Assassin’s Quest – Robin Hobb

The Six Duchies would fall. The world would end.

We went to fetch blankets.


“Even while [they] were raping me, they seemed to take no pleasure in it. At least, not the kind of pleasure… They mocked my pain and struggling. Those who watched were laughing as they waited[…] It was a thing they could do to me, so they did it. I had always believed, perhaps childishly, that if you followed the rules, you would be protected, that things like that would not happen to you. Afterwards I felt … tricked. Foolish. Gullible, that I had thought ideals could protect me. Honour and courtesy and justice … they are not real.”

When I talked about Royal Assassin, I made a lot of the gradually increasing pace, which slowly mounts from a standing start to a frightening end. Assassin’s Quest is the opposite of that. The first half of the book continues at the same pace – if you put together second half of RA and the first half of AQ, you’d have a thoroughly riveting all-action adventure – but as it goes on it gets slower and slower and slower. I still enjoyed it, but it became heavy – I would read a chapter, enjoy it, but then feel that I needed a break. Hence why it has taken me so long to finish.

Assassin’s Quest is in some ways quite a disjointed book, easily split up into segments. There are approximately seven stages of varying lengths, which fall into two clear parts, although they aren’t labelled as such.

Part One is the mirror of the second half of Royal Assassin. Where that novel depicts the ‘teenager’ phase of Fitz’s maturation (not necessarily in age, but in role), with the lovelorn boy gradually confined, pressured, restrained and crushed by heavy weights, unable to escape either from his situation or his location, Part One of this novel relates what happens after the lid has been taken off the pressure. Predictably, it’s explosive. It is, as some have complained, not entirely wise – like many young men suddenly freed from the bonds of childhood, some of his goals and decisions are not perhaps the most sensible – but it’s enthusiastic, even exhilarating in its liberation, even as we simultaneously feel the great weariness within Fitz. There are three sections to this: the first, wrapping up the ramifications of the events at the end of the last novel; the second, showing new determination, and the third, a period of doubt and uncertainty. The first section is a little ungainly, but that couldn’t be helped; the second section is the most straightfoward adventure, and the third introduces more depth. All together, the first part is twisty and turny and full of event, but not without psychological acuity as well.

Part Two, as the momet of elation passes into a man’s dedication to a cause, his re-entering of the adult world, this time as an equal, is more problematic. And unfortunately it comes last, which doesn’t help the reputation of the book as a whole, as this is what they remember. In fact, the bit people complain about only lasts a few chapters – but it’s a few chapters of increasing sloth where we expect increasing speed.

That sloth is not without reason. The first section of this part, the bulk of it, is the procession to the ending, and because it is an emotional ending as well as a purely narrative ending – the novel remains primarily character-driven – it tries to impress the importance of the character development with weight and significance. It feels much like the way some pieces of music become slower and louder as they build to a solemn conclusion, or the way a river broadens and slows at nears the ocean. If it convinces you, it’s a moving and majestic – if it doesn’t, it’s an interminable travelogue filled up with boring character interaction. Indeed, the whole of the book has been accused of being a travelogue – I had no problem with this. Not much time is spent lingering on the surroundings, after all, it’s just a background for a character who keeps moving. Frankly, I’m surprised this is the part people have a problem with, rather than the previous novel, which was set almost entirely within a single building (and only about four rooms of that building). And then there’s the end. Or rather: then there’s three endings in a row. There’s the climax, the anticlimax, and the epilogue. (Not marked as such, but that’s clearly what it is). The climax (or climaxes, as there are actually two) work well enough, and the epilogue is sheer genius; and although I remembered the anticlimax as terrible, it’s actually not that bad. Basically, Hobb wanted to reach the epilogue, which requires eveything to be wrapped up, but the soul of the book is finished with the climax, so she has attempted to pass very rapidly from climax to epilogue with a whistlestop round-up of all the loose ends. I think that maybe because I was reading slowly this time it worked for me – if you go at full speed through all the slow weight of the climax and then suddenly drop off a cliff when you get to the anticlimax, it may well annoy you.

Hobb’s strengths are her plotting and her characters. She has a particular way of producing plots that are eventful and unexpected but that do not feel manipulative or artificial. In this sense, she is a true story-teller. She’s able to do this because her characters feel so natural (except Kettle. She may have hidden depths that help explain her, but for too much of the novel she’s a stock cliché), and because she allows them all the room they require. They are not railroaded into the plot, the plot evolves out of them. This authorial philosophy is seen most strongly in the character of Starling, who is, in the final analysis, entirely superfluous to the plot. There’s no reason for her to exist! But she does, and she’s a brilliant character, and she’s there because Hobb wanted to tell us about the character.

