Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

If anyone wants to know my thoughts on Hobb’s earlier novels, look over here.

Some people will read Fool’s Assassin and say: but there was no plot! 4/5ths of the book was pointless filler! We didn’t get to the real story until the end!

That makes sense, although I’m not sure how those readers made it through all the previous installments of Robin Hobb’s cycle, since she’s never exactly been known for all-out high-octane action novels.

But my reaction was in any case exactly the opposite: 4/5ths of the book was maybe my favourite book of all time, and then it all got shunted aside because the author or her publishers thought this new trilogy needed to prove it was still epic fantasy.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot. My principle is not only to try not to spoil the books I review, but also not to spoil previous installments in the series more than necessary. Since this is now Book 14 in the cycle construed broadly, and Book 7 in terms purely of the history of FitzChivalry Farseer, that’s a lot of plot to avoid mentioning! But I think it’s safe to say that the beginning of this trilogy – like the beginning of Tawny Man – finds our favourite assassin a little out of the loop, more concerned with domestic issues surrounding his country home than with grand affairs of court or with the fate of the world.

And I’m OK with that. Gosh darnit, I’ve read through six hefty tomes of Fitz constantly being distracted from the demands of his private life by the exigencies of world-saving, and now to be honest I’d be quite happy just reading three books of the man sitting around, hanging out, having tea with people, deciding which clothes to buy, whatever.

Of course, Robinh Hobb is not a bad plotter. She’s at worst an OK plotter, and at times an excellent one (much of The Liveship Traders, for instance, felt meticulously devised). But in all her work, it’s the characters who have interested me – the personal drama, and above all the relationship drama. The plot has been there to force the characters into action, to create that drama. But now, to be honest, I rather felt as though this time the plot was getting in the way of the drama: there’s more than enough real excitement in Fitz’s life now to do without the big picture for a bit. I’m not normally somebody who likes soap operas, but after six volumes, I think we all deserve a little bit of guilty pleasure. I know that Fitz sure as hell does…

But let’s not get too caught up with that. This is only the first book of the trilogy, assuming Hobb can keep it to a trilogy this time (the two volumes of The Rain Wild Chronicles each had to be split in two, and the final volume of Tawny Man before that was truly gargantuan, right up there at Jordan/Martin length; no disrespect to Hobb, who does a lot better at this than many other fantasy writers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this somehow bulged out to four books rather than three). Two books from now perhaps I’ll be wowed by this new plot, and look back at the calm times of Fool’s Assassin as more than sufficient wallowing-in-life for one trilogy. But being torn away from that… right now, that hurts a little.

And it’s not just my taste in tone at issue here. I also think there are elements of the Big Picture that don’t so far look like they work that well. Most importantly, this new series seems to be challenging the whole mythology of the cycle to this point. Don’t get me wrong: I loved how Tawny Man challenged The Farseer Trilogy thematically. I was excited by how The Liveship Traders challenged Farseer mythologically, and… well, contented enough more or less with the mythological additions in Tawny Man. But I worried that The Rain Wild Chronicles was making Fitz’s story and its mythology obsolete, and now again everything changes in this new trilogy, it would appear. Change is good, of course, but we also need stability in order for things to matter to us: turn things on their head too many times and we lose our sense of which way is up and which is down and start to just get seasick. It also wearies the mind and diverts the attention to the mechanisms behind the machine: plot twists, when too frequent, start to seem exploitative, manipulative. The thrill of revolution yields to the monotony of mere rotation.

The other big problem with the book – and in places connected to my issues with the Big Plot – is that several characters, particularly Fitz, are required to be utter idiots.

Now, Fitz has never been the sharpest man around. Part of the charm of his story has always been that between common sense, good luck, good friends and hard work, he’s managed to win out despite not being some perfect hero, and that includes not always being the smartest guy around. Hobb usually does very well at depicting this – it can be hard to write a character who’s less intelligent than much of the audience without making him look like a buffoon. And I should be clear that for the most part she still succeeds at that here. Indeed, age has made Fitz wiser, and experience has honed his thought and observation. He’s actually capable of some pretty keen deductions. In fact, in this book he’s quite smart.

