Royal Assassin (1996): Robin Hobb

★★★★ ½

The Farseer Trilogy: Book II

Sometimes, at the close of a book, you feel almost physically drained. I had forgotten, quite forgotten, exactly how tough this series is: I can’t believe I was so young when I read it before. It’s harder and more brutal by far than the work of any other author I can remember reading, even more than George R.R. Martin, who is usually referenced as the example par excellence of an author who refuses to wrap his characters in cotton wool. The miraculous thing is that it all just binds you in to the story ever more tightly. There must be few mid-series books with such a raw ending, but at least the closing mood is one of mitigated triumph.

Picking up from where Assassin’s Apprentice left off, we rejoin Fitz in the Mountain Kingdom. Despite the concerted efforts of several people, he is still alive. Just. Weakened and damaged by at least three separate attempts on his life, he can reassure himself that he has averted the worst of a diplomatic crisis. The Mountain princess Kettricken has left for Buckkeep, where she will become Verity’s bride. Verity himself has been protected from treachery. And Fitz finally understands the true scale of Regal’s ambition and hatred. Fitz knows that he will always be under threat if he returns to Buckkeep, but it rapidly becomes apparent that he has no freedom to choose another path. While convalescing, beset by fits and fevers, he has strange visions  in which he sees through King Shrewd’s eyes and watches Red Ship Raiders closing in on the Six Duchies. Only Verity stands between the Duchies and the Raiders: that much hasn’t changed; but Fitz himself has. Growing into a young man, he will gain new and more visible responsibilities at court, becoming a piece on the game-board in his own right. While that has advantages, it also means he’ll become more obvious and more inconvenient for certain people. And an inconvenient piece on a game-board, of course, might well be removed.

Despite the darker plot-threads that begin to unravel in this instalment, Hobb’s solid sense of place and character never fails to delight. The court at Buckkeep becomes an ever more absorbing bustle of plots, secrets and gossip and Fitz rapidly learns that he must be on his guard both within and without. As his relationships with those around him change, to echo the change in himself, he realises that adults are no better at making sense of their lives than he is, with his adolescent torments and confusions. And, enmeshed in the court hierarchy, these adults rarely have as clear and insightful an understanding of events as does Fitz, with his assassin’s eyes. He continues to follow Chade’s directions: to aid Verity, protect Kettricken and defend King Shrewd, but this becomes a crushing weight for such young shoulders to bear.

King Shrewd, bedevilled by a long illness, begins to fade, overcome by the addictive vapours of Smoke and assailed by unbearable pain. And, just when the kingdom needs a strong hand, Verity begins to plan a journey, taking him far away from court in search of the mythical Elderlings who, once before, long ago, helped a king against the Raiders. Yet there is some solace amongst the strain as Fitz finds a measure of peace in two very different forms of love: the thrill of romance with his beloved Molly, who sees him only as the man he is rather than as a political tool; and the deeper, more powerful soul connection that comes through a new and unplanned Wit-bond.

Moving into greater detail – and if you don’t want to know too much, be warned! – it was great to see Nighteyes enter the story, as I grew fond of him last time round: I love his banter with Fitz. And I was much more impressed this time round with Kettricken, whom I didn’t really care for when I read these books as a child, probably because I dismissed her as ‘the princess’, which just goes to show that I missed the entire point. Now, as an adult, I was delighted by how splendid she is. Hobb’s fantasy world already has a good deal more gender equality than most, but Kettricken blazes onto the scene full of passion and confidence and diplomatic skill. When she made her speech to her people before their hunt for the Forged bandits, I felt a shiver run down my spine: it was one of the most stirring fictional speeches I’ve read for a long time.

And it is intriguing to see the Fool moving subtly closer to the heart of the story as he and Fitz come to know each other better. Initially his significance seems to be the same as that of his namesake in King Lear: the last to keep his faith and loyalty to an embattled and dying man. But then it becomes clear, largely through the Fool’s own rare openness with Fitz, that his motives are more than simply the loyalty of a cherished servant.

We are here, Fitz, you and I, to change the future of the world. To reach out and hold in place the tiny pebble that could trigger the boulder’s tumbling.

