Not entirely amiss in my aim at catching up to speed on all things fantasy fiction past and present, Robin Hobb’s work has been on my list for a while now, and for good reason. Fans of her books set within The Realm of the Elderlings praise her work highly. And thus I delved into the first novel (Assassin’s Apprentice) of her first trilogy within the series (The Farseer trilogy), and what do you know? I really enjoyed it.
To paraphrase, the story follows the life of FitzChivalry, the bastard of Prince Chivalry, who is first in line to rule the Six Duchies. His name literally means Bastard [of] Chivalry. Although he never gets the chance to meet his father, he is taken into the royal family, but kept in a demure position. He is trained to become a royal assassin, taking lives according to the King’s better judgement for the furthering of their line. While some in the royal family would have him treated well, others would have him disposed of. All the while, the King must keep the Six Duchies in order, despite the continued attacks on the coast from the Red-Ship Raiders – attacks that instead of wounding individuals turns them into remorseless, avaricious savages devoid of any soul or care for others’ wellbeing. Along the way we learn of two ancient magics that Fitz is capable of utilizing: Wit and Skill.
The book is, to a far far lesser degree, similar to Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles and Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song in the sense that it is told in the past tense, as if reiterating a story. Of course, Hobb released this far before either of those books, and when I say the comparison is minimal I mean it. There are only a few lines before the recounting begins, and then too a few lines at the close of the novel, that suggest the book is being written by an aged FitzChivalry. A very subtle take on the storytelling approach.
Being thus, the book only ever focuses on Fitz life and state of mind. Interestingly, very little character building is introduced for other characters outside of their interaction with Fitz, how he reacts to those interactions, or remembers how he felt. Still, we learn to really find care in our hearts for several individuals, each for vastly different reasons. Chivalry’s younger brother Verity takes him under his wings at times. The stableman Burrich, although fiercely disapproving Fitz’ usage of Wit, takes care of him like he would a puppy. And so on. The adverse is true with characters such as Regal, who Fitz clearly shares enmity with.
Several aspects of the worldbuilding worked particularly well with me. For one, the naming of the royal house was, if not different and creative, helpful character building in a story with very little. It is believed that those with royal blood are to reflect in life the name they are given in birth. So we get such names as King Shrewd, Prince Chivalry, Verity, Regal, Lady Grace, Patience, Desire, etc. Interestingly, Robin Hobb writes each character like their names are their cardinal qualities, something that helped me jump into the adventure a little quicker than usual.
Early on, Fitz unknowingly develops the ability to use “the Wit,” an ancient and disreputable magic that allows one to reach out to animals, and communicate with them. Burrich tries to beat it out of him by starving him of close bonds to susceptible animals, but throughout the novel he is capable of letting this ability stretch its wings in secret a bit. The second magic described in the series, the Skill, is a far more sought after ability – allowing one to reach into others’ minds, no matter the distance, to communicate or draw power from. The Skill is actually taught to him, but it doesn’t come quite as naturally as the Wit. A third magic is spoken of, named Forging, but we don’t have any first hand experience with it thus far in the story – but it’s what I explained above with the Red-Ship Raiders essentially removing one’s soul.
One thing I never found realistic with the book lies in the moments where FitzChivalry is made to assassinate another. If ever he felt remorse, or even sickly after killing someone, it never really expounds on that. I can’t imagine, especially for one’s first kill, to be so cold and calculated about it all.
I expect had I been of an age to appreciate the contents of Assassin’s Apprentice when it was released nearly 20 years ago, I’d have rated it slightly higher. But unfortunately age hasn’t aided the novel. Much of the book’s strengths are now very much fantasy clichés in an oversaturated market full of tropes. Bastard of royalty, ancient magics, assassins, storytelling, etc. Had I read this before other more recent fantasy novels I’d have probably rated it higher. But this is no fault of the book’s or Robin Hobb’s. It’s an excellent novel, and a great start to a wonderful series.