Royal Assassin – by Robin Hobb

If Assassin’s Apprentice verged at times upon the slow, reading Royal Assassin is like falling through treacle. That doesn’t sound complimentary, but actually it is, in a way. You hit the book with the speed built up at the end of the first volume, and within a few chapters it’s all lost, with an almost physical impact. As you keep on falling, the pressure around you builds and builds and you can’t breathe at all. It feels as though you’re not going anywhere, just getting more and more stuck – until suddenly you feel the last of the treacle moving from under you with an awful inhalation-sound, and then you’re in a rather unpleasant freefall onto a floor of rusty nails.

Come back! That was meant to be a compliment! I can see how it might sound bad, but it’s not!

What I mean is: in the first volume, Fitz is a marginalised boy with little control over his life. In the second volume, Fitz is a young man trying to take control of his life but gradually realising that he is no longer so much marginalised as trapped in the middle – no longer a pawn or an accidental victim, but increasingly a target. The book is an excellent demonstration of what it is like to be trapped – and indeed hunted.

In the first half of the book, this is still a fairly mild issue, with more focus on Fitz’s personal relationships than on the politics – though that is always a thread. I should warn you that some readers may find this half of the book boring and annoying – even I felt a little chafed at points. Fitz is a teenager, and teenage relationships – particularly difficult teenage romances – are not the easiest reading for many. But, although there is a great deal of whining and melancholy and lovelornness and pigheadedness, the action is never entirley devoted to this side of things. Fitz’s other relationships (including to his three contrasting father-figures, as well as some more equal ones) play a role, and the politics is always present. King Shrewd is old and increasingly ill; Prince Verity, increasingly tired and distracted by his work with the Skill; Prince Regal, increasingly ambitious; the Outislanders, increasingly devastating; and the rift between the front-line coastal duchies and the softer, more secure inland areas, increasingly dangerous. It seems difficult to imagine how a happy ending will be achieved at this point, for either Fitz or the Seven Duchies as a whole. And then, there is a glimmer of an idea…

…and things get very bad indeed. In a way, you could call this the “Empire Strikes Back” part of the trilogy, and it’s impressive how many guns Hobb brings out, and how mercilessly. At times it feels less like the traditional ‘adversity to triumph over’ episode and more like being a duck in a barrel. Not that Fitz is shot every chapter – its more the building dread as it becomes clear how little chance he or anyone else stands of getting out of the barrel before somebody decides to start shooting. The light at the end of the tunnel becomes smaller and fainter with each page. Not a book for people who like happiness and freehearted adventure.

Of course, it’s not just the second half. The book is pervaded by an unusual brutality – a brutality that is harsher for not being gratuitous, not being stylistic, not being revelled in. The very-early chapter they chose to give as a preview in the first book (although almost better as a stand-alone story than where it sits in the whole) hammers the severity, the reality, of the situation home very hard, like a big warning sign that looms over all the light-hearted moments that there are in the book, reminding us that this is serious, that there are Bad Things out there. A raid occurs, and one character asks the king’s Fool – a strange albino who is said to foretell the future – about the fate of one woman in particular, but he cannot answer – or rather, he answers too much:

Did she die? Yes. No. Badly burned, but alive. Her arm severed at the shoulder. Cornered and raped while they killed her children, but left alive. Sort of […] Roasted alive with the children when the burning structure fell on them. Took poison as soon as her husband awoke her. Choked to death on smoke. And died of an infection in a sword wound only a few days later. Died of a sword thrust. Strangled on her own blood as she was raped. Cut her own throat after she had killed the children while raiders were hacking her door down. Survived, and gave birth to a raider’s child the next summer. Was found wandering days laer, badly burned, but recalling nothing. Had her face burned and her hands hacked off, but live a short…”

By this stage in the action, we know that these are not hypotheses – the Fool is telling us the fate of every woman in the town that was raided, one by one, throwing his knowledge into the face of everyone who didn’t prevent it – and anyone egotistical enough to ask only after one individual person.

