Nevare Burvelle is the second son of a second son, destined from birth to carry a sword. The wealthy young noble will follow his father—newly made a lord by the King of Gernia—into the cavalry, training in the military arts at the elite King's Cavella Academy in the capital city of Old Thares. Bright and well-educated, an excellent horseman with an advantageous engagement, Nevare's future appears golden.
But as his Academy instruction progresses, Nevare begins to realize that the road before him is far from straight. The old aristocracy looks down on him as the son of a "new noble" and, unprepared for the political and social maneuvering of the deeply competitive school and city, the young man finds himself entangled in a web of injustice, discrimination, and foul play. In addition, he is disquieted by his unconventional girl-cousin Epiny—who challenges his heretofore unwavering world view—and by the bizarre dreams that haunt his nights.
For twenty years the King's cavalry has pushed across the grasslands, subduing and settling its nomads and claiming the territory in Gernia's name. Now they have driven as far as the Barrier Mountains, home to the Speck people, a quiet, forest-dwelling folk who retain the last vestiges of magic in a world that is rapidly becoming modernized. From childhood Nevare has been taught that the Specks are a primitive people to be pitied for their backward ways—and feared for their indigenous diseases, including the deadly Speck plague, which has ravaged the frontier towns and military outposts.
The Dark Evening brings the carnival to Old Thares, and with it an unknown magic, and the first Specks Nevare has ever seen . . .
Nevare Burvelle is the second son of the New Lord Burvelle of the East. Destined and trained from birth to be a soldier, it's all he knows. His one dream is to do his duty and be a good soldier. In this captivating tale of a world where honor, obedience and a thoughtless adherence to rules have prevailed for generations, Hobb (The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies) pits Nevare's beliefs against an unseen, unknown chaos that will transform his world. Nevare, through no fault of his own, becomes an agent of change and a pawn in the magical struggle of the Plainspeople against the hide-bound and selfishly destructive Gernians. Hobb excels at constructing worlds and people who are fully fleshed out. The pace is more leisurely than in previous books, but the build-up of suspense reverberates throughout the pages, pulling the reader relentlessly forward. Here is a master storyteller out to make a point and succeeding beautifully.
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What made this novel interesting to me is that the protagonist is unabashedly close-minded. He is raised to be a soldier and so he follows orders (militarily and, by extension, socially - what is "proper") without question. Robin Hobb does a great job, as always, of forging an emotional connection between reader and protagonist, but in this case I found myself wondering if I really agreed with the protagonist. Later in the book I found myself growing frustrated at times in accordance with the protagonist's feelings even though I conceptually agreed with the very person he was frustrated with (a more liberal person). Unfortunately, though I loved how this caused me to consider my own opinions more attentively, it was also the major downfall of the book - the protagonist fails to grow in any meaningful way. He reacts to things more or less the same near the end, and in fact I liked him much more at the beginning of the book. I suppose I must give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this was intentional to allow for further growth in the rest of the series, but unfortunately it left me feeling that our hero was a bit of an idiot by the end of this book.
Like an annoying itch
This is by far the worst Robin Hobb I've read. She tends to be repetitive and do way too much description of trivialities even at her best, and I've learned to just skip over the parts where she's telling us something for the third or tenth time. But she writes characters that you almost can't help but care about (though she also has a tendency to be very cruel to her main character), and tells stories that keep you enthralled. The other flaw in her writing is that the main character seems to experience an awful lot without learning of growing or developing from it, and I do get tired of them blaming themselves for absolutely everything in the world that goes wrong. But usually the story hangs together well enough, and the characters and the worlds she creates are interesting enough, that it's worth sticking with it anyway. More, her stuff is usually positively addictive. Which is why I bought this.
But this one was more just annoying. All the flaws in her writing were very prominent, the virtues less so. I mean, if you're going to write a coming-of-age story, the character really should develop and grow, learn from experience. Not just endure and slog along feeling bad about himself. The limitations of first person narrative contributed to the problems. The guy has dreams that he remembers well enough to tell us about in detail, then claims to forget all about when he wakes up. He has to forget about them in order for her to maintain his failure to learn without making him out to be a complete idiot (which he comes perilously close to at times as it is), and he has to remember them so he can tell them so the reader isn't completely in the dark--and she never resolves the dilemma.
So if you want to try her stuff, or just want some good science fiction/fantasy, skip this one. The Assassin's Apprentice series, or the Fool's Fate series, are much better.