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.