Top critical review
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on 17 September 2003
Golden Fool is the second book in the Tawny Man series. It's set in the same world as Hobbs' Assassin books and her Liveship Trader books, and does even more to tie the two series together, sometimes to its detriment. While it's not necessarily a bad book, it failed to hold my interest for long periods of time, which is very unusual for a Robin Hobb book.
When I read the first book, Fool's Errand, I thought Hobb spent too much of the beginning going over old history in lecture-fashion, basically telling us what happened in the intervening fifteen years by one character telling another what happened. It was long and boring, but once the book got moving, I couldn't put it down. This book suffers from similar problems, but it never really recovers from them. It is packed full of character development and not a lot else. The book moves at a glacial pace, and when you get to the end of it, you'll discover that not much happened. There has been some progress in Fitz's attempt to form a group of Skill users to help the Prince, the kidnappers are eventually dealt with, and the Prince and his entourage begin a quest that will take them through the third book.
A large portion of the book is taken up with events from the Liveship Trader series of books, and the war between Bingtown and Chalced from those books. A delegation from Bingtown arrives to try and get the Queen to join their side, and there is much discussion of the different natures of dragons in this world (there appeared to be some incompatibility between the dragons in the original Farseer books and the Liveship Traders books...these incompatibilities are explained). Thus, there is much exposition explaining what happened in that series, ostensibly because only rumours and weird accounts have reached the ears of the Six Duchies. Again, this slows the book to a crawl, and I didn't see a lot of benefit to it, as the Bingtown people eventually disappear without much being done with them. It seems like such a waste, though I suppose this may be a setup for the next book.
The other problem with the book is that it's very depressing, as Fitz has nothing but relationship problems in the book. The relationship between him and The Fool (his best friend and a strange man who is more than he seems) takes a really sour turn. We do learn a lot about the Fool, but it comes at the expense of their relationship. Then there is his relationship with his foster son, Hap, and the trials and tribulations that come with that. There is Jinna, a hedge witch who he sleeps with but doesn't love, and thus feels awful about it. He and Chade argue quite often, even as Chade pushes him to not only teach the Prince the Skill, but himself as well. At times, the book seems to be nothing but arguments, and while many of them are dealt with eventually, they're tedious to read through.
The characters themselves are ok, but I don't like what was done with them. I've already detailed Fitz's problems, but there are others as well. The Fool, my favourite character in the previous book, doesn't do a whole lot in this one. He sulks a lot, helps Fitz out occasionally before their relationship goes sour, and is generally boring otherwise. I never thought I'd say that about this character. His connection to the Liveship Trader series is revealed, but never really explained. I would have appreciated either one or the other: either explain most of it, or don't reveal it. Instead, it's the worst of both worlds as we know the truth but we have no idea why it is the truth.
Fitz is a spy as well as an assassin, and he spends a lot of time observing things from secret tunnels. Thus, Hobb gets around the limitation of first person storytelling: you can only reveal the narrator's point of view. There are times where this doesn't feel natural, like it's only there so Hobb can tell us something is happening. He also spends a lot of time recovering from the only real action in the novel, and this tends to drag as well, again exposing another weakness of first-person: when the main character gets boring, you can't move on to somebody else.
It took me a couple of weeks to read this book, where the first one just took a few days. I never had the feeling that I couldn't put it down, or that I must pick it up and read more to see what's happening. I love the characters in this series, and I feel a lot of loyalty to them. I think that's the only reason I kept going. There is also a lot of potential, and the book ends with the beginning of an interesting-sounding quest. This one has the same feel that many other "second books" have, which is as a placeholder. Hopefully Hobb will rebound with the third and final book.