Assassin’s Apprentice: Robin Hobb

★★★★★

The Farseer Trilogy: Book I

About a month ago, Janet asked me whether I’d ever read The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb and the answer is a resounding yes, though I haven’t read it for many years. This was the perfect excuse for me to return to the series, because I wanted to see whether Hobb’s work really is as good as I remember. She has cast a very long shadow over my reading life: she was the first author I dared to write to, brimming over with clumsy childish enthusiasm: to my delight, she not only acknowledged my letter but sent me some signed stickers for my books. Although I try to avoid ‘favourites’ when I talk about reading, it’s safe to say there are few stories in the world that I love more than the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies. I was given Assassin’s Apprentice for Christmas when I was twelve years old and was almost immediately gripped by the harsh, windswept world it described and by Hobb’s endearing protagonist.

Fitz is only six years old when his grandfather takes him to the nearby fortress and gives him into the care of the soldiers there. He is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the heir to the throne: a man whom Fitz never meets, as he retires from court – and from the line of succession – in the belief that he’s disgraced his name by fathering an illegitimate child. Without even realising it, Fitz has already been the catalyst for an event that will transform the future of the royal line. He finds himself in a strange position, half-royal, half-low-born, struggling to find a place in a hierarchy that has no room for him. In some places, he finds warmth and acceptance: from his uncle Verity, for example, who wouldn’t think of finding fault in a harmless boy; and from Burrich, Chivalry’s devoted follower, who serves as stablemaster and brings up Fitz in a warm haze of dogs, horses and straw.

But all too soon Fitz learns that there are many who dislike him, for having been the cause of Chivalry’s abdication, and for the potential danger he might pose to the line of succession: among them are his young uncle Regal and the Skillmaster Galen, who is later assigned to Fitz as one of his teachers. And then there are those whose motives Fitz can never quite understand; and of these, the most prominent is his grandfather King Shrewd. Shrewd knows, as few others do, the value of a royal bastard and his acceptance of Fitz forms part of a bargain with the boy: that, as the royal house shelters and protects Fitz, so he will protect and further the interests of the royal house.

And so, while still a boy, he is given into the secret care of Chade: a man who is as evasive as his name, who acts as Shrewd’s eyes and ears within the keep and, when necessary, as the king’s assassin. This is what Fitz, too, will become. It is not an easy childhood for a boy, effectively orphaned and distrusted by many at the court, but there is friendship, albeit scarce. The only true friend he has among the courtiers is the king’s Fool, a strange, pale, otherworldly creature who, despite his riddles, seems to have taken it upon himself to watch out for Fitz. (As you’ll see in future books, I’m just as fond of the Fool as I am of Fitz, though his role in this first book is a deceptively minor one.)

Why cannot I speak clearly? Because you make it all a muddle.
I see a crossroads through the fog, and who always stands within it?
You. Do you think I keep you alive because I am so entranced with you?
No. It is because you create so many possibilities. While you live,
you give us more choices… And your duty is the same. To live,
so that you may continue to present possibilities.

Hobb’s fantasy world is the kind that I love best: it is earthy, beautifully-described and not so very different from our own medieval world. Fitz isn’t confronted by wizards and sorcery, but by the petty intrigues and factions of the court: a labyrinth of politics which he must negotiate in order to keep his country safe. Although there are legends of the Elderlings left over from an earlier time, there is little magic in this age. There are a few strange powers, but these sit so comfortably within Hobb’s world that they seem natural, almost matter-of-fact.

One of these powers is the Wit, by which a man can sense the presence of living things and sometimes enter and share the minds of animals. This is usually considered a low-born perversion because, through excessive use of the Wit, a man can lose himself in the animal’s world to such an extent that he forgets his own humanity and becomes little more than a beast himself. Another talent is the Skill, transmitted through royal bloodlines, which enables trained users to communicate by telepathy and, to a limited extent, insinuate ideas and messages into the minds of unsuspecting people. Fitz, with his half-royal blood, has inherited both abilities although, as yet, he barely knows his own capabilities in either and (knowing the disgust with which people regard it) hardly dares admit to the Wit.

Quite different from these two talents is the power of Forging, a torment which is inflicted on their prisoners by the Red Ship Raiders: a brutal group of pirates who have begun to harry the coasts of Fitz’s country. In Forging someone, the Raiders strip away their humanity, leaving their prisoner as just a shell, capable of living and speaking but devoid of emotion, memory or inhibition. By returning such transformed people to wreak destruction on their community, the Raiders sow terror that lasts long after their raids are done. Throughout this book the Raiders loom as an ever larger threat to the country and Verity takes responsibility for trying to hold them off, using his Skill as a weapon, in a way that drains and weakens him. Watching him, Fitz becomes aware of another way that he can learn to help his family.

