Fitz and the Fool: Book I
And so the first book in Robin Hobb’s new trilogy is published, reacquainting us with characters whom we last met ten years ago in the heart-rending Fool’s Fate (or during last year’s reread, in my case). I was thrilled to be granted a review copy of Fool’s Assassin, which I’ve mulled over for some months, and now, as publication date draws nigh, it’s time to share my thoughts. As you know, Hobb’s books have played a crucial role in my formation as a reader, and ever since I heard that a new trilogy was in the pipeline, I haven’t been able to help feeling rather anxious. Let me explain.
The first two trilogies about Fitz – The Farseer and The Tawny Man – tell an evocative and powerful story in which adventure and political intrigue combine with a masterful and sympathetic first-person narration. They are beautifully balanced, full of poise. Hobb is extremely good at giving just enough information to tease and tantalise us, without taking the final step that would rip away the veil and destroy the magic. I wondered whether a new trilogy would be able to maintain that sleight of hand and tight control. And I had more personal qualms. What if I didn’t like what I found? What if the characters no longer ‘rang true’?
And, most crucially, would the story feel as if it had to be told? How could it grow organically out of the earlier books, when they ended on such a tidily resolved note? Despite my love for the characters and this world, I was concerned that this book might just feel like an excuse to bring Fitz back. And, although I very much want to tell you that this series is gripping and just as overwhelmingly brilliant as the earlier books, I’m not going to do that just because it’s by one of my favourite authors and features two of my favourite characters. The series is going to have to work for it. It’s tough being one of my favourite authors: I get very uncompromising. And, for now, the jury is still out.
We open the book at Withywoods, the country estate where Fitz (known to all as Tom Badgerlock) and his beloved wife Molly have built a comfortable life for themselves. Fitz is in his late forties and, although this will come as a shock to anyone who’s spent much time in his company, he’s actually content. He has the woman he loves, affectionate stepchildren, and the gratitude of the court at Buckkeep, where Dutiful is now king and Fitz’s daughter Nettle is Skillmistress. But fear not, fellow Hobbers: we’ve barely stepped into the story before dark undercurrents start to emerge.
Although Fitz has put his days of quests and dragons behind him, he’s still haunted by memories of Nighteyes and the Fool; and, although he plays at being a country gentleman, you only have to scratch the surface to find the assassin underneath. Molly is ailing with an unspecified illness which seems to be weakening her mind as much as her body, and Fitz is terrified of being left alone again. And then he hears rumours of strange messengers who seem to be trying to find him, but who are being hunted down en route to prevent them reaching him. The past begins to rear its head once more and Fitz will soon find that, even after all these years, danger can still strike too close to home.
The rest of the post goes into more detail, with some spoilers, so I strongly advise you only carry on if you’ve already read the book (and then tell me what you make of it all).
Ahem. Now, much as I love Fitz, I’ve often felt that the Farseer books don’t really spark into life until the Fool comes onto the scene. In the present book, this proves to be an issue. If a character is named in the title of the book, and the title of the trilogy, and is name-dropped every couple of chapters, the law of Chekov’s Gun states that he has to turn up before the final page. But Hobb cuts it pretty fine. Indeed, even the book’s title comes from a conversation that takes place only in the last few pages, rather than reflecting what happens in the story. It’s a little misleading, although it does allow Hobb deliberately to toy with our expectations. (This leads to some slightly unconvincing moments: I simply don’t believe that Fitz would have mistaken even another White for the Fool for any length of time.)
The main divergence from the spirit of the earlier books is the introduction of a second first-person narrator. I grant you: I can hardly complain that this disrupts the flow of the story when I enjoyed the interplay between two first-person narrators in Doctrine of Labyrinths, but it’s a slightly different case. If we were starting with entirely new characters it wouldn’t bother me at all as long as it made sense. However, what I’ve always loved so much about the Farseer books is that we get to immerse ourselves so deeply in Fitz’s own mind. It’s the contrast between what he does and what he feels that gives the books their deep emotional charge. And this was weakened by the introduction of Bee’s chapters, especially towards the end, when I felt that she was taking over as narrator from Fitz. I really don’t want that to happen. (‘I’m losing him!!!’ I scrawled in my notes at the time.)
