Assassin’s Quest (1997): Robin Hobb

★★★★ ½

The Farseer Trilogy: Book III

This third and final volume of The Farseer trilogy opens with a situation in which, frankly, things can only get better. If you haven’t read the preceding books and think you might like to do so, I warn you to tread carefully here. A great deal happens in this final novel and much of it grows out of events in the earlier books, so I might be giving away spoilers without even realising it.

We encounter Fitz at the nadir of his fortunes: broken and shattered by Regal’s guards, to all appearances dead and buried in the freezing earth. Clinging to the vestiges of life through his Wit-bond to Nighteyes, he gradually loses all awareness of himself as human and individual; only to be sharply recalled to his body and resurrected by the sheer determination of Burrich and Chade. And yet the recovery is not to be a swift one. Little better than a wild animal, snapping and snarling at those who have brought him back to a life he has no desire for, Fitz has to be painstakingly trained to see himself as a man again.

Compared to the previous two books I felt this novel had less cohesion, at least in the first half. That’s primarily became it’s a different kind of book: a quest novel, rather than one which builds on place and character and intrigue, as Hobb did so well in the rest of the trilogy. But do bear with the slow start, because it all sets the scene for later. Fitz takes a considerable time to ease back into being human – but that’s appropriate, because it emphasises the pain and effort it costs him. I did feel he spent slightly too long wandering in the hills, beweeping his outcast state; but eventually, however, he makes a decision. He will use his new lease of life to do something which, long ago in another life, he swore not to do. He will go to Tradeford, where the self-styled King Regal has made his court in the soft, fat grasslands of Fallow, and he will kill him. In doing so, Fitz will avenge not only his own suffering but also that of his people, and he will punish Regal for taking advantage of Verity’s absence to seize the crown.

And so he sets out with his loyal Nighteyes, passing through a land ravaged and brutalised by the constant battering of the Red Ship Raiders against its shores. The chapter set in the palace at Tradeford, as Fitz searches for Regal in a deadly game of hide-and-seek, was the first section of Hobb I ever read. It was reproduced in a book offering a sample of writers published by Voyager and I was so taken with it that I immediately asked for Assassin’s Apprentice for the next Christmas. That section is so vivid and lush compared to the stark austerity of Buckkeep that you almost share the joy Hobb felt in letting her pen create shimmering pools, polished wood and soft velvets.

Fitz’s own fortunes at Tradesford are not – shall we say – as conclusive as he had wished, and before he knows it he is running for his life, not back to Buckkeep, but off to the Mountain Kingdom, with Regal’s guards and Skilled coterie nipping at his heels, and Verity’s furious, unexplained Skill command, Come to me! seared into his mind. By the time he reaches Jhaampe he is – unsurprisingly, if you’ve followed Fitz this far – drained past the point of exhaustion and alive only by a severe effort of will. But there, at last, he finds warmth, old friends, an annoyingly persistent minstrel, and a sense of purpose.

Yes, I’ll admit it: for me the book only really came to life when the Fool came back into it. I love the Fool: I love his riddles; his mythology; his devotion to Fitz; and all his mystery. I’d forgotten that Hobb already begins to play with our assumptions in this novel, teasing us with questions about who and what the Fool is, and leaving us none the wiser. Having been an important but secondary character in the previous books, he comes into full force here with all of his characteristic biting wit, but also a surprising gentleness.

We will have to take up those lives, as little as we care for them, and fulfil all fate has decreed for us. But for here, for now, just between us two, and for no other reason save I am me and you are you, I tell you this. I am glad, glad you are alive. To see you take breath puts the breath back in my lungs. If there must be another my fate is twined around, I am glad it is you.

No longer the comfortably-dismissed ‘Fool’ of King Shrewd, his role in the company and the nature of his companionship with Fitz becomes ever more enigmatic, much to Fitz’s disquiet. Their increasingly strong bond could be described in a number of ways, but I choose not to describe it at all: it is what it is (Robin Hobb famously bans fanfiction based on her novels: I understand why). I love all the clues she drops into the story, although to be frank I can’t make anything more concrete of them second time round than I did first; but I do wonder whether there isn’t something of Orlando about the Fool (perhaps with a less defined start and end point).

And it rapidly becomes clear, as Fitz is troubled by Skill-visions of a vanished ancient world, that the Fool has links of his own with that lost civilisation, which both frighten and exhilarate him. Along the way Hobb throws in glimpses of legends and histories which give us a brief insight into the vast wealth of backstory she must have created for her world and which left me itching to know more: about the Skilled coteries, about the Elderlings, the ancient city and the other White Prophets whose writings are referred to here. Like all the best writers, Hobb just allows her characters to touch on these in conversation, or to remember a favourite song about an old hero, and then we move on: regretting the incompleteness, but somehow reassured that this world has an integrity and an existence beyond the story which we’re following in these particular books.