Of course, if you don’t care about characters per se and only want action, this renders the second half of the book rather dull. And it also makes the books very reliant on the likeability of their characters – particularly in the first half, where Fitz is more alone (both literally and metaphorically) than at any other time at the series. Now, I love Fitz, so for me this was a highlight, but those who find him whiny and stupid [patronising views, I think, from people who judge with the benefit of an omnipotent viewpoint, and who do not remember adolescence] are likely to groan when they find him alone and free to monologue internally. And it should also be said that those who [equally unfairly in my view] complain about how much suffering and physical damage Fitz has to go throw will also not be best pleased. There aren’t any prolonged and graphic torture scenes or anything here (and Hobb never feels gratuitous, even when discussing the worst things possible), but he does get put through the wringer. I think that’s entirely appropriate – Fitz isn’t a god, he doesn’t have superhuman powers of badassery, and his continued survival in dangerous situations is due to a combination of good luck and superior determination. Personally, I think that making the hero someone stubborn enough to not give in until he’s won, rather than making him someone so universally superb that he can win everything easily, a good decision. Others may disagree. He’s sort of an anti-Mary Sue: he’s set up with skills and abilities and knowledge in so many different areas, but as it turns out he’s only minimally or averagely competant in any of them, and generally hopelessly outmatched by his enemies.

Her characterisation, in my opinion, is superb; but some may not find it so. This, as I suggested in my other reviews, is because her characters are very natural – they are not all exceptional individuals, they are not strikingly good or strikingly bad or strikingly peculiar or even strikingly complex. They’re just people. This series, I think, is the epitome of the “gritty fantasy” that’s now become popular – but it feels distinct, because this doesn’t flaunt its violations of taboos or wave its ideology in your face. It’s very low-key and very matter-of-fact. Very human. In a way, that makes it even darker. A great example is the one I quoted above, where one character talks about being raped. The scene occurs in the dark, so that nobody can see them crying, but other than that it’s very straightforward. We don’t see graphic depictions of rapes and murders, we don’t see people wailing and screaming about how terrible the world is, we just get one person talking quietly about what has happened to them, and how it has changed them. It’s very brutalised – and very alienated. The book is full of moments of casual brutalisation. A character doesn’t just kill an enemy soldier and take their money – they take note of the personal items in the dead soldier’s purse and wonder about their lives. At one point Fitz kills somebody he recognises, and spends some time thinking sadly about shared memories from his younger years. It’s not – in my opinion – mawkish or sentimental, it’s just that the author is always at pains to remind us of the human suffering behind every action – even the actions of the heroes.  I think another reason people may not like Fitz is that he doesn’t slaughter his enemies with badass puns – he pities them. Humanity – albeit humanity in the most constrained and terrible of circumstances – is his strongest characteristic, and the core characteristic of the trilogy as a whole.

Indeed, the moral ambiguity in general is worth mentioning. Although we’re assured that the good guys are doing things that are For The Best, we almost have to take it on faith, because in this world The Best is still pretty awful – we realise this at the end in particular, when we zoom out to understand the underlying causes of the conflicts in the trilogy, and have a bittersweet comprehension of the possible consequences of “victory”. Indeed, hints that we should be somewhat uneasy crop up as early as the second book, where we see, amongst other things, the oppressive nature of the Outislander regime (that is, many ‘enemies’ are actually just as opposed to the enemy government as the good guys are), the racism of the ordinary people toward the Outislander refugees, and an uncomfortable number of references to seeking a “final solution” to the Outislander problem. Our real-world knowledge should warn us at this point that final solutions are never the end of the matter, and the determination to seek them can lead to unsavory consequences.

The naturalism that underpins her characterisation is also seen – tangentially, but symbolically enough that it’s worth mentioning – in the topic of knowledge. Fitz lives in a confusing world, and much of the third volume is discovery, and piecing together of facts. From an omniscient viewpoint, many of the conclusions of Fitz and others are wrong – but we don’t get that in the books. We get Fitz’s viewpoint. It’s only in the later trilogies that we actually get to see from another direction and work out how Fitz is wrong – in this trilogy, all we have is a slight confusion, the unease that he clearly hasn’t got eveything quite right. But where Fitz’s knowledge and intellect run out, so does the book – it shrugs its shoulders and does not explain. Again, I liked this. Others have found it frustrating.