While I understand that it will be useful to have a narrator in the ‘other place’ as we go into the second book, I have a strong dislike of precocious child characters. One of the strengths of Assassin’s Apprentice was that Fitz was looking back at his childhood and so we didn’t really need a plausibly childlike narration. Bee, however, sounds far too grown up even though we’re meant to accept that she’s intellectually and emotionally advanced for her age. For me, she feels slightly more like a plot device than a real person: a way to kick off a new narrative arc. (And, for heaven’s sake, why has no one twigged that she’s a White Prophet? You’d have thought that Fitz, of all people, would have noticed that.) Furthermore, of course, I slightly resent Bee because she promises to become a bit of a third wheel in my favourite fictional partnership and I really don’t want anything to change the dynamic which made the earlier books shine.
Fitz himself hasn’t changed that much and, actually, the fact that he hasn’t is significant. Perhaps I wasn’t concentrating in the earlier books, but I hadn’t realised that one of the effects of his Skill-healing would be to slow down the aging process. This gets over the problems I’d anticipated in having an older protagonist, because it means that although Fitz is technically in his fifties by the end of the book, he’s got the looks, energy and abilities of someone twenty years younger. (Perhaps that’s just to reassure any readers who prefer not to have well-seasoned fantasy heroes?) Something I did find odd is that he doesn’t make more of an effort to follow up on the thwarted messengers at an earlier stage. From what we’ve seen of him in the past, we know that he’s committed to his friends and I don’t think it likely that he would just sit back and puzzle about the fact that the Fool might be in trouble. Admittedly, now that the Skill print on his wrist has gone, there isn’t much he can do…
But I spent the first six books shouting at him for being an idiot because he goes blundering into fragile situations like a bull in a china shop, while here, by contrast, I sometimes felt he was being an idiot for not doing enough. Needless to say, once the Fool arrives, it’s as if nothing has changed between them, although I wonder how long Hobb can preserve the delicate balance she built up in The Tawny Man. There were points in this novel where she almost seemed to be parodying her own elusiveness, as Fitz keeps being forced to deny pointed questions from other characters about his ‘closeness’ to his old friend. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not remotely surprised she bans fan-fiction.
So now, waiting for the second book, I feel slightly in limbo. This first instalment was a little bit of a disappointment. It felt overly padded out with scene-setting and minutiae, and things took a long time to get going, much as they did in the meandering Rain Wild Chronicles. Yet I still trust Hobb. I hope that, in book two, we’ll be off on an adventure again and that she will return to the tightly-plotted, rich and emotionally convincing style of writing which made her earlier Farseer books such a joy. I must emphasise, of course, that this is only my opinion. I’ve already spotted some glowing reviews on LibraryThing: no doubt we’ll see many more reviews coming out when the book is published, and many of them will be very good, because people will understandably just be delighted to have Fitz and the Fool back again. For me, however, it’s important to acknowledge the teething problems.
Fellow Hobb readers: please do let me know what you think of the novel when you get round to it. Am I being overly blinkered and resistant to change? Is it a mistake to want the Farseer books to continue in much the same spirit as the earlier novels? Or do you agree with some of the concerns I’ve mentioned above? I would be grateful to know what others think. So far I feel rather troubled that I can’t love this as much as I desperately wanted to. Of course, if anyone would like to drop me an email to discuss the plot in more detail, with no need to worry about spoilers, I will be more than happy to dissect the book with you!
Oh, and just in case you feel there isn’t enough angst in this volume, we finish with a promise that we’re about to embark on the darkest period of Fitz’s life. Which, knowing Fitz, is saying something.
Next in this series: Fool’s Quest
Sadly the customary Hobb cover feature won’t be terribly elaborate, as there are only three different designs currently in use, but I thought I’d stick with tradition anyway.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.