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.


Highlights of the Year

So, I’m shamelessly stealing this idea from Emma Osborne, who shamelessly stole it from Chuck Wendig. Perhaps ‘stealing’ is the wrong word. Sharing! Sharing is better, and it’s not like they don’t get to keep the idea just because I’m using it too. That would be stealing. Which this isn’t. Feel free to share it amongst yourselves!

1. Favourite novel of the year?

Without a doubt, Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. Not only was I anticipating it more than I’ve ever anticipated any book release in history, it also delivered everything I hoped it would and more. I adore Robin Hobb. I adore Fitz and the Fool. This book was like catching up with much-missed old friends, and even though it was also heartbreaking and painful, it was a beautiful, incredibly fulfilling read. I cannot wait for the next installment.

2. Favourite non-fiction book of the year?

Hmm. Usually I have several non-fiction books on my list in any given year, but this year I only seem to have read one. So I guess it’ll have to be my favourite by default. I finally got around to reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which if I’m totally honest was never that high on my list. But it was a worthwhile read. I enjoyed its philosophical nature, even if it didn’t really impart anything that I hadn’t considered extensively before, having experienced (and moved away from) a heavily religious upbringing myself. I’ve never like Dawkins’ tendency towards snide pomposity, and there were moments of it in the book that did get on my nerves, although admittedly he kept it under wraps for the most part. While I don’t buy into his brand of atheism, and I didn’t find the book particularly enlightening (it may be more eye-opening for those without religious backgrounds), I did enjoy its thought-provoking nature.

3. Favourite short story of the year?

I’ve read a lot of short stories this year. Possibly more than ever before. I’ve been working my way through the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft, for a start, and thoroughly enjoying many of his shorts. I’ve read quite a few short story mags cover to cover. I’ve critiqued a lot of stories for fellow writers (some of which have been amazing). I’ve been reading a lot of online fiction and just generally soaking up as much short story creativity as possible. So it’s really hard to pick one single story that stands out.

But there is one that’s stuck with me: The Ghost Wife of Arlington, by Marilyn Guttridge. I loved it when I first read it, and its atmosphere has stayed with me. It’s beautiful, and disturbing, and completely engrossing. It may only be available in Writers of the Future Vol. 29, which is where I read it, but it’s worth seeking out if you get the chance.

4. Favourite movie of the year?

Ooh, tough one. It’d be a close call between Another Earth, Cloud Atlas, and Her. All (unsurprisingly) sci-fi, but all very different films. Overall, though, I think I’ll have to go with Cloud Atlas. Amazing, mesmerising, beautiful film. If I could only see one of these three movies again, it’d be this one. I love non-linear narratives and stories with colossal scope.

5. Favourite TV show of the year?

Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad. I only discovered it this year, and devoured the entire thing from start to finish. It’s spoiled all the year’s other TV shows. They pale in comparison. Incredible television, magnificent storytelling, and the best character arc I have ever seen. Brilliant.

6. Favourite song of the year?

It’s not a new song, but I first heard ‘Mirrorball’ by Elbow earlier this year, and fell head over heels in love with it. It’s so gorgeous. High amongst Elbow’s collection of magnificent songs, IMO:

7. Favourite album of the year?

‘Ghost Stories’ by Coldplay. An ethereal, magical collection of songs, and one of those rare albums that just blends perfectly.

8. Favourite video game of the year?

Er, does Scrabble count? Then Scrabble.

9. Favourite app of the year?

Not very exciting, but ‘Tides Near Me’ is the app I’ve found most useful this year. Essential when you live on the coast and want to time beach dog walks etc. Can I switch copious autumn mud for nice dry sand today? *checks app* Why, yes. It was low tide 45 minutes ago, so still plenty of beach. Thank you, handy tidal app.

