Homecoming is the very start to the Realm of the Elderlings – a world that consists of five short stories, one novella, and 16 novels.
Bethwyn: So we come to our first short! And I really enjoyed my time with this one. I think this really showed how Robin Hobb can create a character and then use that character to really introduce you to the world – she was showing us so much through the diary entry format that I felt like I was kind of there! That world does not seem pleasant, though.
We begin with Day 7 of the Fish Moon, with our main character (who is a bit… what’s the polite way to say ‘horrid’?) who is on the ship Venture and is extremely dissatisfied with their living conditions.
Katharine: I have to admit, I probably wouldn’t be too happy to be pregnant, two kids in tow, and having had to pack everything away onto some ship… but her issues seem to be more that she feels that people aren’t showing proper diffidence to her status. She expects her family should have better provisions, that certain people should be offering company, that others shouldn’t dare speak to them and so on.
Bethwyn: Yeh. It seems that Hobb really sets her up to be unlikeable in the beginning, which I thought was an interesting stance to take. But as we slowly begin to experience her entries into her diary, we learn more and kind of begin to understand – along with the main character – what is actually happening. I kind of began to like seeing things through her eyes, in a strange way.
Katharine: Originally she believed that they were on board as willing investors to colonise the Cursed Shores. Then it turns out that her husband (and so she and their children) are being sent away in disgrace as a way to earn their way back into society. The plan is that ships will follow next Spring to bring supplies and if, by then, that they’ve established lands and discovered gold and jewels that were supposedly left there, that they’ll give half to their king and then be welcomed back into Jamaillia.
This is a pretty rude awakening for her, and it only gets worse from there as they finally arrive only to find the land isn’t fertile at all. The river that they go down to that connects the sea to the land starts to eat away at the wood of their ships. The boggy lands make it difficult to walk in and also eat away at any material it touches – shoes, hems of clothing, etc. Skin is left with rashes and sores.
They don’t see any riches, and the land seems actively hostile. The thieves and other expats from the ship are soon left barely able to sleep and no clue what they’re meant to do next.
Bethwyn: Rude awakening indeed! Honestly, it seems like people start dropping like flies. The captain of the ship they’re on basically dumps them and leaves – he can’t afford for his ship to get eaten away anymore, which I get, but he can see that the people have very little chance of surviving in this new place, and yet…
Anyway, our protagonist spends a bit of time complaining and still thinking everyone is below her station – etc. etc. – but then kind of sinks into a depression of sorts. Understandable, given the conditions. She also (still pregnant, I might add) starts to have unusual thoughts and feel like the place isn’t completely uninhabited?
Katharine: Some of them start hearing voices, or hearing singing. They search for stable ground they can live on and ways they can sleep without sinking into mud, and also what food and water they can safely consume.
Then Lady Sarillion’s husband leaves. A party say they’re going to head out and see what they can possibly find and with them they take the majority of supplies.
Through limited remaining options our protagonist has to mix with the commoners. There are other pregnant women there, and one of the sailors seems quite intelligent despite his lack of formal education (shocking, I know).
But the singing is still there, and sometimes, in their wandering around, if they brush up against something they have visions of a busy marketplace, or other visions they can only assume are from the past when this dense marshlands was instead part of a bustling township.
Throughout people have been disappearing, just never returning from foraging expeditions or similar journeys. But then Lady Sarillion’s own children – the eldest (who’s been mixing with the other kids of commoners) is hearing the singing often, and all seem to be developing rougher skin – almost like scales – down their backs…
Bethwyn: I think Robin Hobb does a fantastic job here of evoking this strange and altogether ‘other’ landscape in this story – I found myself really drawn in. This is a short work, but not like ‘a couple of pages’ short, but I still read it in one sitting. I was just so intrigued.
Around this time, Lady Sarillion goes into labour and has her child – she is lucky enough to have some of the ‘common’ women around to help her, but she never sees her child. Though she’s sure she heard it cry…
I think this event also sort of indicates the changes in people and how they are starting to band together a little more – Lady Sarillion begins to work together with the other women in trying to come up with little shack-type things for them to live in together. Initially the other folk kind of laugh at the women trying to make houses of sorts, but they do seem to be a little more comfortable and at least feel a bit safer.
Katharine: And from here it progresses further. Lady Sarillion (I’m just going to call her Carillion from now on – she’s barely a lady now anyway) takes note of what works and what doesn’t, and is soon constructing walkways and platforms up in the trees, where they’re safe from the corrosive waters. They’re learning what is safe to eat, and we can start to see how they’re going to survive in this eerie yet beautiful place.
