Review of Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

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Having finished reading Robin Hobb’s latest work, the recently published Fool’s Assassin, Book 1 of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, and having freed up some time on the weekend, I’m finally ready to write the review I mentioned in my previous post.

I’ll keep this post relatively spoiler-free for those who haven’t read it; of course, I won’t be able to restrain myself from writing another spoiler-laden post later on….

The Front Cover

Fool's Assassin Front Cover

The front cover of my copy of Fool’s Assassin

This version of the front cover (the UK large paperback version) has been kept relatively simple in design, but done lovingly with embossed fonts and a gilded look that seem to want to let you know you’re holding a masterpiece in your hands, even before you read the endorsement from George R. R. Martin.

At first glance, the daggers make sense for something bearing the word “Assassin”, but the significance of the bee near the top won’t – at least not until you’re about a fifth of the way through the book’s 630 pages. The snow-covered scene around the first letter of the title is a simplified drawing of the location where most of the story takes place: Withywoods.

The Back Cover

Fool's Assassin Back Cover

The back cover of my copy of Fool’s Assassin

Turning the book over, you’ll see the blurb, another bee at the top, and a butterfly wing at the bottom, the significance of which will be made clear later.

Re-reading the blurb again now that I’ve read the book, I find the last sentence to be a little misleading, but I’ll get to that.

The Backstory

While Robin Hobb does try to cater for first-time visitors to her Realm of the Elderlings (the name given to the world in which most of Robin’s stories take place) by gradually mentioning (some of) the most important parts of what has happened previously, I would probably not recommend this book as an introduction to her writing.

Those not familiar with Fitz’s tendency to overthink everything and his failure to understand why some people care about him without having ulterior motives may well consider him an unrealistically masochistic drama queen who loves to feel sorry for himself. However, if you are among that group, I would heartily recommend introducing yourself to what has to be one of the best fantasy series ever written (you can probably tell that I’m completely objective) by beginning with Assassin’s Apprentice (see the list of books there), Book 1 of The Farseer Trilogy, and working your way through that trilogy as well as The Tawny Man Trilogy, at a minimum. Ideally, read The Liveship Traders Trilogy and The Rain Wilds Chronicles as well in order to get a full understanding of the story. It’s worth it.

Those who do know Fitz, on the other hand, have suffered with him through all the heartache and pain Robin has wreaked upon him, and know of his unique combination of talents as well as the sacrifices he has made for his kingdom, will most certainly appreciate that the author takes it easy on our favourite unsung hero… at first. And they will love the story Fitz has to tell.

To give you a quick summary of the backstory… ok, I’ve made several attempts at writing this and gave up. There’s no way of doing the story justice and keeping it relatively short at the same time, so, once again, I’ll refer anyone not familiar with the backstory to the previous trilogies. And, if you like, to my Fitz and the Fool post from a few months ago, where I wrote about their wonderful friendship.

The Plot

Fool’s Assassin begins slowly. (In fact, I said the same thing in my Assassin’s Apprentice post, but it’s even more so in this case.) Fitz, who, as previously, tells the story from a first-person perspective, lives and, somewhat surprisingly, enjoys a quiet life in the backwaters of the duchy in which he grew up. Known as Tom Badgerlock, for it is safer if no one knows that FitzChivalry Farseer is still alive, he and his wife Molly look after the Withywoods estate, where once his father Chivalry lived (and later died from his “accident”) after abdicating the throne over the revelation that he had fathered a bastard.

Fitz has many regrets, mostly about losing Burrich, the man who raised him, and about the fact that the Fool seems to have moved on without as much as a word (“doesn’t call, doesn’t write…”) after taking his leave at the end of Fool’s Fate. He deals with his melancholy by writing each night, presumably the story of The Tawny Man, his current musings, and sometimes doing translations of Skill-related writings for his old mentor Chade, the assassin-turned-royal-advisor to King Dutiful with whom he occasionally keeps in touch. He also keeps in touch with Nettle, his daughter with Molly, who is now a grown woman and Skillmistress in Buckkeep, where the royal family lives. However, Fitz wants nothing to do with the goings-on at court.

Except for Molly, no one around him knows of his abilities with the “royal” magic, the Skill, nor of his Wit, the baser magic that allows him to sense almost all forms of life and to communicate with animals. Not to mention that he is a trained assassin. Since his wolf-partner, Nighteyes, died many years ago, he has never wanted to bond with another animal.

