Robin Hobb is a much admired and respected fantasy author. I actually read the Farseer trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) as a teenager, but recently picked them up again. The trilogy follows many of the tropes of fantasy fiction: a faux-medieval world, royal intrigue, magic. Hobb’s world building is excellent and imaginative, so the books do bring something different to the fantasy market.
Fitzchivalry (Fitz), the illegitimate son of a prince, pledges his life to his grandfather King Shrewd. Aged only eleven, he is then apprenticed to Chade, the King’s mysterious assassin. The Six Duchies are under threat from the Outislanders, who no longer simply plunder, but strip humanity from their captives – leaving them only capable of fulfilling animal desires - then release them to wreak havoc on their neighbours. Prince Verity, Fitz’s uncle, is determined to save his Kingdom. Out of love for Verity as much as anything else, Fitz sacrifices much to help. He faces another more insidious threat in the form of his half-uncle Prince Regal, a jealous, manipulative young man who is determined to inherit the throne himself. Meanwhile the Fool takes an interest in Fitz, riddling about prophecies.
The story is narrated by Fitz as an older man. He is not the most admirable of characters; he is often sullen and selfish, but Hobb always keeps him on the right side of likable. It is only fitting behaviour, perhaps, for the teenage boy he is; the journey from boy to man is portrayed warts and all. This is one of the reasons why I think they make an excellent bridging novel for readers moving from the young adult market to the adult one.
It is the tone of these books that I found interesting; they are dark, with misfortune after misfortune befalling Fitz. They contain a reasonable amount of violence, not sweeping battle scenes or glorious vanquishing of enemies, but always as a dark and ugly truth of the world in the form of vicious beatings and secret assassinations. Fitz is just as often perpetrator as victim, and the grim necessity of it all ages him before his time. It is one of the many interesting notions Hobb explores around the pledge Fitz made as a child; his loyalty to his King and family is never in doubt, but Fitz often questions how far he can go. It may be one thing to die for your King, but to sacrifice every living moment of your life is another.
The trilogy is also a master class in plotting, Hobb has written three complete books, each with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, which together make up a trilogy with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Hobb avoids the bombast of many never-ending series (George RR Martin, I’m looking at you). I did think the third book had a few wobbles; the second quarter has Fitz narrowly escape his enemies perhaps a few times too many, but then it picks up speed to weave together the various threads of the story.
Like so many fantasy series our hero is male, but I really enjoyed the female characters in these books. They span a diverse range of womanhood, from the working class to the highest echelons of society. All are strong while feminine, and face adversity without becoming ‘victims’. The books don’t seem to have a feminist agenda like the books of Ursula Le Guin do, rather Hobb seems to find it as natural to write strong, well-rounded female characters as well as male. It is refreshing as so often, not just in fantasy, this is not the case.
A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy series in my opinion. Fans of the Saga of Ice and Fire may want to check these out while waiting for the next instalment. It is the first of four series set in this fantasy world, and she also writes under another pen name as Megan Lindholm. I’ll probably read some more of her books, so watch this space.