The Willful Princess And The Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (book review).

Taken from the cover: ‘One of the darkest legends in the Realm of the Elderlings recounts the tale of the so-called Piebald Prince, a Witted pretender to the throne unseated by the actions of brave nobles so that the Farseer line could continue untainted. Now the truth behind the story is revealed through the account of Felicity, a low-born companion of the Princess Caution at Buckkeep.

The story is supposedly the inside scoop on the real Piebald Prince, written and narrated for posterity by Felicity, the servant and spurned lover of his mother, Princess Caution, and the person indirectly responsible for his downfall.


What Robin Hobb cleverly demonstrates with this ‘true’ account of the life of King Charger aka the Piebald Prince is that the victors almost always write the history books and cast themselves in the most favourable light.

In this case, Charger has been given the Richard III treatment. Both were disfigured, both had blotted their copybook somewhat in the whole, stabbing-up innocents department, but both were quite the best of a bad bunch, depending on whose faction you were with: the Skilled or the Witted.

There’s a lot being said in this story. It’s not just the re-telling of a legend, but a study of the socio-economic underpinnings of the setting and how they drive the characters’ actions. We see the world most clearly from the viewpoint of the ironically named Felicity. A low born servant, she does everything in her power to maintain her tenuous position in the royal household.

Felicity’s personal struggle and the terrible price she pays to hold onto what she thinks she has is echoed by those of her noble betters as they also battle and scheme to advance their causes. The two kinds of magic: the Wit and the Skill always at odds.

This is a world in which a mother and daughter of low birth are forced to live disingenuous and ultimately destructive and unfulfilling lives, serving ungrateful nobles in order to make something more of themselves than poor farmers’ wives.

Right from the start, you have a good sense of where the story is heading when the baby Princess Caution is not ‘sealed’ to her name as per the rite of naming with water, air and fire. You just know this princess is going to be anything but cautious.

Alas, Caution jarred with me, not in context of the story as she fulfils her role in that just fine. She’s just a little too predictable for my taste. There is one quite likable character, but in my opinion, that isn’t what this story is about.

It’s a story about stories: How they are created, how they are changed not only by retelling over time, but also how they are directly changed to fit the agendas of those telling them, in this case for political and personal reasons.

Hobb has created neat parallels in the story of the Piebald Prince: There’s the very personal tale of a poor, spurned lover, trying to survive in an unforgiving world and there are the grand, political machinations of Princes. Hobb weaves these contrasting threads together with great skill and brings the tale to a satisfying, if not exactly jolly, conclusion. She explores the relationship between truth and lies and propaganda with the added complication of two very different forms of magic that are used as the Casus Belli in a conflict that will continue down the centuries.

I wouldn’t recommend ‘The Willful Princess And The Piebald Prince’ as a first foray into Hobb’s ‘Realm Of The Elderlings’ works. It’s a snapshot best viewed in the context of the tale told as part of the background of ‘The Assassin Trilogy’. Fans of Hobb’s ‘Realm Of The Elderlings/Assassin’ books will, however, love this poignant insight into a piece of Six Duchies lore.

Karen Reay-Davies

KT Davies (@KTScribbles)

(pub: Subterranean Press. 184 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-544-4)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com
released: 28 February 2013

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