but it's good to live as well - and if historical monuments need to be altered to improve accessibility for the living, or there's a choice between preserving a monument and preserving someone's farm, I'd choose the living every time.

(I should probably mention at this point that Alise's scholarly studies are rendered rather less useful by the Elderlings' fondness for preserving their memories in stone, allowing others to see their ghosts or re-live their lives in the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation's 'The Inner Light'. But that's beside the point!).

There was one other Classical reference in this series, relating to the mysterious country of Chalced. Chalced has been a shadow lying between the Six Duchies of the Farseer/Tawny Man books and Bingtown, of the Liveship/Rain Wilds books, for years, a fairly faceless country which relies on slave labour while its neighbours outlaw the practice, the eternal bad guy that also conveniently separates the protagonists of the different series. Other than a penchant for slavery and attacking its neighbours, nothing much had been established about Chalced before, so the slate was relatively clean for it.

In this series, it is revealed that the evil and totally batshit crazy Duke of Chalced is named Antonicus Kent. This feels like a weird name to me as 'Kent' tends to suggest either Kent Brockman from The Simpsons or the county in which I was born, but I can see where Hobb was going with it - mad, murderous, autocratic leaders always have to have Roman-sounding names.  The TV Trope is called the Caligula for a reason. Kent, unlike many examples of this trope, took the throne himself and went slowly mad from abuse of power over the years, rather than suffering the results of in-breeding, but otherwise fits the trope nicely.

My main reservation with this storyline is that Kent should have been assassinated long before things got to the point they do in this series. Absolute monarchs can reign in terror for a while, and if they keep it in check, they can do pretty well - Tiberius lasted a good while before possibly dying naturally, and Henry VIII was fine, albeit unhealthy. But even absolute monarchs who go to the sort of extremes Antonicus Kent does tend to get assassinated (Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, and I'm sure there are some non-Roman examples). If the monarch is about to kill you and your entire family for the smallest slight anyway, you might as well plot against him, you lose nothing and you might gain a lot. As the story went on and the Duke got worse and worse, it seemed to stretch plausibility a bit that no one had managed to do away with him and take over themselves. Still, it all led to a pretty cool finale, so I guess it was worth it.

(Actually, it's probably as much the case that these monarchs went down in history as mad/cruel etc. because they were assassinated and their successors/usurpers needed to justify usurping the throne - many of them were probably nowhere near as bad as they're made out to be. But the point still stands - hack off enough nobles and you will be assassinated).

I enjoyed this series, but my heart belongs to the Farseer and Tawny Man books, so the new Fitz and the Fool book is the one I'm really looking forward to. Whether any of these characters or Kelsingra will appear is hard to say - so far the crossovers have mostly been between the Farseer and Tawny Man books on the one hand and the Liveship and Rain Wilds books on the other (I loved seeing Althea, Brashen and Paragon again, and hearing from Wintrow). However, there are some notable exceptions to that rule, and whatever the new series is about I think it's pretty likely to involve dragons in some way, so I'm excited to see how it all fits together, and whether poor Alise will get to preserve any historical artefacts at all!

7 comments:

  1. Actually there were a few emperors between Diocletian and Constantine. It all depends on how you count them, since Diocletian was the one who came up with dividing the empire in two administratively and having junior emperors (Caesar) to the senior Augusti, and Constantine started out as a usurper. He also strongly influenced the organization of the Catholic Church. On top of the east/west split, he also divided the empire into diocese, which the Church ultimately mirrored. (There's a multilingual joke in there somewhere about the place of his retirement being called Split.)

    And congrats on getting to Worldcon. We shall expect many reports.

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    1. Yes, I know all that. I thought about explaining some of it, or at least mentioning Maxentius, but most people haven't heard of Diocletian so I was simplifying it, since it isn't really relevant to the point I was making (I thought it was worth mentioning that Constantine came shortly afterwards, since the reason there were no more persecutions of Christians was that after Constantine all the emperors except Julian the Apostate were Christian). Perhaps I simplified it too much, to the point of inaccuracy. But I think it's important to stick to the point rather than explain every little detail of every little thing all the time.

      And thank you :)

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    2. You're absolutely right. For some reason, I thought there was a bigger gap between the two. Closer to twenty than the 2-5 it actually was.

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  2. Awesome news about the conference! I can't wait to read all about it. Very cool!

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