Yes, it’s a bloody book. There’s cannibalism, there’s babies pulled apart, there’s ‘good guys’ ripping people’s throats out with their teeth, there’s people tortured to death, and the ‘hero’, as the title implies, murders people for a living. It’s not the most blood-soaked or most graphic book I’ve read, but it’s one of the hardest-hitting in its brutality – because it isn’t there for show, and because there is a perfect balance of callousness (in showing us the world) and compassion (in insisting that it matters that the world is like that). It isn’t, like some less mature books, “well, the world is shit, let’s get on with it”, it’s “the world is shit. It shouldn’t be.” Unlike so many novels in a pre-modern setting, there is an aching anger here, insisting the world should be better – but without a patronising or anachronistic prescription for how to actually improve it. In a way, that makes this a more true, more realistic, depiction of such a place – because, yes, people would have accepted what they saw around them, maybe even thought it inevitably, but they would also have hurt because of it. People criticise Hobb sometimes for making Fitz (and her other characters) suffer, but at least in this book, the suffering Fitz experiences is only a reflection of the terrible suffering that fills her world. The second sentence of this paragraph suggests a sensationalist approach to violence, but that’s not so at all – I just plucked these things out of my memory, and they didn’t seem sensational or out of place when I read them. Just… part of what happens. The way the world is. And we never forget that for every character who is rescued, every character who does escape, there is someone else who “strangles on her own blood as she was raped”. And she’s just as important.

It’s that egality, indeed, that rejection of the fantasy superman who’s more important than everyone else, that in a way shapes the narrative: by the end of this book, it’s clear that Fitz is not going to be the magical dashing prince who heroically saves the day and goes down in legend. From the beginning of his life to the end of it, he is, as it were, a supporting character. He takes centre-stage from time to time, and perhaps in the end everything does depend on him, but it’s not really his story after all. In a way, the point is that it’s everyone’s story – that everyone plays some role in things, and it’s not always the lead actor who’s most important.

On the subject of taboos of violence, by the way, the sex may have some curious affects on some readers. It’s not explicit in the slightest – but for various reasons, which I won’t go into, some moments may provoke perverted horniness, revulsion, nonchalence, or confused uncertainty, depending on your personal morality (and perhaps your views on metaphysics). Again, it’s not sensational at all – no “my god, what just happened!” moment, but just one or two “err… hang on, wait a sec, wuh… okay, how do I feel about that?” moments.

The book is not perfect. The whole project may be unappealing to some – too little sword-swinging, too much lovestruck depresion, perhaps too claustrophobic (this is the opposite of the common ‘fantasy travelogue’ species, as the action is almost entirely confined to a single town, and most often a single building, with only occasional chapters of brief excursion). The pace may be too slow for some, particularly in the first half. The amount of suffering in the world, and the anxieties and pains of Fitz in particular, may be found boring, upsetting, or frustrating.

On the more technical side… it’s hard to find objections. Most of the ungainliness that sometimes affected the dialogue in the first volume is gone now. The biggest remaining problem is, in my opinion, Hobb’s paranoid recapping, where we are reminded fully of all the important events of the first novel, both through narration and occasionally through dialogue, and sometimes even events from only a few chapters ago. There were several times when I found myself annoyed by this. Fortunately, this drops out as we move through the book, and doesn’t get in the way of the mounting tension.

More generally: even I wanted to slap Fitz and tell him to get a move on in the first half. But if you don’t mind wading through to the whirlpool of the second half, it’s definitely worth it. With twists, turns, drama and consequences, this is one of the greatest climaxes in any fantasy book I’ve read – and, perhaps because the action of the third volume will follow more closely from it, it is less frustrating in its post-climactic section, without Hobb’s frequent sin of overly-rapid wrapping-up.

Also worth mentioning is the characterisation. Although there is more direction in this volume than in the first, that doesn’t mean that the characterisation is less emphasised. As the situation worsens, new facts emerge about several of the small cast of characters, and new facets of others are displayed. The result is that not only Fitz but also Burrich, the Fool, Verity, Shrewd, Patience and others become rich, fleshed-out, subtly tragic figures. It is a slow drawing, without the flashy skill of some more literary writers, and occurs largely in the background, but it is highly, quietly, effective. The resulting characters may not be the greatest in literature, but they are more than good enough for light entertainment.

