‘The original source of the Skill will probably remain forever shrouded in mystery. Certainly a penchant for it runs remarkably strong within the royal family, and yet it is not solely confined to the King’s household.’
Warning: Minor spoilers.
Seen as I’m currently having a major fantasy-reading phase, I decided it was about time I checked out another big name in the genre: Robin Hobb. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first in her much-lauded Farseer Trilogy, and I have to say, for me, it largely lived up to the hype.
The novel tells the story of Fitz, the bastard son of King-in-waiting, Prince Chivalry, after he is adopted into the royal household. The scandal of his birth causes Chivalry to relinquish his claim to the throne and leave the court, leaving the throne to his brother, and his bastard son to be brought up by the stable-master, Burrich. However, when Fitz comes to the attention of King Shrewd, he begins a curious education in the art of killing, becoming apprentice to the Royal Assassin, Chade. When the Six Duchies comes under threat from mysterious raiders who leave their victims soulless and wild, Fitz receives his first mission, and must embark on a terrifying quest.
One thing I really liked about Assassin’s Apprentice was the slightly different spin Hobb puts on magic. There are no wizards or sorcerers anywhere in the book, only a few of royal blood (like Fitz) who have the ‘Skill’, a form of telekinesis in which possessor’s can speak to each other, or see what the other sees from hundreds of miles away. The other form of magic in the book is termed the ‘Wit’, which is a form of affinity with animals which is considered dangerous, as supposedly men who become too close to beasts are in danger of becoming beasts (according to Burrich anyway!). Instead of any obvious magical tropes (eg. wands, dragons) the magic of Hobb’s world is more subtle, and more of an intuition than any showy hocus pocus.
The Wit, in particular, was interesting, as it seemed to me that Fitz’s affinity with animals is both a relief from his loneliness throughout the book, and the cause of it. Whilst, as a bastard he has a very unstable place in the court, as he is both a member of the royal family, and a possible threat to the royal family, he is very isolated from other people, and so finds solace in his bonds with animals, particularly two dogs. However, the potential father-son relationship he has with Burrich is prevented from reaching its full potential by Burrich’s abhorrence of the Wit, and the fact that Fitz has to keep it a secret from everyone cements his isolation.
However, the high point of the book for me was the complex, interesting characters. Fitz is an extremely sympathetic protagonist, as someone who is in a difficult position, through no fault of his own, and is just trying to find his place in the world. Burrich was an equally interesting character, as he is both strict and harsh with Fitz, and extremely protective, challenging Galen (the Skillmaster and all round bad-guy) to a fight upon finding he has mistreated Fitz, and coming to his aid at the end, despite their differences.
I also liked the ambiguity of the members of the Royal family, with none of them exactly embracing Chivalry’s bastard son with open arms. Shrewd, as his name suggests, is sharp-minded, and sees that unless he uses Fitz as a tool to protect his family, by making him into the next Royal Assassin, he may one day become a threat. This isn’t exactly doting grandpa stuff, but he doesn’t reject Fitz as a disgrace to his family, making his motives at times a little hard to read. Verity (the second of Shrewd’s sons) was definitely a character that grew on me. When we first meet him at the beginning of the book he simply seems gleeful that his ‘perfect’ brother’s shameful little secret has come out, but throughout the book he seems to be the one member of the Royal family with a genuine affection for Fitz, and whilst less of a showman than Chivalry, is willing to sacrifice a lot for the good of his Kingdom. The eccentric Patience (Chivalry’s wife) was also a great character, and her reaction to Fitz, as her husband’s bastard son, was not what I expected at all!
However, my favourite character has to be the Fool, who, whilst being Fitz’s only real friend, is extremely cryptic and mysterious. Whilst Fitz initially assumes that as a Fool he is a bit slow, it turns out that he seems to possess some kind of foresight, and often gives Fitz early warning of some oncoming danger through his cryptic little sayings.
There is also some genuinely detestable bad guys in Assassin’s Apprentice, namely the youngest of Shrewd’s sons, Regal, who makes his disdain of Fitz clear from the start. Throughout the book my opinion of him progressed from irritation and a general dislike to an out and out hatred, and the only character I disliked more was the cruel Skillmaster Galen.
However, one thing I would say about the book was that at times I found it a little slow going, with the plot picking up in places, and then falling back into a bit of a slump. It took a while for the story to actually get going, and as I found with Feist’s Magician, books that cover a character’s entire childhood and early adulthood often have slower moments where the author has to try and catch up a few years through description. However, I thought the little italicised passages at the beginning of every chapter, which were supposedly excerpts from a history of the Six Duchies, were a really good way of imparting information in a naturalistic way.
In terms of the other fantasy I have read recently, I felt that whilst I enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice less than A Song of Ice and Fire (will anything else ever compare?), it slightly had the edge on Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga, as the characters were more rounded and believable, and the writing was better. All in all, I really enjoyed the book, and the other two books in the Farseer Trilogy are definitely going on my extremely extensive to-read list!