Having left it far too long from my initial reading, I didn’t feel I could write a proper review of this. However, for the sake of completeness I have jotted down a few sparse remarks on Goodreads, so, for the first time ever, I’ll copy my review from GR to here rather than vice versa… again, sorry if this isn’t the fully-fleshed out review some might be expecting of me. Perhaps I’ll be able to do that at some point in the future, after a re-read; for now, you’ll have to make do with the bare-bones outline of my thoughts…
A lot of people don’t like Assassin’s Fate. A lot of people hate it. A lot of people say they’ll never read another Robin Hobb novel ever again.
I sympathise. I felt exactly the same thing… way back when I read Fool’s Fate for the first time. Quite a few people think the same when they read Assassin’s Quest, for that matter. This is all not just a coincidence. Hobb’s trilogies don’t end where the conventions of the genre tell us they should end. They turn into different stories, ones that we don’t want to hear.
But some years later, I went back and re-read the Farseer Trilogy, and I re-read The Liveship Traders, and I re-read The Tawny Man. And what I realised was: Fool’s Fate was not a twist in the story. Fool’s Fate was the story breaking the glamour and showing us what it was all along. I came to Tawny Man expecting it would be more of the same, that it would end in a way that re-affirmed the themes of Farseer; when it didn’t, I felt cheated. How could she violate the cherished view I held of the characters by having them act so against who they were? How could she violate the cherished view I held of what the books meant, what their themes were, where their sympathies lay, by setting aside, undermining, even mocking those earlier books? But when I re-read the books I realised: this was always there. This was always where things were heading (even if the author may not have known it at the time). I thought they were one thing, but it was my own genre-shaped wishful thinking that kept me believing that that was what they were. They never were. I just hadn’t been paying attention.
And now a lot of readers are having that reaction to Assassin’s Fate, and I’m trying not to be smug. The book wasn’t what you thought it ought to be? That’s because it’s a conclusion to this trilogy, not to the stories you imagined, the stories you were willing to pretend that these were. The conclusion ended up going exactly where the first and second books promised it was going. Where, in a way, it’s been inevitable that this story would be going right from the begining of Assassin’s Apprentice, decades ago.
[I’m reminded of the reaction some readers have to the end of Kennit’s arc in The Liveship Traders – they feel betrayed, horrified, mislead. But they haven’t been. Kennit tells us who he is right from the start, and he’s never anything else – it’s simply that as time passes he casts a glamour over us, and we are lulled into thinking he’s a character from an altogether different, fluffier, more forgiving narrative universe. But these books aren’t fairy tales. They’re not romance novels.]
I hope that when people re-read these books, they’ll realise that they’ve not been cheated – they just weren’t paying attention. Fitz isn’t who you want him to be? He never was. The Fool isn’t who you thought he was? Well he isn’t who he said he was, perhaps, but he’s exactly who he’s always been. Grown, to be sure, and changed, but everything he does here has its seeds right back when we first met him – he’s always been like this. So has Chade; so has Kettricken; so has Althea; so has Rapskal; so has Fitz. They’ve developed, but they’ve developed from seed to tree, each in accordance with their natures. If Hobb here seems to delight in setting characters against each other, making them seem unsympathetic? They always were. It just didn’t seem that way because so often they were working toward the same short-term goals. In a way, then, this is bringing an element of The Liveship Traders (with its multiple conflicting protagonists) into the gentler, more reassuring world of Fitz’s narrative.
So let’s just say: what Hobb does here is legitimate, and brave, and for the most part very well handled. This is a very good book.
But it isn’t perfect. Minor quibbles aside (and, to be very minor, this would have benefited greatly from some proofreading, and possibly from less autocorrect: at least, I’m assuming it’s autocorrect that has bewilderingly turned several instances of “gray” into “Gary”…) there are two big problems I had with this novel.
