Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb


In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.
Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.
So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

How to review a book such as this? How can I originally say what has been said by many fans of the fantasy genre since this book was first published 18 years ago?

Well, Im going to take a different tact. This isnt a classic work of fantasy. Or rather, this isnt just a classic work of fantasy. In my view, it is a classic work of literature that should be spoken about in the same conversations with Tolkien, something that transcends the fantasy genre.
Heres why:
We follow a six year old boy - who we quickly find out is a royal bastard - as he is torn away from his mother and thrust to the attention of the royal court.
Fairly typical of a fantasy novel so far, I think youd agree.
This boy, named Fitz by the Stable Master who is ordered to look after the youngster, quickly displays a semblance of an old, taboo magic. He begins training with the old royal assassin and finds himself embroiled in political machinations.
Old magic in a fantasy? Check.
Old mentor? Court intrigue? Check and check.
I could go on. There is no hiding what the book is or where its roots begun and neither should there be. If the above is enough to put people off reading it then more fool them. (No pun intended)
Fitz is our main character and is exceptionally well realised, as you may expect when the book is written in first person. The real skill that Hobb has though, is in making you forget the method of narration and invoking such strong feelings for each and every character. Prince Verity is one of the most stoic and noble characters you will ever read - you will feel the loyalty and painful sacrifice of Burrich and the awful vindictiveness of Prince Regal. As for the Fool, well, you're better off discovering this delight for yourself. Having read the trilogy several times I still cant pinpoint how she does this, but I cant think of another first person narrative that has such strong characters throughout the cast.
Not that they are without issue, though. Fitz's decision making is somewhat.... questionable at times and once or twice it feels ever so slightly forced, as if to move the action along, but these are few and far between. The actions of Regal can also seem slightly over the top, at least at first.
The name of the novel itself could be off putting to the casual reader, one whose boat isnt floated by the idea of assassins. Whilst it is a significant portion of Fitzs life, it isnt a major part of the book. It serves to move the plot to where it needs to go and to round out Fitz himself; but the amount of cloak, daggers and poisons is quite minimal.
But what makes me think even non fantasy fans would adore this book? Well, the prose is beautiful, in a way that I cannot do justice. Hobb reveals her world with such elegance and care that she elevates this to more than a fantasy epic. It should be looked at as a modern literary classic.

"I wonder if I can write this history, or if on every page there will be some sneaking show of a bitterness I though long dead. I think myself cured of all spite, but when I touch pen to paper, the hurt of a boy bleeds out with sea-spawned ink, until I suspect each carefully formed black letter scabs over some ancient scarlet wound."

I implore you to read this book if you havent already. If youre a writer of any standard you could learn lots. If youre an avid reader you wont regret it. If youve not tried fantasy before, please think long and hard before dismissing this.
If nothing else, itll lead you to book two, Royal Assassin, which is one of the best books Ive ever read.
About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it's mostly fantasy these days. He's trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you're so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter - @shep5377


Douglas Smith said...

Brilliant review Alex - totally agree with everything. And Royal Assassin really is even better!

tmso said...

I agree that this series should be elevated on par with Tolkien. I love this series and, yes, you are right that the other characters are so stark and real they are still clear to me years after reading. With that said, I do recall longish repetitive passages that I distinctly remember skipping. Now, that could have been because I was impatient to find out what Fitz would do with whatever tragedy he had found himself in, but I also think it had to do with the fact that some passages were a wee repetitive.

Your review does make me want to re-read the series. :)