The Inheritance and Other Stories offers up one-stop shopping, collecting into one volume three stories by Robin Hobb and seven by Megan Lindholm. There’s no doubt these are two different authors, despite being the same person, and so there is a good mix of style and genre here. I’m a huge Hobb fan, believing her work to be substantive and subtle with world-class characterization and plotting, so I was pleased to see the Hobb stories set in one my all-time favorite worlds — that of the Liveship Traders / Rain Wilds. I hadn’t ever read her Lindholm works, though I’d always been curious. Unfortunately, I turned out to be much more a Hobb fan than a Lindholm fan, and though one of her Lindholm stories was one of my favorites in the book, I found myself wishing the balance between the authors had been reversed (though in terms of number of pages they are roughly equal as the Hobb stories are much longer). And, as is almost always my experience with anthologies, the overall reaction is muddy, with the stories varying greatly in enjoyment level.
The first story is “A Touch of Lavender,” which was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula, and for good reason. It was, I thought, by far the stand-out of the Lindholm stories. It’s told from the POV of a young boy named Billy and is set in a world where aliens have come to Earth (their reasons are somewhat foggy at first) and are given government benefits in hope of learning the secret of interstellar travel. But the preferential treatment, as well as plain old xenophobia, also makes them (and the humans that get too friendly with them) the target of abuse and resentment. The aliens have two especially pertinent qualities: one is they are remarkable musical mimics (using sound sacs on their bodies) and the other is that they secrete a highly addictive drug-like substance. Billy’s mother, unfortunately, is lured to both. Like nearly all the Lindholm stories, “A Touch of Lavender” is grittily realistic and puts us into the world of the lower-classes and the spurned, the ones getting by week to week and eating Mac and Cheese so frequently they have to just swallow it whole because they’re so sick of its taste and consistency. Lindholm presents all this vividly and without an ounce of condescension or any sense of an author going by what she sees on TV or in the occasional drive through the “bad” section of town. “A Touch of Lavender” is sad, complex, and moving and draws you in fully, with all the characters from Billy to his mother to the alien they take in, and even to the short-lived side characters, all etched in wonderfully full form and vision.
Unfortunately, as I said, it was the stand-out of the Lindholm pieces and the rest just didn’t do it for me. “Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” had that same great sense of time and place, with the main character a middle-aged woman stuck in a Sears mall job — but the story itself just wasn’t particularly compelling or surprising. “The Fifth Squashed Cat” had a nicely unique concept of magic, again in a seemingly trademark gritty kind of Lindholm fashion, and the resolution was effective, but I can’t say it grabbed me. And I found the main character’s interior monologue a bit too on the nose in terms of telling me what I was supposed to think or react to. “Cut,” dealing with female circumcision and a world where “choice” is the law for good and for bad, was too blunt in its exploration of the idea, and the dialogue (usually a Hobb strength) seemed forced and stilted. “Drum Machine,” set in a future where babies are designed and parents get to pick their options, was also a bit too obvious and the scenes and dialogue, as in “Cut,” felt scripted to make a point rather than let the point rise naturally. “Finis” is a story that I think is supposed to have a twist at the end, but it was so easy to spot that I’m not quite sure: it was structured for a reveal, complete with wrap-up final sentence, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone who didn’t see that coming.
The first Robin Hobb story in the collection is “Homecoming,” and this was my favorite of the book. It is told via journal entries written by Lady Carillion Carrock and it tells the story of the first settling of the Rain Wilds territory, though one needn’t be familiar with that world and those books to enjoy this story. The true pleasure here is in the slow evolution of Carillion from aloof unlikable noblewoman to, well, I don’t want to spoil it — let’s just say character development is what makes this story more than plot. The following story, “The Inheritance,” set in the same world but generations later, focuses on Cerise, a young woman who comes into a very important inheritance from her just-dead grandmother, though perhaps not the inheritance she or the reader thought. The story moved along smoothly, but it was the least successful of the Hobb stories I thought mostly because Cerise is relatively passive (taking instruction from a mentor more than doing on her own) and the end is somewhat predictable. The final story, “Cat’s Meat,” similar to the first two, focuses on a young woman who undergoes a transformative event. For Carillion it was being marooned in an inhospitable land, for Cerise it was her grandmother’s death and what it brought her, and for Rosemary it is the return of the man who abandoned her while she was pregnant three years earlier. It also involves a cat who decides to get a bit more involved in events surrounding him. More compelling than “The Inheritance,” but not as strong as “Homecoming,” it is an enjoyable read, darker than one might expect, and displaying a complexity of character and human interaction.
Each story in The Inheritance and Other Stories is briefly introduced by the author, offering up some interesting tidbits on the story’s genesis or the writing process. Even better is the introduction, where Hobb explains why she chose to use a pseudonym, and then not, and how the two authors are really quite different despite being housed in her single mind.
Inheritance and Other Stories is about 375 pages long, 140 of which are made up of the two longest stories, which perhaps not coincidentally are also the two stand-outs. (Hobb seems to do better when she has time to slowly develop characters). The other two Hobb stories, though not as strong, are still good and deserving of a read, and they total about 110 pages or so. That’s about two-thirds of the collection that is well worth reading, which is actually not at all bad for an anthology in my experience. The other stories aren’t particularly strong or memorable. They aren’t bad; they just left me unaffected. Though I was mostly disappointed in the Lindholm half, I’m going to recommend the book based on the percentages and also because the two best stories are just so good that they alone I think make the read worthwhile. If you don’t think 2/3 is good enough to warrant a purchase, then I certainly recommend a visit to the library.