(Original Review, 2012)
Hobb seems to have declined over the years. “The Farseer” and “The Liveship Traders” were spectacular, despite a certain amount of padding; Tawny Man a bit more shapeless (the Piebald plot abruptly falls by the wayside after the confrontation midway through book 2).
“The Soldier Son” (in a new universe) started well, despite some obvious recycling (most fathers in Hobb's fiction are either unloving or dead/absent, and the dad here is no exception; meanwhile the uncle is an obvious recycling of Verity-Fitz), but the abrupt lurch at the beginning of the second book suggests some serious plot rethinking took place midway through the writing process...and that second book is god-awful (main character has all the self-pity of Fitz without any of the appeal, all those scenes of him stuffing his face, the fact that nothing happens, most engaging character of the series - Patience/Luna Lovegood-esque Epiny - off-stage for most of it), and the third not much better - the culminating scene, when he gets the deathbed letter from his father, was distinctly uncomfortable to read.
Since returning to the Realm of the Elderlings, there seems to have been some improvement - the four Dragon novels were okay, though a bit simplistic compared to the older stuff (limited political intrigue, mostly cardboard cutout characters, no real sense of uncertainty - there's never any doubt the dragons will mature, or the group will reach the city of the Elderlings, or that the group will fail). It was nice to see a bit more of the Elderling city though - it was clear she'd been sitting on her ideas about that for years, and the scenes there felt much more vivid than the scenes on the river.
I remember going to a writers' festival in London back in the day as I attending the British Council, at which one of the topics up for debate was 'Fantasy: A Dying Genre'. The case put by those in favour of the proposition was that fantasy was collapsing in a surfeit of cliché - including, but not limited to, 'elves and dwarves, orcs and goblins, questing heroes and two-dimensional female characters,' as I like to put it. Anyway, there was a successful fantasy author on the panel - it would be unfair to name her (*) - who, at one point, stood up and proclaimed: 'It is perfectly possible to write fantasy without slipping back into any of the old conventions, as I think I have demonstrated in my new trilogy.'
I still dig that one out every once in a while, when I feel that I need a good laugh.
(*) Can't resist: Robin Hobb.