Which makes it even more clunking when there are four or five things that Fitz must be able to realise, or at least consider the possibility of, yet remains clueless of for plot reasons. Sure, you could argue that in some of these cases he’s not so much stupid as willfully ignorant, refusing to consider certain things – but I don’t think Hobb does a great job of showing him refusing to consider them, making it instead look as though he just never for a moment imagines them. It’s not the sort of boneheaded stupidity that ruins the plot – which would progress in a very similar way even if he were a bit smarter – and it is just about conceivably within the limits of Fitz’s demonstrated ability to overlook things. But it does feel like something of a blemish.

But let’s not get too carried away. Much of the rest was sheer brilliance. The early parts of the book convey a clear sense of how Fitz has grown up as a result of his prior experience – a maturity that will no doubt frustrate many readers who long for the younger, more impulsive version – and deliver a pay-off that justifies, in my mind, the controversial ending to the prior trilogy. Seeing Fitz in a calmer, more domestic setting rounds out his character in a new and satisfying way. And yet the book is far from uneventful or serene. Quite the contrary. Although there is little formal plot for the majority of the book, a great deal of incident occurs, displaying how Fitz has changed, the nature of his relationships, and perhaps most impressively the changing world around him. The Six Duchies are no longer the place where Fitz grew up – Hobb skillfully conveys the extent of the social changes in the wider world in a subtle way, without blinding us with improbably rapid and attention-grabbing shifts.

And then there’s the emotion. For one thing, there are elements of happiness here, perhaps even contentment, that are moving in their own right and that magnify the impact of the things that go wrong (oh, things go wrong – this is a Fitz novel, remember?). Underneath the happiness, however, Fitz remains deeply scarred by his past experiences, and particularly by two big changes that occured in the last trilogy (it’s particularly effective how those scars have changed his opinions on one topic, without him even noticing, in a way that would have been anathema to the younger Fitz); later wounds re-open those old injuries and push him to the very brink. Fool’s Assassin is a powerful depiction of a man attempting to hold himself together, to not let the poison within him damage the good things that he has – and like all internal battles there is a certain narcissism to this, a naïve assumption that the world will wait passively for him to deal with his own issues – if, indeed, he accepts that those issues even need to be dealt with at all. Even when everything is going well, Fitz is a man predisposed to melancholy, and in this book the series finally begins to consider that Fitz may not not just be a battered unfortunate tossed around by fate, but may also (in part as a response, in part perhaps by nature) have serious issues with depression. There is a strong feeling that even when Fitz is calm and happy, he is having to work hard at being calm and happy. He continues to be prone to melancholy reflection, he continues to have a strong vein of (often justified) paranoia – a paranoia that he has to work against so hard that he at times becomes wilfully naïve – and above all he continues to have serious issues with trust and intimacy. The happy place in which he begins the book is not the secure happiness of a man floating in calm water, but the desparate happiness of a man holding with all his strength onto a lifeboat. Fitz has not so much dealt with his demons as assembled an array of shields and flotation devices around him. Inevitably, some elements of that defence are going to be threatened by the end of the book, and he is not going to respond well to this. The problem is, how can a half-drowning man react to the loss of part of what supports him without dragging the rest of his support down into the water with him?

It’s nuanced, brave, and powerful writing. There were multiple occasions when my eyes misted up, and at least one when I cried – but the emotion is not all negative, either. There’s both darkness and light in this book, tragedy and triumph. By the end, Fitz has been put into a very interesting – and very dangerous – place, and I think that he’s probably more unpredictable going into the next two books than he’s been at any time in the sequence (except possibly at the end of Royal Assassin). This could all end well; this could all end very badly.

