Magic Wants to Be Fed: Cooking the Books with Robin Hobb

A few years old now, but I only just found it. It’s an interview by Fran Wilde with one of my favourite authors, Robin Hobb, on the use of food in her fantasy worlds. If you’ve not yet discovered her books, I recommend them highly.

Fran Wilde

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This summer, I met Robin Hobb at Loncon3. We were both on a great food politics panel and she is as lovely and charming in person as you can imagine. When I asked her later if she’d join Cooking the Books for an interview, I knew my chances were slim, given that she’s hard at work on the new book – but she said yes. Everyone wins!

Robin is the bestselling author of short stories, books, and fantasy series including the Farseer trilogy, The Liveship Traders trilogy, and The Fitz and the Fool trilogy. Knowing that Robin has many loyal fans, I offered the lovely folks at reddit/fantasy a chance to join me in interviewing her. What follows are her fantastic answers to the questions we put together — please join me in welcoming Robin Hobb to the November Cooking the Books!

CTB: From the…

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Cautionary Entertainment

handmaids tale

I’ve read a bit of Margaret Atwood in the past but somehow never The Handmaid’s Tale. Bit strange really as I love Sci-Fi and love dystopian tales even more and Handmaid is often touted as a cult feminist classic in those genres. I’m not sure how I avoided it for so long other than what I have read of Atwood’s hadn’t really grabbed me.

Offered a choice of books from a big box a colleague had acquired, I found The Handmaid’s Tale lurking so nabbed it quick and couldn’t wait to start it. The TV adaptation was floating about and I had planned to save it for the Christmas break and binge watch it. I always prefer to read the book first before watching a movie or TV adaptation so was stoked to find the book.

I enjoyed the first half of the book. It was a slow read, one to savour, because the prose is lyrical and a tad dense. I dipped in and out and took my time absorbing the world of Offred, the shocking nature of the sudden, violent changes she’s endured.

The explanations of how these changes came about are shown in flashback. Offred isn’t an entirely reliable narrator. Sometimes, she tells you stuff and then closes by saying that it never really happened. Her narrative is fractured, perhaps intentionally given all she’s undergone. To survive such catastrophe, the mind would find its ways to cope, maybe this was a reflection of hers.

By the middle of the book, I was struggling. I put it down for two weeks and forced myself to pick it up again and skip-hopped my way to a very ambiguous end that didn’t answer much at all about her future.

Attwood is a highly regarded author and successful, so who am I to criticise when I’m only just starting out with trying to get published and no idea if I’ll make it. But I was disappointed in the book, in the lack of characterisation, the dearth of information about why the world went the way it did. Given the heavy style of narrative voice, it feels the book should have been shorter somehow to be more effective.

I was too busy over Christmas to binge watch anything but I’m finally getting to watch the TV series. This is one of those rare times that I have to say the screen adaptation far surpasses the novel. The visuals are stunning, the acting by all the female cast stellar, the sets and costumes sumptuous and the world building visceral and horrific.

There’s more knowledge of how things changed in Offred’s world. Sometimes, these changes are happening in the background to the main action so you have to pay attention to what’s going on behind the action, especially in Offred and Moira’s scenes. I liked how this panned out because in the story Offred and Moira are missing the clues too and are caught out by the speed of the changes, even though the signs were there had they known to look for them.

Much has been made of the timing of the adaptation. Arguments over a woman’s rights to her body are high in the news: fetal abortion, rape clauses, the MeToo campaign, gender pay gaps, high profile, sexual misconduct scandals in both the UK and USA makes the cruel, misogynistic world of Gilead seem less improbable than it might have a few years back.

It’s being touted as a cautionary tale, a warning to women everywhere not to take anything for granted and to remember how hard-won our rights were not so many years ago. The Handmaid’s distinctive garments and cap have been used by some women during protests across the world. This is a  striking use of imagery. Women, clad in white and scarlet, often standing silent or with backs turned to represent their unheard voices.

I’m only on episode 4 of the TV series. It’s labelled as Season 1. I can’t help wondering if it will end as ambiguously as the book and whether there may be a Season 2 to take the world beyond its author’s imagining.

I’m off to google what Atwood makes of it all. Did you enjoy the book or series?

What do you think? Misappropriation of art, feminist overreaction or is the use of such visceral symbolism valid in the current climate?