Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice is the opening novel in the Farseer trilogy, an epic fantasy set in the Six Duchies. Hobb gives voice to our young narrator Fitz, the bastard son of the kingdom’s prince, whose arrival at the royal court in Buckkeep sees him outcast and, largely, ignored. King Shrewd, however, sees promise in Fitz to fulfil a very specific role in his court. This narrative of Fitz’s childhood promises to relate the beginnings of a story which is sure to expand out into the kingdom, but this first book barely even scratches the surface of this journey from child to man.
“We left. Walking uphill and into the wind.
That suddenly seemed a metaphor for my whole life.”
The bastard son of Prince Chivalry, young FitzChivalry finds himself marched quite literally into the royal court, by his grandfather who proclaims him to be the prince’s illegitimate son and dumps him into their care. Passed onto Burrich, Chivalry’s stableman and man-at-arms, Fitz is raised as a stable boy and, though active, he finds it a lonely life. He never meets his royal father, who abdicates and removes himself from the court at Buckkeep before Fitz’s arrival at the castle. Neither does Fitz remain a stable boy only for long – his allegiances and loyalties are constantly tried as he becomes officially and unofficially apprenticed in various areas and to various parties, including Burrich, the King, Prince Verity, an odd recluse named Chade, a vicious tutor named Galen, his father’s wife Lady Patience, and more. Surrounded by so many competing interests, it is unsurprising that a young boy could still feel woefully alone and incomplete in some way amongst these figures.
“My perception of my life crashed from high tragedy to juvenile self-pity in a matter of moments”
Fitz is a likeable enough protagonist, if a little self-centred. That seems to go without saying considering it’s a first-person narrative but, actually, I feel that this narrative device is what holds down the plot. We see everything through Fitz’s understanding and it is singularly frustrating as a reader when a character is making poor, or rash, judgements and we can’t do anything about it. I’m sure that Fitz will grow stronger, wiser, and more powerful as he grows up and grows into his title as an assassin but he has some way to go yet. If nothing else, he is a child, with a child’s understanding, and Robin Hobb does seem to portray this well – she doesn’t make her young protagonist strangely aware or omniscient which, actually, I appreciated.
“Utter loneliness was planted in me then, and sent its deep roots down into me“
The naming of the characters seems a little old-fashioned, almost Arthurian in tradition (?), since (if I’m understanding how this was set up by Hobb) noble parents specifically name their children with the qualities they seek them to possess as rulers. For example, in the Farseer family, we have Shrewd, Desire, Chivalry, Verity, Regal, Patience, and so on and so forth. Obviously these predetermined names are largely proven questionable, at best, since Prince Regal is far from being as Regal as one might expect from one’s ruler.
But, of all the characters, I found myself most intrigued by those who we frustratingly never get a full and firm grasp of in this first book – I’m thinking in particular of Burrich and Prince Verity. Although I’m sure these two are explored in greater detail in the subsequent books, I couldn’t help but want simply more out of Fitz’s understanding of them, even at this early stage. For example, I found Burrich’s aversion to the Wit frustrating whenever it arose in the book; it seems evident to me, as a reader, that he himself will have some kind of bond with animals, since he seems so averse to Fitz’s use of it, but Hobb never allows this to be confirmed at such an early stage in her story. How could she? She is somewhat tied to detailing what Fitz sees, and nothing more. Meanwhile Prince Verity suffers from being the second-son who never expected to be called upon to be the King-in-waiting due to his much more regal (or should that be chivalrous) older brother – following Chivalry’s abdication, Verity is thrust into court life, but I feel that Fitz never spends any extended length of time with his uncle – and I think the characterisation of both suffers somewhat because of it.
“All events, no matter how earthshaking or bizarre, are diluted within moments of their occurrence by the continuance of the necessary routines of day-to-day.”
The pacing, to me, seems a little off. I’m not averse to a character-driven study, I’m not averse to stories where little happens, but it seemed as though this book was going through the motions of telling Fitz’s childhood backstory so it could get to the really juicy bits of his life story. Except we never really get there, not for any length of time – explanations of the Wit and the Skill are never realised in concrete terms, Forged ones pop up to attack then disappear, the Red Ship Raiders are only a shadowy threat never confronted head-on…
For me, Assassin’s Apprentice took far too long to get to even the first inclinations of those juicy bits – specifically anything relating to being trained in the Skill or in, as the title suggests, being an assassin. I wouldn’t have minded so much since I adore stories that take place at the typical court, with all its intrigue, gossiping and political machinations, but Fitz never seemed very much in court, he was always on the fringes and, because of this, Hobb couldn’t really fully explore the intricacies of such an environment because she was tied to portraying everything through her narrator’s eyes, and the narrator’s eyes spent (in my opinion) too long detailing how he’d done his stable jobs for the day and then skipped off into Buckkeep town to try to talk to Molly. That’s all well and good, but after more than 20 pages of it, it gets a little wearing.
“When you spring to an idea, and decide it is truth, without evidence,
you blind yourself to other possibilities.”
Technically speaking there is nothing wrong with this first novel in Robin Hobb’s much-celebrated Farseer trilogy; I just found it not to my own personal preferences. I expect my fantasy to be action-based, at least in part, and it may be due to the framing of the story in the narrator’s voice as he reflects on his young life, or it may just be a slower paced fantasy than I’m used to, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Perhaps it was simply the first-person narration style that threw me entirely – had this been a third-person omniscient narrator, I think I might have got along better with this book and more inclined to immediately pick up the second volume in the trilogy.
Even despite these qualities, I can see that Assassin’s Apprentice is an intriguing opening novel with some really interesting concepts and conflicts at its heart. However, as a series opener, it only teases the many aspects that will undoubtedly only come to fruition in the continuation of the trilogy and the many, many series which follow in Hobb’s expansive Realms of the Elderlings novels. It seems to me that if you’re a patient sort of reader, you will find yourself rewarded by these books.
“Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.”