10. Favourite (something else) of the year?

That’ll have to be Loncon. Not only did I get to spend a weekend hanging out with my best mate, who I don’t see nearly often enough, I also got to spend it geeking out in spectacular fashion. I met up with some other close pals I hadn’t seen in ages, I met/saw/got books signed by three of my very favourite authors, and I got to hold one of these:

Giant Prickly Stick

Image courtesy of Flickr – Houston Museum of Natural Science

I love roundups like this. Go on, share your favourites of the year.

Tumbleweeds, Conventions, and Progress

There are tumbleweeds taking up residence on my blog. They’re making the place untidy. It’s time I swept them away, or used them as kindling, or whatever it is you do with tumbleweeds.


Well, thank you, Internet. It turns out you can eat them. Tumbleweeds and Bacon. Mmm. Apparently, they also sell on eBay. Wow – these ones are ‘free range’, according to the listing. Ethical tumbleweed purchase! You definitely don’t want the factory farmed ones. Those babies need to roam free.

So now that I’ve kindled a nice fire over which to cook my tumbleweeds and bacon while listing the rest on eBay, I’d better fill this now-tidy space with something. August was a great month. I went to Loncon, which was every bit as geeky and massive and awe-inspiring and exhausting (in a good way) as I’d expected. I loved every minute, and met up with some great friends I haven’t seen in ages. I had a truly spectacular time, and wish I could go back whenever I feel like it. Sigh.

Writing-wise, I made my first pro sale (woo!), finally finished revisions on a story I’ve been dawdling over for ages, and got back to my much-neglected novel, which feels like it’s picking up again at last. I submitted five times, received six rejections, and am currently waiting to hear on five stories (not necessarily those five August submissions). I also heard that my story, ‘Rule of Five’ (there’s a pattern forming here…), is scheduled to appear in Pseudopod in November, and that ‘Rift’, my flash piece that appeared in Plasma Frequency last year, was top of its issue’s poll to be included in their Year Two anthology. Exciting! Voting’s open until the 16th of September, so if you’ve read and enjoyed any of Plasma Frequency‘s issues over the last year, you might want to consider voting here.

I also read the superb and much-anticipated Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb, which was every bit as excellent as I’d hoped it would be. I’m in awe of Robin Hobb. Her writing astounds and never fails to inspire me. Her books are magnificently crafted stories and serious emotional rollercoasters. I don’t want to wait a year for the next instalment!

If September has half as many gems to offer, I’ll be thrilled. Ack – better go, the tumbleweeds are simmering to a pulp.


Friends Forever

Relationships are the basis for most stories. Whether it’s family ties, a love interest, a beloved animal, bonds of companionship, or the protagonist’s relationship with the antagonist, the theme of how characters relate to one another is a crucial element. A story with no relationships is like an omelette without eggs.

For me, the most compelling relationships in stories are friendships. Maybe it’s because close friendships have always played a pivotal role in my own life, but there’s something about a firm bond between characters that makes me root for them all the more. Most of my favourite works of fiction have close friendships at their centres. Fitz and the Fool. Frodo and Sam. Holmes and Watson. Locke and Jean. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Sara and Becky. The Doctor and his companions. Lyra and Will. Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The list could go on and on, and I’ll probably think of several more after I’ve posted this. (Double points for anyone who knows all those references…)

Friendships play an important role in my own writing, although I think that’s more true of my novel-length pieces than short stories. There’s less time to develop relationships in a short story, and friendships are complex, nuanced things. It takes space to show the depth, history, and loyalty between two (or more) characters. Frodo and Sam’s friendship would have a lot less meaning were it condensed into 5000 words. I’m not even sure you could scratch the surface of Fitz and the Fool in that space. In fact, all but one of the examples above come from multiple-book series (if you count The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy) or lengthy television franchises. Maybe it needs to take that long to develop a meaningful bond between characters. Something you can care about, cry about, pile all of your hopes into. Friendships are what get us through the tough times. In fiction, friendships are often what get characters through the final hurdle. It’s about the strong characters being able to rely on others and the steadfast loyal characters being there regardless of what the protagonist is about to face.

