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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.

Once upon a time, a middle-aged associate professor called Knight, armoured only by his self-esteem, which was considerable, journeyed into a mountain wilderness to investigate rumours that a dragon was terrorising farmers, small shopkeepers and eco-tourists in the area.

I remember my dad trying to convince me that fantasy and superheroes were things one had to leave behind with childhood. What about the man who invented the telephone, he asked rhetorically. There was a real hero. Your writers of Tarzan and so forth were probably just lowly shoe salesmen who got lucky with selling their daydreams. This was a very dispiriting notion for me as a kid. Now thirty-something’s continue to indulge themselves in childish pursuits and primetime television schedules have been occupied by sf/fantasy extravagances. It seems the daydreamers won, but I suspect we have gone from one extreme to another.

Australian writer Jennifer Rowe’s collection of short ‘adult’, fairy tales straddles the balance between fantasy and reality. Each short tale describes lonely or foolish adults who maybe need a little magic in their lives. In this world stage magicians have actual magical powers that far outstrip sleight of hand trickery and handsome princes struggle with their sexuality.

My pick of the bunch is Curly Locks, a parable about how ignorance is bliss. A young woman, orphaned by a misdirected letter bomb, spends her days working and caring for her mysteriously disabled boyfriend. Then one day an act of kindness witnessed by a powerful mage causes her fortune to improve, although she never really questions it. The Magic Fish features, well, a magic goldfish and unfortunately a very forgetful one at that. Justin and the Troll shows how vitally important it is to listen carefully. Sadly ‘troll bridge’, sounds an awful lot like ‘toll bridge’.

Rowe carries off the conceit of sour adult lives requiring a small electric thrill to put them on the right path quite well. Known as a crime writer, she has written fairy tales for children under pseudonyms, including the popular Deltora Quest series as Emily Rodda. Fairy Tales for Grown Ups strikes a balance between her parallel careers, grim fairy tales with a jaunty sense of whimsy.

For Rowe the story begins after the ‘happily ever after’, when divorce and bitterness have set in. Several of the tales feature divorcees muddling their way through middle age. The stories are even set in the same world and some of the characters introduced to us in the preceding entries in this collection meet in the final short, Angela’s Mandrake. The hero of The Lonely Prince reminded me a little of Herbert, the effete son of the ambitious lord in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. A sensitive romantic maneuvered into a marriage that befits his father’s intentions instead of his own need for a partner. Rowe’s take on the situation is an amusing inversion of the traditional fairy tale, once again introducing a sense of farcical modernity into the proceedings. The Fat Wife has the abandoned first wife character trope meet a gentle, yet sexually rapacious genie, who knows just how to appreciate a woman scorned by a world that favours ‘size 8 models’.

As befits the best fairy tales, each of Rowe’s stories is written in a light and breezy, enjoyable yet also pleasantly forgettable. I mean that as a compliment. All the problems and ailments of these characters are rooted in issues of low self-esteem and the broad theme of the book seems to be that we should believe in ourselves a little more. Maybe allow a little bit of magic into our lives every now and then.

This is a pleasant treat to read on a slow Sunday afternoon.

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