This is a world where, especially among the nobility and royalty, children are given names which shape their adult selves, whether by chance or design. King Shrewd is generally wise, discreet and (where necessary) ruthless; Verity is bluff, frank and reliable; Regal is arrogant, lordly and fond of ostentation. Chivalry lived up to his name in all that he did, save siring Fitz; while his long-suffering wife Patience comes to accept and love the boy who drove her husband from the throne.

And what of Fitz himself? I always assumed that Fitz’s full name, FitzChivalry, describes the circumstances of his birth, rather than his qualities: he is Chivalry’s bastard. And yet, reading this again, I’m beginning to wonder whether Fitz is in fact shaped by his name as much as any of his relations. His attitude to life is careful, diplomatic and fiercely loyal; he defends the realm in his own way; and he carries out his duties with a full consciousness of right and wrong. This is not chivalry in its pure sense, but perhaps it is a kind of bastard chivalry. Fitz is challenged, scorned and taxed almost past bearing, but he doesn’t give up – much as he sometimes longs to do so. This first book follows him only to the age of fourteen or fifteen, and yet he’s already suffered a series of events which would have crushed someone with less resilience. (Fitz doesn’t see it as resilience, of course; he sees it as doing his duty to his king.)

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Assassin’s Apprentice is unremittingly bleak, but this is definitely a novel that has grit underneath its fingernails. Reading it again, I’m struck by how similar in spirit it is to Game of Thrones – not only in its brutality but in the constant suggestion that, really, no one is safe.

In the past year I’ve met some very compelling fictional characters (Lymond springs to mind in particular), who have dazzled me with their competence and brilliance. Reading about them is a bit like watching a gifted juggler: all you can do is sit back and admire the show. But  returning to Fitz feels like coming back to a friend: he engaged me emotionally from the first time I read about him, when I was twelve, and all that’s changed is that I now feel more protective towards him. He’s so real, so shy and insecure that I often feel the urge to run into the pages and give him a hug (or berate him).

Unlike so many fantasy protagonists, Fitz isn’t a hero: he thinks of himself as the instrument of other people’s wills. That requires him to live a half-life, moving in and out of the shadows, ready with poison when his king desires it. And yet he isn’t a cold-blooded murderer: he’s just a bruised, lonely, determined boy who dares to hope that, one day, he might find someone to love him. Fitz is never the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to being emotionally articulate, and if he only had a bit more common sense – in short, if he were more like a fictional character and less like a real person – he’d see that there are possibilities within reach. But he’s still only a boy – and perhaps such realisations are better suited to the man he will become.

Returning to this book hasn’t just brought back a flood of childhood memories. It has reassured me that this series really is one of the best out there. You don’t have to identify as a fantasy reader in order to enjoy this: it conjures up a world of epic proportions with a surprisingly intimate focus, all described with piercing clarity. The plot never slackens, even in its quieter moments, and Hobb is a master at the throwaway scene which nevertheless reveals a lot. In short, it’s the kind of story that grabs you by the throat and simply never lets up. If you’ve never read Hobb, you should definitely start here.

The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies combine to create a powerful, almost gut-wrenching story and they are widely considered the best of her works. The Liveship Traders trilogy was published after The Farseer and before The Tawny Man and is set in the same world; it is not absolutely vital to read it in sequence, but there are links, some of which prove to be of unexpected importance for The Tawny Man. I admit that I liked Liveship less, but that’s just because I missed Fitz and the Fool. Hobb has also written two further series: the Soldier Son trilogy (set in a different world), which I began and simply didn’t like; and the Rain Wild Chronicles (set in the same world as Farseer), which haven’t had brilliant reviews. I think it’s in the Fitz novels that she really distinguishes herself and I would urge them on anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading them.

Buy the book

Next in this series: Royal Assassin

And, because this is one of my favourite books, I’ve shown more interest than usual in the various covers it’s been given in different countries and different editions. Incidentally, there’s even a graphic novel, which I thirstily went after, but there turned out to be two downsides. First, it’s in French; but that in itself wouldn’t have been a huge problem. More importantly, after seeing some of the art on the internet I realised that I couldn’t bear it: although it was cleverly done, Fitz simply didn’t look right. I’ve always imagined him more as he appears in the Hungarian and German covers below (though the latter gives him a tartan cloak, on account of the cover having been shamelessly lifted from Arnette Lamb’s novel Chieftain).

