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.
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).