Firstly: the author has, in structural terms, taken leave of her senses. It always looked implausible that she could finish off this trilogy in one volume, given how much had to be accomplished – so why in the hells did she insert what amounts to an entire extra novel, culminating the storylines of two different sets of characters? This is meant to be a climactic novel, but for far too much of the running time, it felt like we were right back at the start of a new series, impatiently urging it on to please, please, get back to the plotline we were actually hoping to conclude. And it’s not even just that the pacing is shattered by this huge insertion of tangentially-related (it could all be cut out with minimal effect on the plot) material – all of the narrative aims of the trilogy are suddenly made secondary to different goals of different characters who have invaded from a different trilogy. We do eventually get a conclusion to our story, but only after the wind has been taken thoroughly out of its sails – which maybe is intentional, come to think of it, but it could certainly have been done more gracefully than this.
I hope that this is just because the story wandered into territory that excited her, and she couldn’t help herself but chase down those new ideas right then and there (rather than wait, as she could have done, for the next trilogy). I hope it was just enthusiasm, that she happened across some old characters and realised what had to happen next in their stories and just felt she had to tell those stories immediately. Because the sad alternative is that this is her way of ending not just the story of Fitz, but all the stories of this setting, and all of its characters, in one fell swoop.
And I really hope that’s not the case, because to me this was less satisfying as a conclusion than as a beginning. At the end, I feel we’ve finally made it through the origin story of a new cast of characters who could keep this world alive for trilogy after trilogy to come. I really hope Hobb feels that way – and there’s no doubt she intentionally set it up to look like that. The problem is, this is Hobb. She lives to crush expectations.
And speaking of which, there’s the second problem. Now, this is a problem for me. The structural problem, I do believe is an objective problem, though people will disagree on how bad it is. This, by contrast, is just a matter of taste for me. But here it is, because it shaped my reading so much: ye gods, this is horrible.
Now, I’m not referring to the fact that this is probably the most unremitting expedition through pain and disillusion and suffering and unrelenting disaster and depression that I have ever read. That doesn’t surprise me at this point, and if you can’t cope with characters in pain, Hobb is not the author for you.
No, it’s not what happens at all that’s the issue for me. It’s the attitude. At every step, everyone, from the least character all the way up to the author, seems to be pervaded by an absolute nihilism, a despair, a constant pessimism, that makes even the attempts at hope seem twisted and warped. If this book were your friend, and you told it you had a headache, it would reply “don’t worry, it’ll get better. Soon you’ll die in agony and your head will be consumed by worms and then you won’t have a headache anymore, so there’s nothing to worry about.” It’s a novel that would see a man with a small cut on his hand and tell him to amputate it at once because it’ll get gangrene soon.
Now, the first two volumes of the trilogy were depressed, but I had hoped (and yes, my earlier comments apply to me too) that there would be at least a ray of light here. And there is, in terms of plot; but that can’t shake the dreadful awfulness in everybody’s souls. That makes it a much less enjoyable read than it might have been. And it also makes me, frankly, worried. I know the author has struggled with depression for a long time, but this is the first of her books that I’ve found not just dark but outright nihilist at its core – even if, thankfully, for now, some sparks of light are still found at the surface level in a few of its relationships. It feels as though… I’m not sure how much of the mood of the book was actually intentional, and how much is the author’s own personal problems leaching through.
I hope she does write a sequel, and that it proves this fear wrong.
[I find myself getting all Heiligenstadt in my hopes for a future book: “grant me at least one [book] of pure joy!”]
[[“Thus do I take my farewell of thee [O trilogy], and indeed sadly; yes, that beloved hope which I brought with me when I came here to [find at least some happy moments in you], I must wholly abandon. As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted; almost as I came [to these books], I go away. Even the high courage, which often inspired me in the beautiful days of [the Farseer trilogy] has disappeared; O Providence, grant me at least but one day of pure joy – it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart! O when, O when, O Divine [Author] shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men? – Never? No – O that would be too hard.” (apologies for employing my own modern punctuation here, since poor Louis wasn’t keen on that sort of thing)]].
Anyway. In all honesty, I can’t give this the same high marks as its immediate predecessors, but this is still a Very Good novel, a satisfying conclusion to one story and, we may hope, the foundation for another.
P.S. In my experience this book benefits from being read while sipping a pleasant apricot brandy…