Inspired by folk tales and legends, he believes that his physical appearance has marked him out as one who can tweak the threads of history and turn them into new and better paths. He certainly seems to have a gift of foresight. And he has come to Buckkeep because he believes that the continuity of the Farseer line is the key to preserving the very world they live in. Fitz, he believes, is to be his catalyst: the one through whom the Fool can work to bring his future into being. Fitz doesn’t believe this, of course (and his lack of conviction in what the Fool says is something of an ongoing theme). But it’s enough to build the foundations of a new dynamic between them, one which has a long way to go before it becomes trust. At the risk of spoilers for later in the story, I found myself watching very carefully for any clues about the Fool’s gender (a question which has already been carefully non-answered twice in the snippets of documents which open each chapter). But I’m not finding much more. Hobb has been thorough from the start.

Hobb is extremely good at avoiding the suggestion that Fitz is the protagonist for anyone except her readers. All her characters have their own dreams and hopes and lives  and you have a very firm sense that there are all sorts of other interesting stories unfurling at the sides of the novel that we never get to hear about. She drops tantalising hints about Chade’s past that I don’t think are ever fully fleshed out. Fitz moves through a world which is completely self-absorbed and really doesn’t take much notice of him; and that’s unusual in a genre where the heroes, like Rothfuss’s Kvothe, are often extravagant, extrovert mavericks. Most of the people who do notice Fitz end up using him – perhaps kindly, perhaps with the best of intentions, perhaps with regret – as an instrument in their own plans. That’s even true (perhaps even more true) of the Fool. It all combines to create a stifling sense of claustrophobia, a world in which no one can really be trusted. Even those whom Fitz considers his protectors are willing to take desperate gambles in which he is the pawn that faces sacrifice. Molly and Nighteyes may be the only characters whose affection for Fitz is open and selfless; and yet I suppose one could make cases even against them.

If you can finish this book and not end up staring at the wall, feeling exhausted and wrung-out, then you’re stronger than I am. But this is part of the contract this series makes with you. It demands a particularly intense engagement from its readers and in return it sweeps us into one of the most addictive and absorbing fantasy worlds I know. I might need to take a bit of a breather before Assassin’s Quest, though, and toddle off to read something completely different just to clear my mind before the dizzying plunge back into the final book of this trilogy.

Buy the book

Last in this series – Assassin’s Apprentice

Next in this series – Assassin’s Quest

Following our discussion about cover art for Assassin’s Apprentice, I thought it’d be fun to add some of the alternative designs for Royal Assassin, unfortunately on a rather low-res scale. There isn’t quite as much diversity here: even where publishers have diverged from the original John Howe design, they tend towards the boy-wolf-castle angle. Fortunately the German cover is there, as always, to offer a dose of, ‘What were they thinking?!’ This has quite obviously been taken from another novel, as it bears no resemblance to the actual book. Suggestions on a postcard please.


5 thoughts on “Royal Assassin (1996): Robin Hobb

  1. Heloise says:

    I felt very much the same way as you every time I closed this novel – it really puts the reader through the emotional wranger, the ending in particular is very hard to bear. That it manages to do so speaks volumes of just how good it is, there are not many books that involve the reader on such a deep emotional level.
    The one issue I remember having with the series was Regal, though – he is just such a melodrama villain, you expect him to twirl his moustache while expounding on his nefarious schemes. I always found that he jars heavily with the fully developed and real-feeling rest of the cast, he comes across as very two-dimensional.
    It might be time to re-assess this, though – I am greatly enjoying your posts, and they make me want to read the series again myself… maybe I can squeeze it in it some time (it's not like I had an insanely huge TBR pile, after all).

  2. Leander says:

    Yes, I do see your point about Regal although I think she gives him some motives in her suggestion that he blames Shrewd for his mother's death and he believes that he has purer royal blood than either Verity or Chivalry, thus is better suited to rule. And yet he's a coward – the sort of person who, quite literally, would kick a man when he's down. He still comes across as quite adolescent a lot of the time – I have trouble figuring out exactly how old he's supposed to be. At the end of this second book I imagine that Verity (who's 33 at the end of book 1?) would be about 35; Fitz has perhaps just turned 18, if that; and so Regal would be in his early twenties. (By the way, I'd totally missed the connection between Regal and Galen on my first read, so that was interesting to discover.)

    Do remember though that, if you add this to your TBR pile, you're effectively adding nine books (if you want to do it properly and read Liveship as well)!

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