Maybe I’m a sap, but that stuff inspires me like little else. When it comes down to it, that’s surely what’s really important in life. Is that why it’s such an enduring theme in good storytelling?

Emotional Resonance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connection between fiction and emotion. It seems that really, when you peel back all the layers of style and genre and character and plot, the main reason we read is to feel something. To feel something that we don’t necessarily feel in our everyday lives, or to feel something that we wouldn’t want to feel in our everyday lives, but enjoy experiencing through the safe medium of fiction. The horror genre is one I’ve never really understood, because I don’t consider fear an enjoyable feeling. (There’s an irony in the fact that my first published fiction piece fits the label of psychological horror… I didn’t set out to write a scary story, but it sort of evolved that way.) But then I realised that sadness, anxiety, disappointment, shock and anger aren’t enjoyable feelings either, yet I love a story that immerses me in those emotions.

I think horror bothers me because fear isn’t an emotion that I want to be left with when I walk away from the story. I do get immersed in good fiction. It stays with me, and I’m not great at separating fiction-induced feelings from reality-induced ones (is there even a difference?). So a scary movie will make me jumpy and nervous for a while afterwards, despite my rational mind’s protestations, and I hate that. But a sad story can have the same effect, and I don’t mind it nearly as much. Perhaps that’s connected to the fact that a good cry is therapeutic… I don’t know. Maybe there’s no rational reason for my preferences.

But I do want stories that make me feel. Stories that immerse me in wonder, joy, love or hilarity. Stories that leave me reeling, pull the rug out from under me, tear my heart out. It’s no coincidence that my favourite book is one that wrecks me every time I read it. (Fool’s Fate by Robin Hobb, if you’re interested.) Fiction that lacks emotion is fiction that often falls flat. The writing might be superb, it might have a killer hook and watertight plot, it might have a fabulous setting, but if I don’t feel anything for the characters and their situation, it’s missing a crucial element.

I’m not sure why this isn’t discussed more in writing circles. There’s a mass of advice on plot construction, character development, world building, dialogue structure, pitfalls to avoid, voice, style, grammar, word choice, editing techniques, first sentences, last sentences, how much to write in a day, what time of day to write, whether or not to wear your lucky socks, writing with the door closed or open?, etc, etc, ad infinitum. But I don’t think I’ve ever read any advice on the importance of packing an emotional punch and how best to achieve that. (I’m sure someone will find me just such an article and link it now, but I’ve yet to come across it.) Maybe it’s not something you can describe or teach. Maybe you just have to find it on your own. Some writers are certainly better at it than others.

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s TV drama of Ken Follett’s World Without End, which I read when it came out a few years ago. I really like Ken Follett’s books. He may not be the world’s greatest writer, but he’s a magnificent storyteller. He writes superb characters and creates some of the most loathsome antagonists you’ll ever read. I’ve read his books with a constant feeling of sickening doom as the baddies continually manipulate their way through and destroy good people along the way (things always turn out right in the end, but he doesn’t half put everyone through the wringer first). I was watching the latest episodes the other night and it struck me that one of the reasons his stories are so good is purely because of that intense emotional punch. It’s painful watching Prior Godwyn lie, cheat, and worm his way into power – literally destroying lives along the way – but somehow that pain and dread keeps you hooked. And when good things finally happen to the good people, the payoff is that much bigger because of all the hardship and bitter disappointment on the way.

Is that the key? The full spectrum of emotion? Horror stories always start with everything all bright and lovely, just so they can tear it all away. If it was horrible at the beginning, what happened to the characters wouldn’t matter nearly as much. Character transformation occurs through conflict which forges the characters into a new mindset or situation. Conflict equals pain. Pain brings a whole flood of emotions you can draw on as a writer and experience as a reader. And overcoming that pain brings an entire set of opposing emotions that make the whole story worthwhile.

It’s that emotional rollercoaster that I revel in as a reader and a writer. I’m disappointed in a story that doesn’t make me feel anything. And it can’t just be me… can it?