This isn't the first time I've talked about Robin Hobb here, and it probably won't be the last, but before you read this series, you need to go and read The Farseer Trilogy (Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin and Assassin's Quest) as this follows the events and some of the characters we met there. Go on, I'll wait....
Done? Good. Now go and get yourself a box of tissues. Also, consider this a warning - mild spoilers will abound...
So when Prince Dutiful (heir of Verity and, kinda, Fitz) goes missing before his betrothal to an Outislander narcheska, there's more than just the uneasy truce between those previously warring lands to consider - the Prince is rumoured in certain quarters to be Witted, and may have become a unwitting tool to be used against the Farseer line.
Heralding a welcome return for my two favourite characters - Nighteyes and The Fool - this was just as engrossing as the previous series, and perhaps even more bittersweet. Hobb never hurries to tell her story, but lets it unfold at its own pace and gives us enough time with her characters for us to feel they're more intimate acquaintances than figures from a book. Once again I found myself hollering at people, or wanting to jump into the pages to either protect or (especially in the case of Starling) smack them in their nasty mouths. This time spent with our characters also let my sense of foreboding grow in regard to Nighteyes (though he would have hated my stealing his 'now' with worries of what was to come) and by the time we reached the inevitable I'd become something of a watery-eyed emotional wreck.
The Wit remains for me one of the strongest points within this series, and I loved the different voices given to various animals, all with their own distinct identities and thought processes that seemed true to them rather than as humans cloaked in fur (the amusingly arrogant Fennel reminded me of my own cat).
With Fitz, as Tom, now drawn back into the life and intrigue of the Six Duchies, I had to dive straight in to the next book.
Prince Dutiful has been returned to Buckkeep in time to meet his potential future wife, Elliania - an imperious young girl from the Out Islands - along with her entourage. Fitz as Tom is struggling to get used to life without Nighteyes, while being pressured to become Dutiful's tutor in the Skill and trying to protect Nettle from being called into his service. A delegation has arrived from Bingtown, needing an alliance against Chalced and help raising Tintaglia's fledgling dragons, and the Queen is struggling to stop the persecution of the Witted within her realms as the Piebalds try to stir up further resentment of the Farseers from within their ranks. And to make thing worse, Fitz is busy alienating those around him - and none more so than The Fool, which makes me want to jump into the book and slap him silly.
Containing a ton of action, a wealth of emotion, and enough tantalising and yet terrifying hints as to what might be coming next, I both can't wait and dread getting stuck in to the last in this series.
Still serving the Farseers, albeit in his guise of Tom Badgerlock, Fitz leaves Buckkeep to join Prince Dutiful's betrothal quest to behead the dragon Icefyre - a quest that turns out to be rather unpopular with the rest of the Outislanders, adding another worry to Fitz's already huge burden along with the nursing of Thick (who's really not a fan of sea journeys and is making Fitz pay for dragging him on one) keeping an eye on Swift, Burrich's Witted son (whom he's sworn to protect) and dealing with his betrayal of the Fool in an effort to protect him from his fate.
Hobb continues to excel at buidling and developing her world, tying together things that have happened in past series as well as adding new angles from which her world and characters can be seen, letting them grow in new and sometimes surprising ways. Her attention to detail carries over into the characters' relationships, and I'm hard pressed to think of any world I'm quite as emotionally invested in as this. And while she tends to like making things bleaker and bleaker at every step (this instalment was no slouch in that department) she still manages to somehow pull you back from the brink by the end, wrapping the story up with a satisfying, if bittersweet, end.
If I've got any quibbles they're with myself rather than the books - as noted above, I am ridiculously emotionally invested in these characters, to the point that I've found myself nearly overwhelmed with depression during some of their hardest times. This time around I nearly scurried back to the doctors for better antidepressants until I realised that my depression had lifted a few hours after finishing....oops!