Adrenaline: 4/5. The excitement gradually increases through the book and by the end it’s gripping. However, due to its length and the long slow start, I can’t give it a perfect score.

Emotion: 3/5. I feel this score ought to be higher, but for some reason I didn’t really vividly connect with the emotional situation of the characters. Nonetheless, even without a direct personal connexion, it’s hard not to feel the desparation in the atmosphere and the quiet notes of tragedy.

Thought: 2/5. Not a lot of thinking required or wanted. The plot gets twisty enough that you might expect a degree of thinking-ahead, but it’s so brutally contingent, so real, that that just doesn’t help.

Beauty: 3/5. As before: nothing to say here, really. It’s all functional, but not too ungainly.

Craft: 4/5. Still not quite perfect, but generally excellent in construction.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked this book. And the fact it’s been a favourite of mine for nearly a decade shows that it lingers in my affections. On the other hand, I did get bored, frustrated or irritated at times, particularly in the first half, so again not perfect.

Originality: 3/5. Again, old tropes, new application. Nothing screamed ‘cliché!’ or ‘tired!’, but then again nothing really surprised me with its novelty either.

Overall: 5/7. Good. A better book than the first installment. Better than most fantasy, too. In a way, when I first read this, this trilogy (and in particular this volume) was what kept my attraction to fantasy, reassured me it could produce good books (later, I discovered Martin). In many ways it’s excellent – but I can also see why the “Fitz is a whiner” crowd hate the books.  That said, I don’t – I really don’t.

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OK, I give in.

I’ve taken the extraneous S out of the title. It was never misspelled, it was a joke, but it’s now just become annoying to me.

 

Except that now I’m so used to that version that it looks wrong to me spelled correctly. Dammit. That’s what you get for being ironic.

Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb

The nobles of the Six Duchies are given names that represent the qualities their parents wish them to have. And so King Shrewd has three sons, named Chivalry, Verity, and Regal. Chivalry is a brilliant diplomat and a charismatic general who inspires loyalty and affection in everyone he meets; Verity is bluff, honest, down-to-earth soldier happy to lead where his brother follows; their younger half-brother Regal is a politician, a charmer, a man who would look good on a throne. All appears well; until another male of royal blood appears, this time with no name at all, a young boy brought to the gates of a fortress – Chivalry’s bastard son.

Assassin’s Apprentice is the first book of a trilogy – later to be followed by an independent but connected trilogy in the same world, and later still by a sequel trilogy of its own. Each of the nine connected volumes (and I hear there is another couple added since that I have not yet read) is not gargantuan, but is certainly fairly hefty, so this is not a book to start if you’re afraid of big page-counts…

When I first picked up this novel to re-read it, I was a bit worried. Nostalgia always makes the heart grow fonder, and I had always remembered these books as superior fantasy fare. Would my delusions be shattered? The first few pages were not promising – slow, whiney, unnatural in prose. Self-conscious. But then either it improved or I got into it, because I ripped through the book, and am now halfway through the second volume before even having had time to review the first (which is a bit of a problem for me, as the two are merging into one in my mind…)

This is not groundbreaking fantasy. All the standard tropes are there, from the bastards and the magic and the viking raiders down to the cod-medieval inflection. Putting a positive spin on that: if you’re used to epic fantasy, nothing here will scare you. It’s very familiar and very comfortable.

And yet: familiar it may be, but it is still surprisingly original. This is a long-lost cousin, not the brother you see every day – the same features are there, but their arrangement is novel and somehow uncanny. Assassin’s Apprentice is original in both content and in setting – the latter distinguished by its relative dearth of magic. There are no elves, dwarfs, goblins, or dragons – there are no fireballs, no floating castles, no zombies. There is talk of – but no appearance by or even confirmation of the existence of – various legendary non-human races (Others, Elderlings, pecksies), and one character who is said not to be entirely human, but so far as can be seen his only distinguishing feature is that he is an albino, so that may be folklore.