I’ve been praising her a while, but Hobb is not without faults. The writing is the least awkward of any of the three books; and she also largely avoids the problems with recapping that cropped up in Royal Assassin. In part this may be because she has become a better writer – Assassin’s Quest, I think, is in all technical ways the best written of the three – but it is also partly because Royal Assassin  and Assasssin’s Quest form a clearly-linked duology, whereas Assassin’s Apprentice is largely an independent preliminary adventure designed to set up the pieces for that duology: instead of having to restart, as at the beginning of RA, here the action can flow directly onward (though with a few nods in the first chapter or so to remind readers of where we are). But she is still not perfect. The slightly-fauxdieval language is largely unobstrusive, but there are still uncertain moments, particularly the insistence on “did I know, I should not have”-type conditionals. The pacing is… understandable but still trying. Toward the end, some of the psychobabble becomes unconvincing; and having so much of import happening through the intangible sense of the Skill and the Wit makes it hard to keep describings things in a way that’s understandable without being repetitive. I’m not entirely convinced by some of the metaphysics, in terms of its continuity and coherency. And another problem is that Hobb seems to have hedged her bets too much, and tacked on a heroic framework that just doesn’t seem required or justified. The story works perfectly well on the level of personal and national crisis – and then she has to tack on the prophecies and the annointed heroes and the saving-the-world stuff, which doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t serve any real purpose. And the prophecies in particular add to that metaphysics worry I mentioned. They also are one way in which we can see constant retconning throughout the trilogy – some of it is actually explanation of things that were unknown earlier but make perfect sense in hindsight, but other bits feel like later additions. And Fitz is a little too perfect an observer to put us in full ‘unreliable narrator’ territory, so the moments that remind us that he ISN’T perfect are a little jarring. They also lead to “Fitz is an idiot” complaints, since the quick-witted audience will work some things out long before Fitz does.

That said, this is an impressively ambitious and original book, that tries to put gripping storytelling, imaginative worldbuilding, deeply personal and relatable and naturalistic and memorable characterisation and a profound and steadfast conscience (some may find it occasionally preachy at points, but I think this would be a very hostile reading; to me, the morality expressed both through the characters and through the events seems to evolve naturally, even inevitably, out of the characterisation and the world, and I never felt lectured at – which is actually somewhat rare for me) all together in a pleasantly entertaining, yet brutally dark and sophisticated (but never gratuitous or manipulative, or for that matter depressing, or unrelentingly bleak; Hobb doesn’t shy away from the darkness when it appears, but doesn’t go looking for it, and the darkness is thoroughly lightened by the moments of humour and humanity), mature and complex story, embedded in and offering glimpses of a larger and stranger world beyond the confines of the page.

It isn’t entirely succesful in any direction, and in it’s epic-storytelling-with-a-literary-tone, many may find it (as I think it is) neither sufficiently enjoyable nor sufficiently literary. Nonetheless, I personally find the attempt itself to be of value, and while it is neither the most thrilling trilogy nor the most incisive, I found it by and large highly readable, highly likeable, and highly memorable. It isn’t a perfect work by any means – but it is good solid adult (in the true sense of the word, neither prudish nor sensationalist) epic fantasy. I don’t think there’s a lot of that.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some people may find it deathly dull, but I didn’t. The first half of the novel in particular I found very exciting. The second half is slower-paced, and my attention wandered at points, but although it took me a while to read the book I never took any length of time to read the chapters. Mostly, I’d say it was heavy rather than slow. So overall, I think an average score here is fair.

Emotion: 3/5. I mostly found it a surprisingly cool and distant book; but there are a few points where the emotion does hit home. The final page is one of them. In general the emotion tends to the bittersweet and the sorrowful.

Thought: 3/5. It’s still fairly straigtforward, but as we come toward the end the wider mysteries about the world, the moral complexities, and at some points simply the difficulty the main character has in grasping what exactly is going on, do start to keep the mind rather active. There are also some intriguing points here that will only be noticed and understood by readers of the later trilogies.

Craft: 4/5. By and large, I think it’s very well written (if you don’t mind the diction, but if you’re reading fantasy at all you probably don’t). It’s not perfect, though – the diction occasionally becomes objectionable even to me, and the pacing doesn’t do the book a service (though its hard to see how it could have been improved without totally rewriting the story).

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot of infelicity to object to, really. And the bittersweet ending counterbalances any problems there may be.

Endearingness: 4/5. I like it a lot – but I did find it a tad tiring and slow in the second half. I loved the ending, though.

Originality: 4/5. The plain plot alone is pretty peculiar. Add in the psychological dimension, the strange multiple ending, and the genre-unusual moral and character complexity and the imperfect (not dishonest, but limited) narrator, and I’d say it’s definitely odder than average!

Overall: 5/7. I think it’s right up there with Royal Assassin in terms of quality, although this is certainly likely to be the more opinion-dividing of the two, as it’s considerably more thinky and less pacy (or at least it feels that way, since the pacing is reversed compared to the earlier book).

2 thoughts on “Assassin’s Quest – Robin Hobb

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  2. […] THE FARSEER TRILOGY: Assassin’s Apprentice Royal Assassin Assassin’s Quest […]

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