24 thoughts on “Assassin’s Apprentice: Robin Hobb

  1. Janet says:

    Fabulous review! I'm very glad you're enjoying your re-read and that the books live up to your memory of them. They are very special. I've recommended them to several people and of those who've actually picked them up and started reading, I can't think of a single person who wasn't captivated by them and I must do my own re-read soon – it's been too long.

    I met Robin Hobb at a book signing about three years ago and I can well believe that she wrote kindly back to you. She travels widely and loves to engage with her readers around the world; we had a good chat while she signed a pile of books for the shop. I was very happy to discover that she is a fellow fan of another of my favourites, the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. 🙂

    Janet

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Well, thank you Janet for giving me the impetus to reread them! To be honest, it feels very odd to be writing publicly about these books because I have adored them so much for so long that they feel almost like they're mine and mine alone. It strikes me as rather strange that there are other people out there who love them as much as I do. I know that sounds odd, but perhaps you can understand what I mean, if you had a favourite book when you were young, which you read and reread, and which no one else seemed to know. As a child, I'm sure I didn't understand half of what was really going on (thankfully I was a teenager by the time The Tawny Man came out, so was just the right age to appreciate all the angst). It's been brilliant to read Assassin's Apprentice not only with adult eyes but also with a full awareness of what happens later on. Between you and me, I couldn't resist flicking through a few pages of Fool's Fate after I finished this and realised that, nope, that hasn't lost any of its punch either. Dear me; what have I let myself in for?! Still, all in its proper place…

    I'm going to have to look up that Vorkosigan Saga to find out more about it…

  3. Isi says:

    Your review has been so persuasive that I have taken a look if it is available in Spanish, and it is!! It is no longer stocked; I suppose it was not so much popular when it was released, but I have found a copy for my kindle.
    I didn't know the series, nor the author. She was so kind when she wrote you back!! :))
    And the story itself sounds great, with a little bit of magic, memorable characters, etc. Thank you for making me discover it.

    PS: I've seen there was 2 editions in Spain, the first with the US cover, and the second with the present UK cover. This is more modern, but I like the old ones (although Fitz is Scottish, hehehe).

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh good, Isi – I'm sure you'll enjoy it. If you liked The Name of the Wind I'm sure you'll like this. I hope so, anyway! Do let me know what you think (fingers crossed). 🙂

    I probably spend too much time thinking about art in general, but I find cover design very interesting. The choice of cover art says so much about the market the publishers want to reach and who they think their readers are. One of the big benefits with the new UK edition is that it looks much more understated and much less high fantasy than the earlier covers, so hopefully non-fantasy-readers might be more tempted to pick it up. Although I like the idea of Fitz in the German cover above, I do find that Scottish element rather disturbing: it threatens, ever so slightly, to make the book look like one of those dreadful Highland historical romances… *worried face*

    I recently picked up a book at the library solely because of the cover art (despite all the old sayings about judging books by covers!) – L.E. Modesitt's Imager. It turned out that the cover had been designed by Donato Giancola, who is one of my favourite fantasy artists. He has done some amazing art based on The Lord of the Rings and I would love to see what he would do for covers for Robin Hobb's books. I bet they'd be awesome. 🙂

  5. Isi says:

    I have to say I'm not involved in the cover's design stuff, so I just think “I like, I don't like” 🙂
    About the Highlander romance, I absoultely agree 😦
    Time ago I watched a video about an American designer who worked a publishing house, and he said that, before designing anything, you MUST read the book. A lot of times the designers just haven't read the book, and you notice it after finishing the book and taking a look again at the cover… I believe that this is what happened with the German cover 😉

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Absolutely! You'd think it was a fairly obvious prerequisite, wouldn't you?! And there are other covers for this book, which I didn't include above, which are even more irrelevant. There's one which shows Fitz making some grand gesture with a staff, which suggests the artist was under the misapprehension that he was illustrating Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea… *sighs*

  7. Heloise says:

    I love Robin Hobb's work; she is one of the few Fantasy and Science Fiction authors that kept my interest in the genre alive while I had almost given up on it and read almost exclusively literary fiction. I even liked her Soldier Son trilogy, although that is admittedly somewhat different (not much in the way of plot with extensive descriptions – it helps if you enjoy Victorian fiction on which the trilogy is modelled), but am a bit disapponted with her Rain Wild Chronicles. You mention everything I love about her in your post – there are very, very few Fantasy authors whose work has a comparable depth, not just in the world building but also where emotional resonance is concerned. There is something (in the very best sense) earthy about her work, a grounding in human experience which makes them endure and makes readers return to them again and again where more flimsy works get quickly eroded by time.
    (And btw., since you asked for recommendations a while back, have you ever read anything by Kate Elliott? Her novels possess a similar quality, I think, in particular her Crossroads I enjoyed very much.)

