I’ve just finished re-reading Shaman’s Crossing by Robin Hobb. (I bought and read the hardback as soon as it came out, and this is my first re-read.) It’s a good story and a world that obviously has a lot of depth to it beyond what we have yet seen. But there are some seriously distracting errors. I’m not referring to the fact that the map is completely broken, with Canby, a town that Nevare and his father pass through on the way down the river to Old Thares, positioned well downstream of Old Thares. And I’m not talking about the basic typos that ought to have been caught in the copy-editing: the wrong ‘to’, commas instead of apostrophes, even a couple of sentences missing their crucial verb which then has to be inferred from the surrounding context. All these throw me out of the story and remind me that I’m just looking at words on a page. But they’re less annoying on the second reading.

That’s because, all the way through, I was seriously distracted by the confusion over exactly how many nobles, old and new, there are. On page 155, we are told that King Troven elevated ‘a double dozen’ soldier sons to noblehood. We are not told how many old nobles there are, but it can’t be much more than twice that number for the complaints of dilution to have any validity.

The second sons of all these nobles are sent to the Academy (and no-one else is). In Nevare’s house and year, there are twelve boys, all second sons of new nobles (page 199). There is also another house whose first year consists of second sons of new nobles, and there are fifteen of them (page 214). So, twenty-four noble families, with one son each, have somehow managed to produce twenty-seven boys between them, all exactly the same age. Moreover, the new noble boys have also outnumbered the old noble boys in the previous two years of intake in the Academy as well (page 179). So where are all these second sons coming from?

I can’t find any indication that the King elevated any other soldiers at any other time. But even if he did, if the number of sons in the Academy is truly representative of the number of noble families, then the kingdom must have a truly unsustainable number of nobles, even if it is expanding (and I very much get the impression that a lot of the land is unclaimed by any noble). Assuming an annual intake of about thirty-five (to tie in with what’s been said about new noble sons outnumbering the old), then we have around a hundred students at the Academy at any one time. Remember, only one son per family gets to go. It’s unlikely that all the families would have soldier sons of an age to go to the Academy in the same three-year period: there’s certainly no sign that the Academy has had trouble getting students in the past; if anything they’ve had far more than they can handle. And not every family has a second son, we are reminded several times. So we’re talking at most ten per cent of the noble population represented at the Academy, which in turn means at least a thousand noble families. Not all with estates, granted; some of the old nobles are living in ‘genteel poverty’, we’re told. But most of them are living reasonably grandly on profits and taxes from their land. Which takes a lot of people working a lot of land.

How is this supposed to work? Have I missed something?

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