Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb (1995) E

Date read: 4.10.08
Read from: Public Library
Reviewer: Emera

The kingdom of the Six Duchies is stricken with shock when its beloved king-in-waiting, Chivalry, is forced to acknowledge the existence of an illegitimate child. In the wake of his abdication, his bastard son, Fitz, is delivered to the castle at Buckkeep, where he is put into the care of his father’s grim stableman. Despised and half-forgotten, Fitz grows up among the castle’s hounds and horses, and in the streets of Buckkeep’s bustling seaport. Inevitably, though, he is drawn into the affairs and intrigue of the castle itself. Facing mounting unrest and the threat of invasion, King Shrewd seeks out new means of securing his power, and calls upon Fitz to serve the throne as an assassin.

When I picked up Assassin’s ApprenticeI’d been meaning to read Robin Hobb’s work for a Really Long Time – most recently because I’d been craving a return to epic fantasy, but also because I remember being fascinated by the covers of the Farseer Trilogy, of which this is the first book, in an airport bookstore at least ten years ago. Luckily, it met my expectations. Hobb’s prose isn’t particularly stylish or striking, but it clumps along solidly. She does have a particular talent for conveying the rhythms and concerns of everyday life, which is refreshingly grounding in a genre that’s often plagued by grandiosity. Her settings and characters are believable and absorbing (if not terribly complex, in the case of the latter), and the book keeps a meditative pace appropriate to a coming-of-age tale without dragging.

Overall, I found it a consistently enjoyable read, with the bonus – if you’re into that kind of thing – of boundless homosocial/homoerotic undertones*. There’s also a good dose of character-driven angst, and the promise of lots more to come. I will say that as a first book this isn’t a showstopper, thanks in large part to the tight circumscription of Fitz’s life in Buckkeep; I was actually undecided at the end as to whether I’d continue the series. (Hobb’s lackluster prose was the other major detractor.) But that promise of higher stakes in the future, along with my quickly growing love for many of the characters, kept me reading, and indeed, the plot and emotional payoffs in both the second and third books are immense. Basically, if you try the first book and like anything at all about it, stick with it, because all that momentum-gathering is worth it in the end.

I had thought about combining my reviews of the trilogy into one post, to best reflect my feelings on the series as a whole, but thought that would get a little overwhelming. So I’m going to compromise by scattering my general reflections throughout. Here, a couple of thoughts on Fitz as a character, and where the series takes him.

Fitz is a protagonist in the grand tradition of bumpkins with great (epic, one might say) destinies – think Luke Skywalker, or Garion from David Eddings’ Belgariad/Malloreon – except, of course, for the fact that he’s a bastard. So he inherits most of the major obligations that come with being of the blood, but none of the legitimacy, which he means that he gets to do all of the dirty work, AND get credit for none of it, AND be the world’s easiest scapegoat.  To compound all that, he’s a very vital character, full of raw energy and emotion. You get the sense that he has a spirit too big for the various systems and expectations hemming him in, all of the parties competing for his attention and loyalty. The angry child in me identified particularly strongly with this aspect of his character, his restlessness and impatience and desire to break away from the things that keep hurting and hindering him – or, you know, just break them.  Fitz is a pretty simple guy, but his world just won’t let him have a simple life. More and more as the series continues, he questions his continued participation in that world.

The trilogy as a whole is very much about the problems of loyalty, and all of the sacrifices – of self-determination, of integrity of self – that it entails. (The series could practically steal the subtitle of The Pirates of Penzance, i.e. “The Slave of Duty.” I can’t believe I just made that comparison, but really, it works.) How much should we be expected to give of ourselves to the people or ideals or places that we love? How much can we expect ourselves to give? If you’ve given so much, sacrificed and been hurt so much, that you no longer even recognize yourself, but you’re still needed, how can you stop? The later books also explicitly examine the question of whether the actions, or inaction, of one person can really make all that much of a difference in the greater scheme of things. The various answers offered to Fitz, of course, reflect back on the problems of responsibility.

To state the obvious, much of the emotional hold of the epic lies in its sheer immensity and ambition; the Farseer trilogy succeeds in this respect both literally, in terms of the time and space and magnitude of events that it covers, and in the depth and intensity of the emotional and moral problems that it addresses. It’s both a highly entertaining work, and an emotionally resonant one. Good stuff.

* what else are feudal settings good for? just kidding. maybe.

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  1. Maureen E’s avatar

    I just read this one myself and was curious about the homoerotic relationships you mentioned. Were you thinking of Chivalry and Burrich? Or Fitz and Chade?

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    Ooh, yay! What did you think? I’m really going to have to get up my reviews of the rest of the trilogy once I have time again.

    Re: homosociality/eroticism – All of the above, and more as the series goes on – Fitz and Burrich, Fitz and Verity, the Fool and Shrewd, Fitz and everyone under the sun…

    It’s interesting to see how Hobb tries to resist marginalization of the only female characters in the face of this massive dominance of male-male relationships. I suspect she decided to write the second trilogy in this setting with a female-heavy cast and matriarchal groups as a reaction to this…

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  3. Maureen E’s avatar

    It took me awhile to get into it, but once I did I enjoyed it. I really liked the use of everyday details, which are so often missing in high fantasy (one of the reasons I also love Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy).

    Ah…I tend to just miss such things entirely, but I can see it if I think about it. I think so far Fitz and everyone under the sun, and Chivalry and Burrich were the main ones I spotted.

    Interesting. I did notice that she tries to make the few female characters she has really count, if you know what I mean. OTOH, I feel like that’s a second-best kind of option.

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  4. Emera’s avatar

    It took me awhile to get into it … I really liked the use of everyday details
    Same for me, on both counts. I love that the world feels very worn and well lived-in, if that makes any sense. (and ahh, I want to re-read Riddlemaster now!)

    I tend to just miss such things entirely
    I think it gets more evident in the later books, when there’s constant tension among and hence intense scrutiny of Fitz’s various loves and loyalties. There’s also (alert for [vaguely phrased] spoiler) one relationship that gradually slides past filial devotion and into the romantic. A little more complicated than that, but it is explicitly if briefly addressed, which is Interesting.

    I did notice that she tries to make the few female characters she has really count, if you know what I mean. OTOH, I feel like that’s a second-best kind of option.
    Yes, it’s a hard game to play, since it can come off feeling like Strong Woman tokenism – it frequently did to me here, even though I know Hobb was trying otherwise.

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