Magic is not only rumour – there are at least two kinds attested (the Skill, a telepathy-based art, and the Wit, a form of enhanced empathy, particularly with animals), while various hedge magics are spoken of and widely believed in (mostly forms of prognostication), and levitation and the like exist in legends, but are generally considered as fictional as they are in our world. No magic has any great or prominent role in the lives of ordinary people, though the Skill is traditionally employed by the ruling Farseer family for political and military gain – its practice, at the begining of the book, has been severely degraded by loss of knowledge, and only three people are known to use it any longer. Not only are these magics rare, but they are subtle and almost natural – much is made, indeed, of how akin to other phenomena they are (the Wit is an extension of the natural empathy felt by all people, while the oneness-of-mind brought by the Skill is compared to the efficient, wordless working of a practiced crew of sailors; the Wit is what makes someone look up before they hear a knock at the door, and the Skill is what lets them know what a loved one is about to say before they say it). This is not just a feature of the books, but a noteworthy strength – this is the most natural presentation of magic that I’ve seen, avoiding the traps of both mysticism and scientism. This is greatly aided – I realise, on re-reading – by the trick of having the main character, Fitz, begin the book very young and naive, so that he accepts the world around him without question, and we are lead to do so likewise.

Beyond that, the world feels fairly conventional, somewhere toward the dark age end of the medieval continuum. Points should be given, however, for the brief but interesting descriptions of the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom, best summarised as a sort of fantasy Tibet.

As I’ve hinted, the plot is a coming-of-age story as the bastard grows into a hero. This first novel takes us from early childhood through to his teenage years and his first serious assumption of responsibility. Inevitably, this will put some people off. Children are self-centred, and when they’re as isolated as Fitz is, they can get self-pitying. That’s the most common complaint about these novels: that Fitz whines too much. I didn’t find that a problem at all in this first volume – although it’s true that there are a few passages about feeling alone and having no friends, I didn’t feel it was overdone or out of place, and it didn’t get in the way of the plot.

A bigger problem for the plot was its own near-total absence. Fitz grows up, learns things, meets people, things happen. Only near the end of the novel does an actual plot break out. This could be a problem for some readers – particularly if they don’t instinctively like Fitz – but again, I didn’t find it an obstacle. Although the action (if such it can be called) is seemingly unguided and meandering, it’s actually not that slow, and it’s not wasted either: each chapter moves the novel on and establishes things that have to be established. In fact, the lack of a driving plot gives it a degree of freshness and vitality – you never quite know when something important’s going to happen, or which developments will be followed up and which fall into the background. Moreover, this is the first book of a trilogy (and the first of three trilogies), so I think a degree of leniency should be given – and by the end of the novel, while there’s still no trilogy-spanning plot in place, the ingredients are all clear, with an established cast of goodies and baddies, some Problems established that will have to be addressed, and the main character equipped with a clear character, skill-set, and array of priorities, loyalties and obligations. It’s a set-up novel, and it does a pretty admirable job of not always feeling like one – the incidents have importance of their own, and it doesn’t feel as though Hobb is simply making these things happen for plot reasons.

Where Hobb’s writing is really original within the genre, however, is in the focus, which is firmly upon the characterisation at all times. In this, she is often compared to George RR Martin, and the similarity is certainly there – but there are differences. Whereas Martin seems to take all the stock characters and try to give them all a bit of depth, Hobb focuses more tightly on a very small (for the genre) cast of characters. Her characterisation also feels more natural than Martin’s – where Martin’s characters often display hidden depths or unexpected facets for plot reasons, or as a sort of philosophical demonstration (‘look, even this seeming villain has his virtues!’), Hobb’s seem to develop wherever their nature leads. It’s hard to know how to describe this. They actually aren’t very complicated or ‘deep’ characters, and could well be accused of being a bit predictable, but they’re very… rounded? They feel like real people, inspiring real like or dislike. And yes, that does mean that some of them are obvious villains because quite frankly they’re arseholes – and others are obvious goodies because they’re really likeable and you don’t want anything to happen to them. There’s not a lot of grey inbetween, frankly. But that also happens in real life – yes, you meet people who redeem themselves or reveal some hidden virtues, but you also meet people who honestly are ghastly to know, even if you understand them or even pity them. I felt I understood the characters in this novel – and it’s true that most of them aren’t that hard to understand, they’re not all enigmas waiting to be unlocked by a brilliant psychological insight. Most of them are pretty plain and simple people – like a lot of people in real life.