Fitz himself continues to be completely convincing, a reliably troubled and exasperated figure who understands only half of what he’s capable of and less than half of what’s going on around him, because no one bothers to explain it in terms that any sane person could understand. Yet this journey will begin to open his eyes, to the potential of both the Skill and the Wit, and to the dangers and lure of both. For Fitz, danger is no longer merely a physical thing but also something that can wind its way into his mind through the smallest chink. Concentration must be absolute and yet, at the same time, Fitz finds himself travelling through a country where the Skill brings the boundaries of past and present, dream and reality, enticingly close together. Not only does he come to appreciate the strength that is needed to resist, but also the selflessness and sacrifice of Verity’s own struggle with the Skill.

However, Fitz never comes to value such talents above the simple life he might have had and, in the name of his king, has put aside. All he truly wants is the normality that, as Farseer and Catalyst, he can never have: a future with the woman he loves and their child in his arms. Despite all this, he goes on, teeth gritted and loyal to his bleeding core, always determined to do what he believes to be right and serve his king, no matter how bitter the cost. And he will defend those whom he loves with every fibre of his being. That is why, notwithstanding his immaturity, his occasional pettiness, his pride and his lack of emotional intelligence, he does (I think) end up being a hero.

And where does the road end? Why, with dragons; and that’s no spoiler because there’s one on the cover. I must say that I admire how Hobb subtly brings fantasy into her world, allowing it to creep in so that it feels natural and innate and wonderful in the context of that world, allowing us to know and love her characters before gently nudging us along with them into revelations that shock and move us together with them. It’s very much the same tactic as George R.R. Martin, where the gritty medievalism of A Game of Thrones gradually gives way to fantastical elements that we accept more easily for the matter-of-fact way in which they’re filtered into a strong existing world.

What Fitz, the Fool and Kettricken discover at the end of their quest for Verity is something none of them could have imagined: something unbearably sad, but also tinged with the rousing splendour of nobility. I didn’t actually cry at any point, but there might have been a tear or two in the eye towards the end. As I watched everything being neatly tied up, I wondered whether Hobb had any thought of writing a second trilogy after this one. Certainly there is little sense of it. We are given as careful and elegant a conclusion as we could wish for, although I’m sure that I finished my first reading of the books with a tiny voice wistfully crying out inside me, ‘More! More!’ And, knowing there is more, I can no longer really look on this as truly ‘the end’. Because it isn’t. Thank God.

Incidentally, I had forgotten the final pages, in which Fitz speaks in a frustratingly vague fashion of his travels to Chalced and Bingtown and even up the Rain River. Part of me wonders when he was there. It means that he would have been tantalisingly close to… Oh. But wait. That’s another story…

Buy the book

Last in this series: Royal Assassin

Next in this series: Ship of Magic (technically speaking)

In time-honoured fashion, below are some of the alternative covers, ranging from the really rather pleasing to the mind-bogglingly weird. The newest American edition, showing Fitz in profile, looks more like him than any cover illustration I’ve yet seen, though he looks a bit too old for this trilogy, doesn’t he? This is how I imagine him in Fool’s Assassin. But we also have a rather scary, almost steampunk-looking dragon, a truly bizarre sleeping dragon with man’s head, and the usual batch of off-the-wall interpretations which make you wonder if anyone’s actually read the book.

I leave you with news, if you didn’t already know, that more Buckkeep adventures are on the publishing horizon. Hobb’s new book The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince will soon be published and, although this takes place many years before the Farseer books, I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about this legend, which crops up in The Tawny Man.

10 thoughts on “Assassin’s Quest (1997): Robin Hobb

  1. Heloise says:

    Assassin's Quest has what must be one of the saddest endings of any Fantasy trilogy, ever; and I confess that I did cry at Verity's fate (but then, I do tend to tear up easily reading books). At the same time, however, it is not at all depressing – “tinged with the rousing splendour of nobility” describes the feelings one is left with on closing the book very well, I think.

    I'm enjoying this series of reviews very much (and I still want to re-read the books!), and am looking forward to your posts on The Liveship Traders (which I personally liked even better than the Farseer Trilogy, but I'm probably in a minority there).

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks Heloise! Honestly, there was so much going on here that I didn't even attempt to discuss it all in the end – and I wouldn't want to spoil it too much for anyone who might be tempted to pick up the books. I'm looking forward to Liveship, because I remember much less about the story than I did about Farseer. I remember that I didn't enjoy this second trilogy quite as much as the Farseer books for the simple reason that my favourite characters weren't in it (or so I thought… *she says with an enigmatically raised eyebrow*).

  3. Isi says:

    All I can say is that I have got the books and that sooner or later I will read them. I would never know this saga if I haven't know your blog!

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