Shaman’s Crossing, the first in Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy, left us with Nevare having survived the Speck plague outbreak at the Academy and looking forward to getting his life back on track, blissfully unaware that, as a character in a Robin Hobb book, being bullied and surviving the plague is the least of his troubles. Forest Mage takes all of Nevare’s hopes, dreams, loved ones and the life he’s been building and torches them all, dragging him down to a bottomless pit of despair and sending me into nihilistic furies where I wish a slow and painful death to everyone and hope for the utter destruction of Gernia.
Following his brush with plague, instead of becoming a skeletal shadow of his former self like the other affected cadets, Nevare is piling on the pounds. So much so that he’s no longer fit for military service, discharged from the Academy and sent back to his family with his tail between his legs. But instead of a warm welcome home, Nevare is viewed with contempt and disgust by all who supposedly love him, humiliated by his fiancé, and abused by his family who all refuse to believe that his continual weight gain could have been caused by the plague, preferring instead to think that he’s a greedy slob who deserves nothing but cruelty for daring to have become fat. As the scales fall away from his eyes and reveal the true characters of those he’d loved and respected, the Speck magic that has transformed his body also ensures that he doesn’t stay put by sending another bout of plague that will cut the ties that bind him to his home.
Disowned and downtrodden, Nevare seeks to survive and try to take up some semblance of his old life by enlisting under a new name in a far outpost of Gernia, Gettys – the place where the King’s road meets the ancient forest of the Specks, where their magic is trying to end the incursion of the Gernians into their sacred spaces and where it once again lays waste to the life, pitiful as it may be, that Nevare is trying to build for himself.
Almost unrelentingly bleak, Forest Mage suffers slightly for being the second in the trilogy and therefore not having much of a resolution, while also benefitting from taking the surprising turn that stripped away any preconceived notions I had as to what kind of story it would turn out to be. I appreciate the fact that, instead of making life easier, the magic in these books comes with a hefty price, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Nevare will change over the next book, hopefully casting off the passivity that he’s displayed until now and taking a far more active role in destroying Gernia (it turns out that I’m nowhere near as forgiving as Nevare. I’d rather he burn the entire country to the ground and eat every last motherfucker in it than find a peaceful resolution). One can only hope…