This morning, I read Robin Hobb's The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince. The text expands upon a narrative thread referenced (among others) in one of the commentaries that Hobb uses to introduce chapters in her Six Duchies novels--in this case, an excerpt from the "Legend of the Piebald Prince" (Royal 641-42). In doing so, The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince does seem to engage in a bit of a temporal paradox, but even so, it offers an entertaining and well written story that offers a useful glimpse of the implied history of the Six Duchies.
That the tale suggests its narrator is somehow aware of future events is noted fairly early in the novella. The narrator remarks on the name of a character: "His name was Lostler. Now some will say that his name was Sly, and some will even call him Sly o' the Wit when they sing of him. I never heard him called by such a name" (38-39). The name is the same by which the character is referenced in the "Legend," and while it is true that the perceptions of names change over time (as Hobb addresses elsewhere in her Six Duchies corpus), the change seems a bit too rapid to be described as taking place within the frame of the novella. The narrator reports events she witnessed, marking the shift as taking place within living memory--and the change from "Lostler" to "Sly" is a bit much for one or two generations of speakers to make. It suggests, rather, a bit of narrative slippage, and one consonant with the awareness of future time the Willful narrator exhibits from the beginning of the text (9).
Even so, Hobb writes an excellent story, one well worth the short time taken to read it (my copy offers less than 175 pages of text, and that in a large and easily-read print). The narrative voice is again in the first-person retrospective that typifies much of Hobb's corpus, a humanizing gesture that does much to foster willing suspension of disbelief. The suspension is further eased by the ample establishment of the narrator's particular authority to discuss the matter; the repeated insistence on providing a true and faithful account is one likely to ring true for early twenty-first century readers who are themselves concerned with offering what may be taken as authoritative assertions of personal and historical authenticity.
In addition, Hobb continues to work in The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince to present whole, detailed characters, rather than the flat archetypes too frequently present in fantasy literature. Each of the prime actors in the text is possessed of sensible motivations, qualities that are themselves virtuous, and all too human flaws that render those virtues far less at times. In brief, those in the text read as people, rather than as mere characters or caricatures; there is an evident sense of history and doings unseen in the narrative yet present and relevant somehow to the main story presented in the text. It is quite compelling.
Of particular note to me is that the text avoids a flaw I have unfortunately had to point out in some of Hobb's other work. Although the novella is rather short, it does not feel unduly rushed. The denouement is brief, yes, but its brevity makes sense, in terms both of form and of content. It is swift but not frenetic, which I appreciate greatly. And if it is the case that a particular plot point at the end of the book is fairly common, it is one that is foreshadowed within the text itself and in some of the comments in earlier volumes of the Six Duchies works, so that it feels and organic part of the text rather than something forced into it.
Also, Hobb again manages to address social issues in the work. Queer studies will have something to say about The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince no less than other works in the Six Duchies milieu, as will gender studies. Marxist criticism is likely to be particularly applicable to the text, as well. The question of what certain major threads of the Six Duchies milieu signify is also further complicated by the text, so that my own work with Hobb's corpus will find more to do--and I appreciate having tasks to which to turn my mind.
~Hobb, Robin. Royal Assassin. New York: Bantam, 1997. Print.
~---. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince. Illus. Jon Foster. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2013. Print.