Even strange events one Winterfest, when a messenger appears, asking to speak to him but disappears before he even has the chance to meet her, aren’t enough to make him realise what is going on. As before, he still possesses an extremely bright mind, but continues to wield it with all the finesse of a blacksmith doing fine embroidery. Web, the Wit-expert, is visiting and tells him that the strange “performers” who turned up unexpectedly shortly after the messenger seem invisible to his Wit-sense. This should ring a bell for anyone familiar with the previous books, but Fitz simply finds he’s enjoying himself while hunting for clues as to what happened to make the messenger disappear without delivering her message, leaving nothing but some blood stains. When the trail goes cold, he dismisses it as odd but not worth pursuing.

Contrary to what the blurb suggests, his life does not erupt into any further violence at this point. Rather, it continues peacefully for many years.

The Skill-healing performed on him by his “coterie” in the previous books has the lingering effect of keeping him healed and looking young, while Molly, ever pragmatic, refuses similar treatment. Thus Fitz gets to watch her age and regret that she cannot bear him any more children. (After Nettle, Molly had several other children with Burrich, who married her when everyone thought Fitz dead.) And then, well into menopause, Molly claims that she is finally pregnant. The reader’s heart, once again, breaks ever so slowly as Fitz struggles with the realisation that Molly is becoming senile, insisting she is right about her pregnancy as the seasons pass.

As mentioned above, I do not wish to spoil the story if you haven’t already read it. Suffice it to say, then, that there is more heartbreak in store for Fitz, as people he holds dear pass away, but there is also a wonderful new friendship that takes up the bulk of the book, a fateful reunion with the Fool (I won’t count that as a spoiler – given the book’s title, you’d expect the Fool to make an appearance, even though you wouldn’t expect it the way it happens, which will make you ponder several possible interpretations of said title), and even a few chapters from a new point of view.

The end of the book arrives suddenly. Having lulled you into a deeply intricate world of magics known and unknown, having built for you a spectrum of friends and enemies, the selfless and the selfish, and everything in-between, Robin Hobb springs the Fool on you from an unexpected angle, revealing that he has been seeking to contact Fitz for a long time and is attempting to find someone referred to only as “the unexpected son”. The story lives up to its title long before the reader realises it.

(Some of) The Details

Like in Fitz’s previous writings, each chapter begins with a few sentences or paragraphs of other writing – something Fitz found in historical scrolls, missives he has received, intercepted, or written but never sent, publications on various subjects, and so on. Typically, Robin uses these to give you a glimpse of the theme ahead, or some insight that will help you understand the greater story, although the connection between this “appetiser glimpse” and the chapter that follows is not always immediately obvious.

Isolated though Fitz is from the rest of the Six Duchies, the greater story around him continues, too. The land is in the process of adding a seventh duchy after the death of Eyod, Kettricken’s father and ruler of the Mountain Kingdom. Kettricken is no longer queen, having given the reins to her son, King Dutiful (who makes a couple of very small appearances; it seems Fitz is still successfully repressing the fact that he is actually Dutiful’s biological father). Nettle has managed to build a new coterie with several Skill-users for the King. The Witted, once hunted and killed, are now more accepted into society thanks to Web and the events of the previous books.

Once again, the realism present in a work of fantasy fiction is something to which all fantasy writers should aspire. The characters are finely-wrought and act believably in accordance with their own well thought-out backstory and the setting of the detailed tapestry that forms their world.

Robin does not buy into the “don’t ever use adverbs!” BS that some editors and writers seem to preach; she uses them, but not overly so to the point that it becomes a crutch. She manages, as ever, to use language that gives her writing that “authentic olden days feeling” without it sounding artificial or too try-hard, and without sending the average reader to the dictionary.

One thing that really bugged me, though – being a writer myself who is a bit of a grammar Nazi – was the number of errors in the book. Many were relatively minor and would be overlooked by most, but some are glaringly obvious. I’m wondering whether the publishers’ proofreaders (surely they have those?) and editors were on vacation to let that many errors slip through. I’ve contacted the publishers and will be emailing them a lengthy list of these errors in the hopes of stamping them out for future editions, at least. (Update: email sent!) I may also write them up as a blog post.

One for the Fans

Robin Hobb is an author who does not need to establish her credibility in a world of readers clamouring for high-paced, hard-hitting action. Rather, she is able to take her time, re-introducing the readers to characters directly and indirectly as though mentioning long-lost friends to her fans, who will be thrilled.

If you want hard-hitting non-stop action, this book will not be what you expect. If you enjoy letting yourself be drawn into a very rich and well-crafted world, however, where attention to detail is required to understand the finer details of the plot, you will love Robin Hobb’s latest book.

The author once said that Fitz’s story was done, and that she would not write any more stories involving him. That was before The Tawny Man. I am glad that Fitz once more managed to rattle around Robin’s brain and made her realise that there is more to his story that is worth telling.

Personally, I can’t wait until Book 2. And then Book 3. And, oh, I hope it doesn’t stop there.

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