Unfortunately, while I understand what Hobb was trying to do, the point where Fitz’s personal plot intersects the big-P Plot at the end of the book just didn’t seem believable to me. I don’t know why, exactly, but it didn’t. Suffice to say that Fitz acts impulsively (shock spoiler!) in a way that intellectually makes sense in hindsight, given his trajectory over the book, but that did not quite ring true to me in the moment.

One final problem with the book – a problem that may disappear retrospectively, depending on what happens next – is that many of the characters built up around Fitz in the Tawny Man books are absent here, or at least so invisible as to be virtually absent. I don’t mind this conceptually – after all, the whole point of Hobb’s cycle is perhaps the inevitability of change – but it did feel like a wasted opportunity at times. Hopefully, however, Fitz’s being thrust back into the world of Big Plots by the end of the novel will let us see some more of those characters, and how they too have changed over time.

In their place, however, we have other relationships for Fitz, both positive and negative. I think it’s a fair trade, as in many ways these are more important and more interesting relationships. One, in particular, is in my opinion the most important and interesting of all Fitz’s connections, particularly in the later parts of the book; meanwhile, new characters are introduced and set up what could potentially be very intriguing relationships in the following volumes.

A big part of what makes this book so good, though, is that I really don’t know what’s coming next (it seems strange to me to even imagine that this story is going to take only two more books! We’re still the equivalent of about 300 pages into Fool’s Errand, and the plot ahead of us looks much, much larger). Hobb here, particularly before the Big Plot arrives, has reached a point of utter disregard for the clichés of the genre, and thus it is impossible to predict what happens. There are so many red herrings here – or perhaps there are none, and everything will matter in the end. The point is, I still can’t tell. It’s impressively true to life: we don’t always know “this is a person who will be important”, “that backstory will be relevant”, “I should make note of this for later!” and so on. So Hobb gives us a forest of potential plot threads, some of which will doubtlessly go nowhere. But because the narrative focus is so tightly focussed on Fitz as a character, this is not frustrating: it’s not a waste of time, because we get to spend time with Fitz. How Fitz reacts to things is the story, is the point of the things that go on around him – at least, that’s the point right now.

Hobb has always been a character-focused, and in particular a relationship-focused writer; Fool’s Assassin, for the first four-fifths of it at least, is the most Hobbish book yet in that regard. It’s her most literary book. And I think that’s why I got frustrated when some slightly-silly-sounding epic fantasy business burst in toward the end. Can’t we just get all this over with quickly and go back to what matters?

That, I suppose, is her point. I want to get back to what matters – but the plot is going to change everything. And that hurts, because every change is a loss. But then if there hadn’t been this sort of change before, we’d never have gotten the status quo that I want to investigate more fully… it’s been an increasing theme of Hobb in recent books that we never get the change to stop the ride, and to some extent it feels like this whole book is a demonstration of that. Most obviously, the book itself does not stop in one place for long: this single book probably lasts longer, in internal chronology, than either of the two preceding trilogies (if you exclude the very early childhood chapters of Assassin’s Apprentice). We keep waiting for it to settle on the one time-period that ‘counts’, that ‘matters’ – but they all do!

The greatest triumph of the book, however, may be the most shocking – so shocking I have some reservations about mentioning at all, even though it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense. And that is: it’s not all about Fitz. More, it’s not all by Fitz. Fitz remains the primary POV character, but we also, particularly later in the book, begin to get chapters from a second POV. This will no doubt enrage some Fitz fans, but I felt it worked exceptionally well. Indeed, I think perhaps it worked too well – by the end, I was actually getting a little frustrated with having to go back to Fitz chapters… I can only hope we see a lot more of this character’s POV in the next two books. The introduction of this POV also makes me wonder what Hobb’s long-term plans are: is she signalling that stories can continue in Fitz’s part of the world even without Fitz in them, perhaps beyond the point where Fitz is forced to retire? More worryingly, we must surely consider the possibility that this new POV will allow Fitz to be killed off at the end of the trilogy… or even partway through it. Given how powerfully moved I’ve been by other losses throughout these books, I’m really not sure how well I could cope with that.

