When I read the first book in Robin Hobb's "Soldier Son Trilogy," Shaman’s Crossing, I was of the opinion that anybody who wasn't a fan of Hobb's may find themselves bogged down the slow pace of the novel. With the second book, Forest Mage, I have to say that I feel the same way about the entire trilogy. Again, it doesn't move very fast, though it definitely is quicker than the first book. Shaman’s Crossing had to set up the world and Navarre's childhood, leading up to his time at the military academy. Forest Mage spans only a year, but it is an exceedingly horrible year. If you don't mind the trials and tribulations being piled on to the protagonist until even you reach a breaking point, then this book is even better than the first one.
Young Navarre, second son of a second son and thus destined for the military academy at Old Thares, has just recovered from the Speck plague that ravaged the city, killing hundreds of people. His best friend, Spink, was so weak and thin after recovering that he and his new wife (Navarre's cousin Epiny) went back to Spink's home to live out the rest of his life. However, Navarre's reaction to the disease is much different from anyone else he knows: he is getting fatter all the time. It doesn't matter how much exercise he does, or how little he eats, he just keeps getting bigger. As this is no state for a military man to be in, he is extremely ashamed, thinking that something is wrong with him. A trip home for his brother's wedding makes things worse; he has brought shame onto his entire family, and his betrothed can't stand the sight of him. Does all of this have something to do with the strange magic that has become a part of Navarre's life? Does he have some destiny to fulfill, one that will bring peace between the Specks and Navarre's people - or wipe one side or the other out? Navarre's life is getting worse and worse, and he doesn't know what to do about it. He's caught between two worlds, and they are pulling him apart.
Any plot description of Forest Mage can't do it justice because there's just so much in this book. Hobb piles troubles onto Navarre until I don't know how he could bear it. Nothing goes right for him; his father tries to literally starve him, and everybody seems to hate him. Even the occasional happiness is quickly drowned out or destroyed by something - this can be a thoroughly depressing book.
There is a reason for all this, however, and Hobb slowly reveals it as the book goes on. I plowed through the book, reading about 100 pages a day (it's a very long book) and was rewarded as Hobb provides hints of what's going on even as we see Navarre's life in such specific detail. At times the hints are so obvious that I wanted to hit Navarre over the head and get him to wise up, but that might just be my familiarity with the fantasy genre. Since Navarre doesn't have that knowledge, it's hardly his fault. That's not to say it's cliched at all, just that there are certain aspects of the genre, an understanding of a magic system (no matter how unique it is, and this is unique) that comes with being a fan.
The fun thing about this book (if you can call a book where the protagonist is saddled with this many problems as "fun") is that I truly didn't know where Hobb was going to take the story. I figured out the basics, what the magic was doing to him, but I didn't know how it would be resolved. When I finally found out the truth, it was stunning, and well worth the trip. The plotting in this book is superb; every step Navarre takes seems to lead him to ruin despite his best efforts. Hobb gives us enough twists and turns that everything seems fresh. Her characterization is stellar, giving us a wonderful Navarre and littering the book with other three-dimensional characters as well.
Hobb's prose is as good as it's always been. Each scene is set beautifully, and the dialogue is also good - often a bit stilted, but that seems to be by choice, as these noble families seem to talk like that. When we have a more "earthy" character, it's not as bad, showing that it's a stylistic choice rather than a fault. The story is told in first person by Navarre, so everything is from his point of view. This lets Hobb reveal the world as Navarre travels in it, either because it's new to him as well or because he's been going through so many changes that even what he's familiar with has changed a great deal./p>
In the same way as the first book, Forest Mage is told in an almost continuous narrative. There are no breaks within the chapters, and each chapter is 20-30 pages long, so be warned: if you're a reader who has to stop at section or chapter breaks, plan accordingly. Don't begin a new chapter late at night thinking you'll read "just a couple more pages." You won't be able to, and that adds power to Hobb's narrative, establishing a flow that suits the book.
One of the book’s faults is its very slow pace, but that might not be a problem depending on your temperament. Personally, I loved it as I immersed myself in this world. Also, the numerous arguments between Navarre and his father about his weight, and the number of tirades that Navarre has to sit through, go on just a bit too long. The time Navarre spends with his family before events happen to change everything seems to drag with every rant. Once he leaves there, however, things pick up again.
Overall, I highly recommend Forest Mage, but I would again suggest that you don't start with this series if you're new to Robin Hobb. You may enjoy the rich characterization and deep plotting, but you may also be turned off by the pace. Give one of her other series a try first, and then dive into this one. You should love it just as much as I do. I'm already counting the days to the finale.