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I felt pretty sure that you would know them, Heloise! With 'Soldier Son', I don't think I was being entirely fair to Hobb as a reader because I was so enveloped in the Six Duchies and Buckkeep that I found I simply couldn't relate to something set in another world. With 'Rain Wild', it might be even more difficult reading something set in the same world and knowing that my favourite characters won't be there. That is my shortcoming as a reader, of course. With these, though… *sighs happily* Well, I'm about to find out how far my memories of the series are true, but at the moment things are looking good. It's interesting to see the things that stuck with me the first time round and the things that went entirely under my radar.

    Kate Elliot was one of the co-authors of The Golden Key, which I wrote about a while ago, so in a sense I have read something by her, but nothing by her as the sole author 🙂 I shall bear 'Crossroads' in mind. Thank you!

  9. Pekka says:

    I have to agree that the Farseer trilogy is an excellent series, and Fitz is one of my favourite characters in literature. Farseer was actually one of the handful series with which I just had to skip to reading it in English because I just couldn't wait for the translated editions. Of course, a lot of books two and three passed by me because of that, but I was still very taken with the series, and years afterward when I re-read it, it was still just as good. As a result, each of the Tawny Man books were always among my most antipicated. Unfortunately, I thought Tawny Man was a bit disappointing on the whole, even though Fool's Errand is perhaps my favourite book of them all.

    Also, I'm kind of ashamed I bought the Liveship books like ten or so years ago and I still haven't read them.

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Pekka! I think you have a point that The Tawny Man is a little different in spirit, so those who love the brutal austerity of Farseer might find it a little too mystical for their tastes. I liked the story of The Tawny Man less overall, but as regards the character and emotional development of Fitz and the Fool, I was totally hooked. The first time round, I was so desperate to find out the ending that I read Fool's Fate way too fast and ended up in a flood of tears without having the faintest idea of what happened in the first half of the book. So that's why it's good to have a reread 🙂 More patience; better grasp of the story; everyone's a winner!

    Liveship isn't absolutely essential, as I've said, but it helps to flesh it all out and there are some points in The Tawny Man whose significance you won’t grasp without having read that other trilogy. I was a bit impatient first time round, so don't remember too much about the characters in Liveship except that Kennet was rather dashing. And of course there are certain wonderful little clues which hark back to Farseer. I can still remember the electrifying moment when I suddenly *got it* about Amber. But I'll be coming back to that in its proper place. 🙂

  11. Janet says:

    With the latest exciting news of a NEW Farseer book (!!!) in the offing, I have recently embarked on my own re-read of Assassin, Liveship and Tawny Fool and am as deeply captivated as the first time around. Such world building, and such insight into people's ability to deceive themselves. Kennet the sociopath is *brilliantly* depicted. This time I may even progress to the Rain Wilds series, which I bought but never read for some reason. Robin Hobb certainly knows how to make her protagonists suffer, and never more so than in the Soldier Son trilogy which I propose never to read again as it's just too damned depressing. But more Fitz? Yes please, bring it on!

  12. The Idle Woman says:

    Soldier Son is the only trilogy I haven't read now, and to be honest I don't think I can wrench myself away from the Six Duchies et al so probably won't get round to it – though I know Heloise thinks very highly of it. In my opinion it would be a good idea, Janet, to read Rain Wilds as well, just to lay the foundations for the next trilogy.

    As I mentioned in my posts on that series, I have the first book of the new Fitz trilogy – which I've now read, although I'll be keeping mum until closer to publication date – and although you don't actually need to have read Rain Wilds to appreciate the first volume, I think it might become more important later. Plus, it gives you general context for the world. And yes, if there's one thing Hobb knows how to do, it's how to make people suffer; and nobody suffers better than Fitz in the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, bless him. That was one thing I was very concerned about for the new series, actually. With a character who's that bit older again, how on earth was Hobb going to keep up the rather endearing emo vibe that characterises Fitz's narration so much?

    Do keep me posted on your own reread, Janet. I'd love to hear what you think of the books. Heavens, you might even persuade me to go back and start again. 😉

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