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.