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And so I came to Buckkeep, sole child and bastard of a man I’d never know. Prince Verity became King-in-Waiting and Prince Regal moved up a notch in the line of succession. If all I had ever done was to be born and discovered, I would have left a mark across all the land for all time. I grew up fatherless and motherless in a court where all recognized me as a catalyst. And a catalyst I became.

Earlier in the week I mentioned I had attended a filming of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. The topic of discussion was fantasy and Lev Grossman made the argument that the genre’s defining characteristic was big emotions. See this is something I have always had a problem with – fantasy writing does indeed feature expansive emotions (after all, the entire world is generally under threat from some dark lord or another), but the characters often do not reflect emotional depth.

Oh and another member of the panel, Jennifer Rowe recommended today’s book by Robin Hobb as an interesting entry point for readers looking for fantasy novels with genuine character development.

You know what? She was not wrong.

If this story was a fairy tale, it would start as follows. There once was a king so clever, his people knew him by the name of Shrewd. He had three sons. Chivalry, Verity and Regal – but only the two eldest sons had the same mother. By the time the third child was born of the new Queen, Desire was her name, the prophetic naming of the king’s children no longer worked. Regal was a cruel and over-ambitious princeling, envious of his siblings and eager to ascend to the throne. Then the day came when he discovered that the king-in-waiting Chivalry was not as chivalrous as his name after all and had fathered an illegitimate son on a commoner. Quickly his plot fell into place.

This is how the fable would be told. Hobb is far more interested in describing a world of real characters, real experiences, despite the fantastical setting.

Instead of the three princes vying for the kingship, the story is concerned primarily with Chivalry’s unlooked for heir. Dumped at the gates of a military post, he is brought to the capital of the Six Duchies, Buckkeep, shaming his father and forcing his abdication. The second son of King Shrewd, Verity, becomes the next in line to the throne and has a stable-hand raise the child. Known as ‘boy’, for as long as he can remember, Burrich as former man of Chivalry’s gives him the name of Fitz, another word for ‘bastard’. In his own plain-speaking manner he raises the boy to become useful at court, perhaps enough that people will forget that he in turn could one day succeed to the throne.

Fitz begins to develop an unusual affinity with animals, in particular dogs. He even comes to learn how to communicate with them, something which sends Burrich into a rage. Some at court would recognize such a talent as ‘the Wit’, which is said to transform men into beasts. He insists that Fitz hide his unusual nature, in order to protect himself from the duplicitous Royal.

All this court intrigue threatens to distract the leaders of the Six Duchies just when the cruel invaders from the Outislands, known as the Red-Ship Raiders, whose victims are left bestial and violent shadows of their former selves. The entire kingdom is on the brink of collapse and all the while young Fitz finds himself at the centre of a deadly race to the throne.

Jennifer Rowe was dead on the money. This book draws you in with incisive character detail, allows the reader to get the learn the world Fitz finds himself in along with him and even opens each chapter with a short historical note that adds to the worldbuilding. I also love how unobtrusive Hobb’s use of magic is. It is a subtly handled and left largely undefined until the latter half of the novel.

This is not your typical swords and sorcery fantasy tale. It is almost like a hybrid of Dune and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, more concerned with political intrigue. For that I love it and eagerly look forward to the rest of the series.

Strong characters, an involving plot and an innovative use of fantasy tropes.

“What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is all a matter of the intellect.”

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the filming of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club‘ at the ABC studios. The opening discussion focused on fantasy fiction. It was quite enjoyable to listen to writers debating the merits and possible disadvantages of books with elves, dragons and magic.

As interesting as all of this was, I have to say though I am sick of people discussing The Lord of the Rings exclusively when my favourite genre is the topic of discussion. Half a century has passed since that tome was published and much has happened since. No mention was made of New Worlds (which launched many a morally ambiguous fantasy novel), let alone the New Weird. One point that was made though, by Lev Grossman, was that fantasy and genre fiction in general have become more popular because they actually trade in plots – unlike novels that struggle with the literary heritage of Joyce and Woolf.

What a wonderful thing it is to read an entertaining page turner? Which brings me to today’s book, Agatha Christie’s classic ‘whodunnit’, Murder on the Orient Express.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is actually en route to England when he finds himself swept up in an unusual series of events. Firstly he is approached by a vulgar American businessman Mr. Ratchett while boarding a train from Istanbul. Poirot turns the man down, despite his claims that his life is in danger. Instead he concentrates on enjoying the train journey and observing his fellow guests. His friend Bouc, the director of the train company (and the means by which he was allocated a berth on this unusually packed train)  draws his attention to the extraordinary mixture of people on board. Hungarian aristocrats, an American widow, a German maid and an English nanny, numerous class distinctions and backgrounds arranged side by side in the small travelling compartments of the train. Then after one night when the Orient Express became delayed by large amount of snow in the ‘Jugo-Slavian’ countryside, Mr. Ratchett’s body, with a dozen stab wounds, is discovered in his room.

Bouc is desperate to save the reputation of his company and enlists his good friend the famous detective to investigate the crime. Poirot sets about interviewing all the guests in first and second class, as well as the staff. In his own irascible way, the detective indulges in his patented form of inquiry, baiting those who are reserved, placating and gaining the trust of the more alarmed travellers and generally remaining inscrutable despite the repeated pleas of Bouc to explain exactly what is happening.

Half of this book’s pleasure is seeing how Poirot unravels the mystery from such a morass of complicated relationships and air-tight alibis. What is more when the true identity of the murder victim is revealed, few can argue that he did not deserve to die. For Poirot, however, it is a question of intellect, a puzzle which requires his preceise attention.

This book is a delightful puzzle box, one which has a surprising theme underlying the action. What Christie has fashioned is an intelligent outsider’s perspective on America and its unique contemporary multicultural mix. The contrast inferred with sleepy Old Europe is wittily observed. In many senses the book is quite self-aware – often the characters scoff at how the events resemble a detective mystery from a cheap book – and ultimately resolves itself into a ‘whydunnit’, instead of a ‘whodunnit’.

A classic detective mystery with a surprisingly subversive streak.

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