The conclusion to Robin Hobb’s “Soldier Son” trilogy, Renegade's Magic, is much like the first two books in the series. This has to be one of the most slow-moving, in-depth character and fantasy-setting studies that I have ever read. I greatly enjoyed the first two books (Shaman’s Crossing and Forest Mage), but as the pace remained glacial, my love for the series waned a bit. Once again, I love Hobb’s characterization skills, but it was almost a chore to get through this book. Not a good way to end a series, but still not bad.
Young Navarre, second son of a second son, has had his expected future as a soldier viciously stripped from him. Sentenced to hang for the murder of a prostitute and also the wife of the city’s commanding officer, Navarre finally gives in to the Speck magic that has forced him to become grotesque and fat with magical power. He makes the soldiers believe that they’ve killed him like a dog on the street, then he retreats to the forest to be with the other Specks. There, he learns something of what the magic has been demanding of him for so long: to protect the trees containing many of the Speck Great Ones’ spirits from the onslaught of the Great Road that’s being built through the forest. But Navarre is a man divided, the magic forcing him into his two beings: a Speck Great One named Soldier’s Boy and Navarre himself, the latter of whom still holds loyalty to his people. Apart, they are constantly warring for supremacy in his body; only together can they actually help both sides avoid a massacre.
Hobb has created a wonderfully detailed society in the Specks, and she spends a lot of time in Renegade's Magic exploring it as Navarre and Soldier’s Boy try to come to terms with what’s become of them. This book, as is the rest of the series, is told in first person by Navarre, but for much of the book Navarre is a disembodied presence in Soldier’s Boy’s body. Thus, we get many passages of Navarre being horrified by what Soldier’s Boy is doing with his body, of Navarre trying to either take control of the body, or of him trying to influence Soldier’s Boy’s thinking. Narratively, I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but occasionally it becomes obvious that Hobb needed time to pass quickly, so she has Soldier’s Boy cause Navarre to disappear for a while. Since we see through Navarre’s eyes, we don’t see anything until he wakes up again.
I do greatly appreciate the depth that Hobb brings to Navarre and to Soldier’s Boy as well, the latter of which is even more impressive given the fact that we only see him through Navarre’s eyes. Yes, one could say that this entire series is a 2000+ page character study of Navarre, in addition to a fantasy examination of the struggles between nature and science/technology, but the character study is the most interesting part. Hobb’s characterization skills come to the fore once again, and my interest in Navarre is what kept me going through some of the slower passages.
Sadly, the climax of the book (almost 100 pages before the end, as Hobb has some things to tie up) brings the societal conflict to a close in an almost paint-by-numbers format. When Nevarre finally realizes what he has to do, he quickly goes about doing it and in the process uncovers some of the nuggets Hobb buried in the previous book in order to make the ending even more convenient. There are one or two things that Navarre forces the magic to do for him rather than giving in to it, the consequences of which happen in the last few pages, but overall it’s much too convenient for my taste. The tension between the two societies was delicious, as well as the struggle by the Specks to find some way to combat the building of the road. It’s just too bad most of the book feels like Navarre and Soldier’s Boy pounding their heads against the wall until suddenly everything becomes clear.
As with the first two books, Renegade's Magic has extremely long chapters with no breaks, which means you have to either not mind stopping in the middle of a scene or budget your pre-bedtime reading accordingly. While I did find this difficult at times, I do have to admit that I like the flow this gives the story. It contributes to the almost leisurely pace that Hobb sets for this series. I don’t think it would work all the time, though it does here.
One final thing I love about this series, even Renegade's Magic, is how intricate it all is. Hobb has obviously spent a lot of time and effort with both cultures, as well as plotting the series out. Even the smallest scenes in previous books come to fruition in some way, and while I don’t like the way some of these add to the convenient ending, I do like the planning involved. It’s nice to be able to say “I remember that scene, and now I see the significance of it.” This is a testament to Hobb’s attention to detail, and I love it when an author can pull it off.
Renegade's Magic, and consequently the rest of the “Soldier’s Son” series, isn’t for everybody. Some will find the slow pace too annoying and put the first book down long before getting into the story. If the thought of this kind of story repels you, I would think you would have to be a big Hobb fan in order to enjoy it. It even battered me down at times, with the books getting increasingly harder to slog through. I still think they are worth the journey, though, and Renegade's Magic is a fitting conclusion to all that came before. It’s an interesting experiment, and while I’m not sure I want to read something like this again too soon, I don’t feel my time has been wasted.