Books I Love: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Magic, dragons, swordplay, bastard princes, ancient evils, and, of course, assassins – Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy has all of the elements of classic fantasy. That alone would be enough to make me love this series, but there’s so much more to these books. They tell the story of a bastard prince, raised in the shadows to be a weapon for the king – a spy and assassin to be employed against the enemies of the kingdom. It’s part coming of age, part fantasy epic, part tale of noble sacrifice and, throughout, a story of the challenges of noblesse oblige.
Hobb creates some of the best character’s I’ve read in fantasy novels, period. Three dimensional and utterly believable, you can feel the agony of every decision that Fitz and the others must make, the struggles between loyalty and duty, and the constant balancing act between self and country. Though I first read this book better than 20 years ago, I can still name every important protagonist and villain without having to think too hard about it, a fact alone that makes this book worth recommending.
If you’re a fan of classic fantasy tales, but want something that branches out a bit from the Tolkeinesque view, then this book, and the Farseer Series in general, is for you.
Robin Hobbs is one of my favourite fantasy writers and her Farseer series is superb. The characters are fully fleshed out, and the main protagonists are thankfully not portrayed as all good or all bad but as individuals with human faults ans failings which makes their actual heroism the more relatable and their journey, both physical and psychological, more interesting. Whilst I first read “Assassin’s Apprentice” shortly after it was published in 1995, I remember details about all the characters with little effort because the author does such a great job at creating believable characters. The world in which they live, from the social and class structure to the different cultures is also believable and you don’t want to put any of the books in the series down. I especially enjoyed the way Hobbs described two different types of magic, one viewed was refined and named the Skill, a mix of telepathy and empathy connecting people but trained only in member of the royal family, and the Wit which is a connection between people and animals and widely regarded as dirty “beast magic”. Our main protagonist, Fitz, the royal bastard who is trained as an assassin for his uncle, King Shrewd, has both and struggles to reconcile these as well as the way the society regards his having the Wit. The King’s Fool is an enigmatic character we learn more about throughout this first trilogy and his evolving relationship with Fitz is brilliantly portrayed by Hobbs as is the internecine struggle for the throne which ultimately is able to be passed to Queen Kettricken, the widowed wife of King Shrewd’s son. As someone who always played a magician when involved with Dungeons & Dragons modules, I enjoyed the way Hobbs wrote about both types of magic. One genuinely grows fond the of characters, too, so by the time this trilogy is finished, one is left wanting more.
Thankfully, for those who enjoyed The Farseer trilogy, the “Tawny Man” trilogy was released starting in 2001, and I was again hooked on Hobbs’ world. Set 10 years after the Red Ships war ended, Queen Kettricken is older now and Hobbs introduces her son, Prince Dutiful, who is himself now struggling to reconcile his royal responsibilities with the pull of having both the Wit and the Skill. Fitz is called upon to help him with this, and then Hobbs introduces a society only referred to in outlines in the first trilogy, the OutIslanders, who they were previously at war with. The Outislanders are reminiscent of the Norse – they use “god runes” on maps to indicate Islands and are matrifocal which was also true for many in the Nordic world as well. Queen Kettricken, who we know from the first trilogy, mother to Prince Dutiful, has arranged his marriage, largely via couriers, between her son, Prince Dutiful, and this Outislander princess, Ellianna. However, when Elliana arrives at Kettrcicken’s court she throws down an unexpected challenge to Dutiful in order to prove he is worthy of marrying her. Dutiful, young and his ego sat stake, accepts and this challenge, a quest to kill a dragon on one of the Outislands, takes up most of this second trilogy.
The last trilogy involving Fitz and the enigmatic Fool is the “Fitz and the Fool” trilogy which I personally did not find as engrossing as the previous two trilogies. This may have been due to the way Fitz’s daughter, Bee, was written about. It just was not a series that seemed as interesting as the previous two and the ending in terms of what happened to Fitz and the Fool was somewhat disappointing and sad. In contrast, I would highly recommend the three books of “The Rain Wild Chronicles” which is focused on the Elderlings and the last of the dragons.