The best summary, then, might be this: Hobb’s characters are the plain, striking archetypal characters familiar from a lot of epic fantasy, but rounded and coloured in and painted in better detail, so that they retain their instinctive comprehensibility while nonetheless managing to feel real and convincing. Like normal epic fantasy, but better.

Another key difference from Martin is the perspective – where Martin has third-person narration looking over the shoulder of multiple POV characters, all Hobb gives us is the first-person account of Fitz himself. Everything is seen through Fitz’s eyes, and the clarity and depth of the world correspondingly weakens as we get further from his field of vision.

Fitz is everything. In the absence of a plot, we have a character: Fitz. Everything is subordinate to the portrayal of that character. The success of the novel and the trilogy, therefore, hinges on whether you personally like or dislike Fitz. I like him, so I like the books. I like him, and therefore the excursions into self-analysis do not bother me, but only bring me closer to him. If you hate him, you’ll want to throw the book across the room a lot, because he does talk about (and to) himself a lot. But that’s the point. And unlike some coming-of-age characters, Fitz does do things as well, lots of things – its just that the actions are there to express and progress his character and personality, rather than his character and personality being there to express and progress the plot. Book-externally, that is – within the book, Fitz is a very (and increasingly) confined and manipulated boy, pushed along by the plot without many opportunities for self-control.

I say ‘Fitz’, but more properly I should speak of two of them. One Fitz is the child who is the focus of the narrative; the other Fitz is the author of the narrative, who appears to be talking directly to us, many years after the events of the book – and who is also responsible for some or all of the encyclopedia-style discursions on random (or cunningly chosen) topics that head the chapters. Some of these are info-dumps, some are trivia, some are actually very telling alternative perspectives on the events of the chapter to come. Most aren’t that fun to read, but as they’re usually only a paragraph or two it’s not a problem, and they can provide a useful second view of things – useful because otherwise we are so dependent on the perspective of child-Fitz, and these entries give us a broader (and more cynical) overview.

This second Fitz is responsible for my problem at the start of the novel – because although he is normally talking only about his younger self, the later form does surface now and then – usually the beginning or end of a chapter, as though the older man’s attention has wandered from the story to himself, but also at the beginning and end of the book itself. Generally, the more direct the address from narrator to audience, the more self-conscious and ungainly it is, and this hurts the first chapter or two, where (Fitz-the-character being too young to do or even think much of interest) Fitz-the-narrator has to take a more central role. I say ‘role’, but it’s not that we learn (much) about F-t-N himself, more that we get more of his voice, more of his musings, and less of F-t-C’s voice and musings. The way Hobb makes F-t-N seem older and more weary, more worn-down and rueful, than his younger self, is quite skilled – but the actual content and prose can be a bit ouchy sometimes.

In general, the prose throughout the book is universally unexceptional. I barely spotted a bad or a good sentence, although the prose, and particularly the dialogue, does tend to the archaic throughout, which may be a problem for some, but not for practised readers of fantasy. The only time I struggled with it was at the beginning, where it felt that F-t-N was intentionally striving for a more authoritative, formal, tone, almost an intoning tone – and that felt less natural and less convincing. The other major problem with the dialogue is the tendency of characters to repeat large chunks of what others have told them in direct speech, verbatim, in a wholly unnatural way. But that too is a common trope, and while it scratches a little it’s not a major issue. It’s also true that while Fitz’s personality generally seems in keeping with his age (albeit, of course, with the hastened maturity forced on him by a hard environment, both of the historic setting and of his own personal situation), sometimes his dialogue in the early parts can be a bit too precocious, a bit too verbose. But that, I think, is a problem with almost all portrayals of child characters.

