My Favourite Authors – Robin Hobb

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post ever since I started this blog series. I’m not sure I can convey what Robin Hobb means to me as an author. She’s my all-time favourite writer. She’s my greatest influence. Her stories pull me in and shake me up like no others. I have a circle of wonderful friends I wouldn’t have without her books. I’ve met her twice, and have five of her books signed. Her stories are magic… beyond compare in scope, depth, and intricacy.

And nothing about that paragraph does justice to how I feel about her work. The only way I know to share that feeling is to get people to read her books. But I started this blog series knowing she was top of the list… so here goes.

I received Assassin’s Apprentice from my best friend for my 18th birthday. I’d never heard of Robin Hobb, and my friend hadn’t read the book either – she was drawn in by John Howe’s stunning cover art, which turned out to be the best example ever of why you should sometimes judge a book by its cover:

Robin Hobb - Assassin's Apprentice Cover.jpg

That little paperback remains one of the best presents I have ever received. Not only because the story it begins is the greatest rollercoaster ride I’ve ever been on, but also because of all the paths that opened up as a result. Amazing, lifelong friends. Fellow writers with whom I began my writing adventure. Places I’ve visited. People I’ve met. Spectacular memories. All of which stemmed from a birthday gift (admittedly, from one of the people who knows me best in all the world).

Robin Hobb’s books are addictive beyond measure. Her prose is supremely elegant – beautifully wrought without being the least pretentious. Her ideas and the massive scope of the worlds she weaves provide an intricate playing board for her characters. And such characters…

FitzChivalry Farseer isn’t just my favourite novel character ever. He’s almost a friend. In any other context, that would sound more than a little weird. But Fitz’s first-person viewpoint is so consuming, so intimate, so unflinching, that you can’t help but know the man, inside and out. Over the course of eight (soon to be nine) long books, his detailed narrative has got into my head like no other. I see the world through Fitz’s eyes in a way no other first-person narrative has ever managed to convey. It’s the depth, it’s the magnificent crafting of character, it’s Hobb’s superlative writing.

Fitz’s relationships, particularly with the Fool, are what carry the story forward. Yes, there’s war and political strife and evil baddies. There’s magic, subtle but crucial to the world and plot. There’s upheaval at every turn. But the relationships Fitz forms along the way are the real hooks. They enable Fitz to shine even as they highlight his copious flaws. They’re wracked with intrigue and wonder and terrible heartbreak. They’re why I come back to these books again and again.

Of course, the Farseer, Tawny Man, and Fitz and the Fool trilogies are only part of Hobb’s magnificent Realm of the Elderlings. The Liveship Traders books are like a fine tapestry of complex characters and epic worldbuilding. The Rain Wild Chronicles build further on this and add consequences and ever more layers to this rich universe. There are so many threads and so much detail, and all along there’s the feeling that Hobb is working some amazing magic trick as everything slowly comes together to form an immense picture. It’s glorious. Unputdownable. The definition of immersive.

Then there’s the Soldier Son trilogy. And The Inheritance, Hobb’s collection of short stories. And all of her wonderful books written as Megan Lindholm. Her stories are an absolute treasure trove of gems waiting to inspire.

This is how fantasy should be done. These books are what the supercilious detractors of fantasy need to read in order to grasp what the rest of us are raving about. These books are why I read. When I’m not having this experience through reading Robin Hobb, I’m reading something else in the hope that it might come close. It rarely does.

Hobb is where my heart is.

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My Favourite Authors – Alan Garner

I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of starting a new series of posts devoted to my favourite authors. There are a few writers whose work I turn to over and over, and who’ve all been huge influences on my own writing. I’ve recently been reading new work (well, new to me…) by a couple of them, so it seemed like a good time to try this out.

I’ll start with Alan Garner.

But where to start…? This man has had such an impact on my life and my writing. He’s really the perfect writer to begin with, as he’s one of the first authors I ever fell for. His award-winning book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, must have been the first fantasy novel I ever read. It’s certainly the novel I’ve read the most. I was probably about six years old when I first read this book, and at the time, I may have been too young to appreciate it. I remember enjoying the story, but it wasn’t until I re-read it several years later that I really fell in love with it. It’s a love affair that’s lasted my entire life. I’ve read it dozens of times, to the point where my old battered copy is incredibly fragile and has to be handled with great care. I can’t bring myself to upgrade it to a new edition. It’s a book that I had to read at least once a year during my childhood, and it’s one of those rare childhood reads that stands the test of adulthood. I read it again quite recently, and found it as engaging and mesmerising as ever. It’s a fantasy story involving children, but it isn’t the least bit childish. It deals with some dark, heavy stuff, and contains the most visceral, claustrophobic scene I’ve ever come across. You’ll never go potholing after reading this book.

Weirdstone of Brisingamen.jpg

It isn’t just that Weirdstone is a superb story (which it is). It’s Alan Garner’s characteristic writing style that makes it so enduring. He is a genius at creating atmosphere. I can’t think of another author who manages to create such an all-encompassing, beautiful, unsettling, sense of being within a story. You’re not just in Alan Garner’s books while reading them; they’re in you. And around you. All good writers wrap you up in their stories, but Garner is a cut above. He completely immerses your senses. And he does it in the most simple, minimalist way.

I’d go as far as to say he’s a minimalist writer. Some of his books demonstrate this more than others, particularly his books for adults. He’s very sparing in description and visual cues. He creates his atmosphere through emotion, and above all, landscape. All of Alan Garner’s books evoke the landscape he sets them in, which is usually his native Cheshire. Landscape is almost a separate character in many of his stories, none more so than Weirdstone. I can’t hear of Alderley Edge without getting a little thrill up my spine. I’ve just finished reading Thursbitch, one of his adult novels, and it’s almost entirely devoted to the landscape. That’s what it’s about. The characters are almost secondary. Yet it’s an amazing, immersive, surreal story that says a huge amount using very few words.

When I was in my teens, I made it my mission to seek out every Alan Garner book the library could supply, and I devoured them all. The Moon of Gomrath (sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) freaked me the hell out and left me frightened of my shadow for days. I re-read it recently, and although it didn’t scare me quite so much, it still contains one of the most spine-tingling scenes I’ve ever read. Elidor immersed me in the possibilities of worlds beyond our own, The Owl Service was dark and magic and consuming, and Red Shift introduced me to Garner’s trademark minimalism and his recurring themes of parallel existence.

When I need to pare my writing back, I turn to Alan Garner. When I need to immerse myself in dark alternate realities in order to spark that brooding sense of other, I turn to Alan Garner. When I need to feel the power and magic that landscape can impart to a story, I turn to Alan Garner. He was my favourite writer when I was ten, and he’s remained one of my all-time favourite writers to this day.

His work evokes such a unique sense. His stories are richly imagined and vary greatly, but they all have a feeling of connection. Nobody else tells a story the way he tells them, and nobody else’s stories feel like his. It his Garnerishness that I love so much. And the only way to impart what that means is to read one of his books.

Read several.

Read them all.