One night, her son, Carlmin, comes to her, trembling and scared. He and another boy, Olpey, have found a partially submerged building that’s still able to be entered if you know the way and aren’t afraid of the dark, or of the voices that echo or the music that plays only to those who can hear it. Carillion and Olpey’s mother, Chellia, leave in the morning to investigate.
Olpey doesn’t want to leave the strange place as he’s found gold and riches like the sort they were all promised when this hopeless venture started (and what use is gold if you can barely sleep, eat, or find safe water?), but Carillion and Olpey’s mother drag him from there and return home, only to find that the men have returned. Her husband barely recognises her or their son, makes no mention of how Carillion must have lost the baby, and reports that they only found more swamp and lost five men in their journey. Olpey’s father was one of the men lost.
They did however find another group of people who were marooned further downriver from where their ship left them. They are in the middle of planning how they will leave and journey down the river and to the coast, hoping for rescue.
That is until, they notice the jewels Olpey’s still wearing, refusing to be parted from.
Bethwyn: Carillion’s husband seriously drove me nuts throughout the book – he just kind of expected Carillion and the kids to ‘fall in line’ about everything – he was the man of the family, so they should just follow his word unwittingly. So frustrating!
Anyway, of course he – along with many of the other men – insist on going to investigate the unusual sunken building, and Olpey disappears into it once more. His behaviour is becoming markedly strange – he hisses when people try to take away the jewels he carries, and he speaks like a middle-aged man rather than a playful young boy. Like he’s taking on the persona of another.
Carillion has started to have feelings for a sailor fellow, Retyo, who supported her and helped her and her two sons the entire time her husband was away. With her husband’s return, Retyo kind of disappears into the background once more, but you can tell Carillion is torn up about it, despite her feeling beholden to her husband, she still thinks of Retyo.
The people who have gone off to hunt for treasure rarely return, generally bunkering down and trying to find even more treasure. They seem to be becoming selfish, possessive, and violent at times. Carillion’s eldest son says that the music is even louder so that he can hardly hear himself think, and he insists he can see flashes of strange people that flicker in and out of existence….
Katharine: And so we come to the crescendo. The sunken building is starting to sink even more and they’re losing access, and rooms are starting to flood. Carillion, Chellia, Retyo and some other sensible people go in once more to get Olpey out and try to convince anyone else to come with them. Carillion’s husband demands instead that they’re leaving, and to go into the sunken room means they’re dead to him – he has his gold and riches and he (and some others) are going to start walking the coast until they can find a way to get back to Jamaillia. Carillion can’t leave her friend’s son behind though, and her husband is a jerk anyway, so we’re all just sitting her cheering as she and others go down into the dangerous and strange building.
Bethwyn: I did feel kind of sad that the husband took their younger son with him… that kind of sucked. What a jerk.
Anyway, things are really creepy down in that building – not only are the tunnels and rooms beginning to cave in and fill with soil, but everyone who is already down there is very Gollum-of-LoTR about their treasures: ie. very willing to fight and kill anyone who comes close. This seems like apocalypse level stuff. So glad that Retyo is back because he just seems like a good egg, and willing to help everyone as best he can.
They do find Olpey, but he is in full not-actually-a-child mode and acting like he is middle-aged and like the building isn’t sinking, and they’re not all about to die. Around this time Carillion realises that when she touches the walls of the building, she sees visions almost overlayed onto the area they’re in – almost like she can see the world and what is was like before everything was abandoned.
Katharine: Which comes in handy, as when they try to escape they find their usual way out is no longer accessible and she’s able to access these visions to find another way out, and lead them (and the others they’ve managed to convince to leave also) back to sunlight.
It’s to find her other son stayed despite the father leaving, and together they all go to make a life for themselves amongst the trees. So at the start Carillion was a haughty and frankly painfully annoying piece of work, and at the end she’s with the lovely Retyo, has many more friends who can actually be relied upon, and has a far more rewarding life in the harsh yet beautiful surroundings.
That’s a win, surely.
Bethwyn: Agreed! I really loved the ending. And they also kind of mentioned the scales again, that seem to be popping up all over everyone’s bodies… Which I felt like was a hint about something that I know nothing about as yet! They specifically mention the babies being born, and that they are ‘as scaled as a snake’. Count me intrigued.
Katharine: We have a way to go into our Realm of the Elderlings read until you see more of these scales… but it’ll be worth it, I assure you.
Should we get going with it all so we get there sooner? :D
Bethwyn: Yes, please! :D