This review is going to be very vague in an attempt not to spoil the plot of this, the sixteenth book in Robin Hobb’s Realm Of The Elderlings series. However, any discussion of this book will inevitably reveal some things about the direction of the series as a whole, so if you haven’t read any of it, go away and pick up Assassin’s Apprentice now! If you’re read some but not all of the series, you might be interested in our thoughts on whether or not you need to read them all in order to appreciate this final volume.
As the culmination of a sixteen-book saga (whether or not the story will continue beyond this volume is uncertain) this book has a lot riding on its shoulders. I’ll be talking about it in much more detail in a spoileriffic look back at the whole series, so this will be a very brief collection of broad thoughts. Ultimately, if you come to this book with the question ‘Is this a satisfying end to this trilogy?’ the answer is: yes. If the question is ‘Is this a satisfying end to the Realm Of The Elderlings series as a whole?’ the answer is: mostly. The conclusion to the main story is exactly what it needed to be; conclusions to other plots and threads and sub-plots are a bit more open, but satisfying enough if this does turn out to be the end. I won’t say anything more about the specifics of the plot here, as to go much further than the elements already set up by the conclusion of the previous book would be to spoil something.
Like several of Hobb’s very long books, there are places here where the story drags a little. Early on, it appears several times that Bee’s situation is about to change, only for her to end up exactly where she was. Towards the middle of the book, all the main characters spend a long time on very long journeys in which everyone is having a fairly miserable time (par for the course with Hobb!) and this can start to strain the patience. However, once their destination is reached, the plot quickly picks up again. The big action climax then takes place more than a hundred pages from the end, allowing for a Lord Of The Rings-style lengthy wind-down which, given that this is the culmination of sixteen very long books, is more than deserved and thoroughly needed.
The characters remain as likeable and compelling as ever. Perhaps Fitz is still slightly more engaging as a narrator than Bee, but then, we’ve had much longer to come to love him. Meanwhile, Bee’s narrative is enhanced, as in the previous two books, by the occasional interjections from a very welcome old friend. The events of this book also have a huge impact on many characters from the Liveship Traders series, and while it can be frustrating not to experience these events from their points of view, it is still pleasant to read about them again and catch up with their stories.
Like any Robin Hobb book, this story will put you through the emotional wringer, and contains numerous references to torture, to unpleasant, lingering deaths, to sexual violence and, just occasionally, to people being eaten by dragons. It is, however, absolutely worth the ride, because in the midst of all the misery, Hobb writes characters we care about. It can be very easy, when writing this kind of grim-dark, violent, cynical fantasy to lose some reader sympathy because every character is so horrible, and nothing good ever happens to anyone. But Hobb knows how to balance light and dark; how to create characters who love, even in a mixed up world full of cruelty and hate, and how provide some good and some satisfaction rather than an unending stream of relentless misery. The book is sad, sometimes heart-breaking, and relationships are complex and often fraught, but ultimately it provides a satisfying and cathartic experience for the reader, rather than an endless descent into despair. A near-perfect end to the series if this is the end; but I for one am still left wanting more.