Most people, at some time or other, experience a subjective version of that solitude. It doesn't matter if they're surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers. Nor is it limited to depressed people or those whose friendships or romances fail (or fail to satisfy). I think everyone feels a little marooned now and then, for reasons they can't explain. At those times, ordinary things--drink or potato chips or skateboarding or work or Arcade Fire turned up to eleven—can become companions as much as habits. My shorthand for those choices is "finding a Wilson."
That's why I say that for me this winter, Robin Hobb's FitzChivalry Farseer audiobooks were my Wilson.
I am addicted to audio. It recalls to me the magic of being read to, the thrill of sitting in the dark around a campfire, transported by grand tales. So I've burned through dozens of fantasy and science fiction downloads lately. I've put many on the must-listen-again-someday list, stand-alones like Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Andy Weir's The Martian, series like Daniel Abraham's The Coin and The Dagger, James S.A. Corey's Expanse books, Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle, Peter F. Hamilton's Void trilogy.
But with Hobb's FitzChivalry audiobooks, it wasn't a matter of returning to them again someday. When I finished the seventh and last of them (for now--number two in the third trilogy will be available in August), I immediately started in on the series again. And I keep doing that. Every time I tell myself, Okay this re-listen is it, I have to move on… I don't. That's why I've come to think that right now, for whatever reason—there's really nothing I can point to—I've made these my Wilson. I listen to them as I walk, exercise, clean house, run errands, web surf, drift off to sleep. When I finish the last, I start over with the first. I don't tire of them. With each rerun, I remain rapt. I find more in them. Whatever else motivates me to stay in this groove, the truth is, the story is so detailed and complex that it keeps offering new rewards.
The first trilogy begins with Assassin's Apprentice, the story of Fitz, the bastard son of the King-in-Waiting of the Six Duchies. I was hooked from the opening scene, told from the perspective of a 5 year old unceremoniously dumped at the military compound of the father he's never met (and never will meet). Hobb creates immediate immersion in a richly rendered world of fascinating characters, human and animal, and their complicated relationships. Through a child's eyes, we see the tragedy of a Prince withdrawing in disgrace from the Court and the royal succession. As Fitz grows into adolescence, we watch that abdication mire him and the new King-in-Waiting in a grinding struggle to defend a war-ravaged coast and a castle rotten with intrigue. We follow Fitz as he secretly trains to become an assassin for the Crown: Royal bastards, he knows, don't live long unless they are both indispensable and unnoticed. But it's battering and frustrating work that, as often as not, leaves him bloodied and shamed. This deadly diplomacy is fascinating, expanding the books' world both literally and figuratively. But what made the series compelling for me was the relationships.
These are complicated by Fitz's magics. In the first novel, Assassin's Apprentice, he's shown to have two kinds. One, the ability to reach other minds with his own, is inherited from his father. It nearly costs him his life when jealous royals try to burn it out of him. Another, possibly from the mother he can't remember, allows him to communicate with and, more rarely, bond to animals. This "beast magic" is despised across the realm, and if his secret becomes known, he'll be gruesomely executed. Both magics create great hardship for Fitz even as they bring him obvious advantages. They also add depth to already well-drawn connections, including a very moving bond between Fitz and a wolf. (Animal lovers should not miss this series. The human-animal partnerships are as central as the best love interests in other books.)
The second book in the opening trilogy, Royal Assassin, showcases another unusual pairing as Fitz becomes more-than-friends with a not-quite-human court jester, the Fool. The twists and tragedies of their closeness are extraordinarily involving. I've never rooted so hard for a platonic couple. I felt the same way about Fitz's kinship with the men who raised him, the step-mother who didn't, and his uncle's bride. In fact, I cared about these with an intensity that far outshone my investment in the series' actual romance.
I liked the second trilogy in the series even better. In it, the alliance between Fitz and the Fool becomes so tender and tangled, by turns gratifying and agonizing, that I consider it the most captivating story I've encountered about love between men. Though the Fool might long for more than Fitz's orientation permits, that's not the basis of their tie. Exquisite characterization magnifies the nuances of their rapport and misunderstandings. Add to that the complications of children Fitz can't claim and love triangles that can't be put right, and Fool's Errand, Fool's Quest, and Fool's Fate create an emotional odyssey worthy of a story magnificent with mystery and magic and dragons. And The Fool's Assassin, the first book in Hobb's new trilogy about these characters, adds yet another painfully affecting relationship.
Even so, I ask myself why I haven't moved on from this fine series when I've managed it so easily with others. Maybe the cost to Fitz of the secrets he keeps, the isolation he experiences because of them, resonates with the crime novelist in me. Maybe as a single person past her prime, I appreciate the showcasing of love and bonds that don't involve or require romance. Maybe it's the beauty of Robin Hobb's prose, the joy I feel as a writer listening to descriptions and language that never misfire. Maybe I just love Fitz for surviving his own mistakes. Certainly the spellbinding narration by Paul Boehmer and James Langton plays a part. But some combination of story and theme and style makes me think, each time I finish the series, well, I'll just give these audios one more listen.
That's why I've come to see them as my Wilson. I have no idea why I need one, but no one (including myself) is asking me that question. So for now, I'm just grateful that FitzChivalry Farseer is here for me.