So, I guess I’ve run out of things to say. The bulk of this book is probably my favourite and almost certainly the best of Hobb’s novels (though it would feel staggeringly pointless to a new reader – it makes Tawny Man seem standalone by comparison), thanks to its generous pace, fine prose, psychological complexity and power, and unpredictability. Then some stuff happens. I’m almost entirely convinced that that stuff happening makes this a worse book than it would otherwise be; on the other hand, Fool’s Assassin is not a standalone psychological novel, it’s the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy, and what happens nearer the end is essential to setting up the plot of the remaining two books. It’s just a shame that, in the moment, it feels so incongruous. I hope, however, that in hindsight it all make sense.

That’s the hope that everyone will have to have, I think. Hobb said before this book came out that she was writing the story she felt needed to be told, not the story that her fans necessarily wanted – and boy does it look like that might end up being true. Of all the modern authors I can think of, Hobb perhaps comes closest to that ideal of writing without pandering to her fans, and to a large extent she’s been rewarded for that courage with the loyalty of those very fans, who have accepted and admired her independence. I suspect that this new trilogy will be challenging to many, however. I can only hope that fans – myself included – continue to give her the benefit of the doubt that she has so richly earned. Either way, despite the gentle pacing of this first installment, it’s very clear by the end of this book that, whatever exactly is coming next, we all need to hold on to our hats.

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. Gripping. Docked a point for its length and slow pace: I loved it, but I know that many more impatient readers will find it too much of a challenge in this regard. You really need to get into the right mindset for one of these later Hobb novels.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. Incredibly powerful, at least after you’ve spent 15 years with this character. For context, this is only the second book I’ve given a top mark to in this category (after The God of Small Things).

Thought: 4/5. Not that much abstract rumination, but a tricksy plot and some important themes mean you’ll need to engage your brain fully.

Beauty: 5/5. Career-high prose supports a beautiful depiction of the good and the bad in life, with many exquisite moments along the way.

Craft: 4/5. As suggested above, there are a few minor clunky issues around the edges. But overall it’s wonderfully skilfull in plot, in prose, in character, in scene composition, in everything.

Endearingness: 5/5. Yes, I ended a bit frustrated. But to be fair, that’s because the frustrating bits were at the end. Now that the memory of that frustration has faded just a little, what I loved about the book has risen back to the top of my memory, and my word there was so much that I loved. Does this topple Golden Fool as probably my most-loved book? Not for now – but maybe only because I need to wait a while and read again before I feel comfortable saying that.

Originality: 5/5. At the end, we get some suggestions of a more traditional epic plot, and I worry that this may end up feeling too much like a re-run of past books – but for now that’s a worry for the future. As it is, there’s no way you could ever confuse this book with any other – it’s even distinctive among Hobb’s Fitz novels.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. OK, yes, despite my reservations around the ending, I still can’t avoid saying that this is Hobb’s best book yet. It’s a true masterpiece, and its flaws are only visible to me because the rest of it is so superb. There’s a quote on the front cover (and incidentally, what a beautiful front cover it is! The gloriously shiny UK cover that is, not the US one with the Fantasy Guy In Cape on it) by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame: “Fantasy as it ought to be written”. I honestly can’t disagree. If more fantasy was written like this, the genre would not be so deprecated by those outside it; I’m encouraged to see this recognised by reviewers – the Telegraph, for instance, calls it ‘high art’ that ‘transcends the fantasy genre’. Again, no disagreement here.

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4 thoughts on “Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

  1. Holly Geely says:

    I love this review, it helped me work out my own feelings on the book.

    Poor Fitz. I know going in that he can’t catch a break, but it still hurts.

  2. Thank you! Pleased to be of service!
    And yeah, even when things go well for Fitz it’s still painful. It’s almost as though Hobb has heard ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ one time too many, and is asking ‘oh really? HOW, exactly?’

  3. Zaub says:

    This is a wonderful review.

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