Related to this is the prose problem of exposition – there are some long speeches both in the dialogue and by the narrator which are clearly just there to infodump – and the structural problem of reporting – a lot of people spend a lot of time sitting around listening to people report things that we already know about. Neither problem is fatal – the first declines over time once we’ve got a better idea of the background, and the second is ameliorated by not making us actually sit through the report ourselves (instead we simply get “I reported” or “I gave my report” or “I repeated what..” and so on), but still helps to give the impression of a fairly action-light, talking-heavy novel. Which is strange, because in fact there is not an unusual amount of dialogue, and there is an awful lot of action.

The pace, then, is slow – not glacial, like some fantasy novels, but certainly not rapid. I would call it ‘deliberate’ or ‘organic’. This is strange because a lot of things happen, and there’s never a long period without something happening. Its more that those actions are low-key enough, small enough relative to the looming threats, and sufficiently character-based and talking-based that the pace appears slower than it is. I found myself ripping through it, enjoying what was happening, not finding it slow at all – until I paused, looked back, and wondered what had happened. The end of the  book picks up the pace notably, but this is a mixed blessing – although enough pages are devoted to the climax that it ought to be sufficient, its complexity and excitement mean that, after the relatively slow episodes earlier, it feels as though it needs more room. That is: objectively, read by itself, the climax would probably feel well paced, but comparing how much attention is paid to the life-or-death moments and unexpected twists of the climax to how much attention is paid to the quiet, character-establishing talks and brief interludes of action earlier in the book, it feels as though the climax is short-changed and a little rushed. Nonetheless, it is gripping and suprisingly fresh-scented.

Unfortunately, Hobb has a problem with endings. This ending has three parts: the climax, the anticlimax, and the epilogue. The climactic episode is great, but just as it finally hits its peak it collapses into a very quick resolution and tying-up, far too brief for what has gone before it. As if aware of this, there is then a formal epilogue – not those one-page things you get in Gemmell or the like, but a full chapter-worth of what-happened-next stuff which feels like an ungainly and unnecessary way to link the novel to its sequel. Fortunately, this edition ends with a preview of a chapter from the next book, and it’s one of the best chapters of the trilogy.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Although meandering and deliberate, it doesn’t slow down much, and it accelerates toward the end. Hobb does a good job of making the content feel fresh and unpredictable, when in other hands it could feel very derivative.

Emotion: 2/5. From the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy, you don’t expect to be put through the wringer, and in this case we aren’t. What emotion there is is largely melancholic, and may irritate some readers. That said, these are clearly emotive characters, with whom I empathised greatly.

Thought: 3/5. Few great moral dilemmas, no real mysteries, and although the plot is not flatly predictable, it isn’t baffling and intriguing either. Not a stupid book, but it doesn’t set out to engage the brain cells. I suppose it should be considered average on this score, boosted by the tricky plotting of the climactic section.

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot of beauty in the prose… or the events… or the metaphors, or the scenary. Not ugly, I suppose.

Craft: 4/5. There are some obvious flaws that I consider either inexperience or the constraints of the form. By and large, Hobb’s craft is quite sophisticated, creating interesting and sincere characters, a well-drawn and quietly distinctive world (with an excellent magic ‘system’, though that word is a misnomer here), a plot that makes you think she’s thought about it at least twice, and half a dozen moments of foreshadowing, expectation-subversion or ironic subtext that made me think “hey, that’s clever…”.

Endearingness: 4/5. Yes, Fitz is a BIT too whiney now and then, and spends too much of this novel too young. But I still love him, and several of the other characters as well, and I really do like the setting too, and while it all may feel a bit woolly and ponderous to some people, I found it comfortable, relaxing, and endearing – while still having enough bite and intrigue to it to keep me awake.

Originality: 2/5. There’s very little here that genuinely original, not found elsewhere in fantasy. But, as I say, the way it’s all put together is distinctive. I’ve not read any fantasy author quite like her.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I can’t lie: this isn’t a literary classic. I wouldn’t recommend this to snobs who look down on fantasy, to show them the error of their ways. I would recommend it to people who like fantasy but want something a bit better than TSR and similar fare, something a bit more impressive and respectable. Fantasy but better. From the other books I’ve reviewed, the closest in type are the Empire novels – this is better written, though with a little less headline impact.