Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Published: Random House Publishing Group (1996)
Series: Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society Award
“In a certain coastal kingdom, the nobility were named for the qualities their parents hoped they would possess. Prince Chivalry, heir to the throne, was the picture of propriety, respectful of others, and a skilled diplomat. That all ended the day Chivalry’s illegitimate son was discovered. Chivalry abdicated his position and left the court, leaving his bastard to be raised by the gruff, kind stableman, Burrich.
The nameless boy, commonly called “Fitz” or “the bastard”, lived in Buckkeep Castle, where few bothered to treat him with anything but contempt. However, while he was growing from a small boy to a young man, he caught the king’s attention. King Shrewd knew that a bastard could be either a dangerous threat or a loyal tool, and he was determined to make Fitz into the latter.
As the king’s man, Fitz is thrust into the world of court intrigue, while being secretly trained as the king’s new assassin. In dangerous times, where vicious raiders employ dark magic against civilians, and the people are losing confidence in the monarchy, Fitz may be instrumental in safeguarding the future of his homeland.” ~Allie
This is my second book for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at WWEnd. The challenge is to read 12 novels by 12 female authors in the year 2013. To make things more interesting, they must also be authors that I have never read before. I also selected this book as a result of Calico Reaction’s Ladie's First Dare, which gives a reading suggestion each month of a novel by a female author that Calico has read and enjoyed.
Though I’ve often seen her name around bookstores, Assassin’s Apprentice is the first novel I’ve read by Robin Hobb. I have not been having the best luck with these kinds of traditional, high fantasy stories lately, so I was a little wary starting this one. I’m glad I gave it a shot, because Assassin’s Apprentice is a very entertaining story, and it definitely makes me want to read the rest of the trilogy.
Assassin’s Apprentice is in some ways a pretty standard fantasy story. The world is a variation on a pseudo-medieval setting, there’s a fair amount of court politics, and the magic appears to be nothing new. The two major forms of magic are the Skill, which is a power of the mind, and the Wit, which is the ability to mentally commune with animals. The story is quite familiar as well—a boy from humble beginnings (an illegitimate birth) discovers his strengths and talents, and grows into a young man who may be able to change the course of his society. The framing device consists of an elderly Fitz setting down the story of his early life. Each chapter begins with texts of world information, and the story is told in first-person from Fitz’s viewpoint. All of this is pretty traditional for the genre, but I think this novel is an example of why this sort of story might be so common. When it is done well, as in Assasssin’s Apprentice, it makes for a very engaging and enjoyable story.
In many ways, it was really the characters that made this story work for me. They seemed very real to me, with their individual insecurities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. For instance, Chivalry’s wife Patience was unable to have children, and she struggles with defining what she and Fitz should be to each other. As another example, Burrich struggles with a serious injury and a declining career after Chivalry’s abdication, and he still has to figure out how to raise a rather troubled child (Fitz). Also, Prince Verity, the new king-in-waiting, is a highly competent and thoroughly decent man, but he has to cope with the fact that he can’t live up to Chivalry’s charisma and diplomatic skill. Some of the characterization is a bit more tell than show, but their characterization also shone through in their actions.
In addition to the engaging cast, Fitz was an excellent protagonist. While he has a nice handful of natural talents (such as the Wit), he has his fair share of weaknesses as well. He struggles with his identity and role in the court, and with his need for acceptance and belonging. Fitz is no stranger to mistakes, and it sometimes takes him a while to bounce back from the consequences of his failures. I also appreciated the moral ambiguity of Fitz’s position. His desire for acceptance, loyalty to his king, and sense of morality all come into conflict through his training and first missions as an assassin. In comparison with Fitz and the other characters, the villains of the piece seem a little simple in their motivations. Their schemes were clever enough, though, that I was mostly just willing to enjoy having villains that are easy to despise.
The story follows Fitz’s life, starting from early childhood, so the pace is somewhat slow and the story can sometimes seem to be meandering. I was typically interested by the stories of Fitz’s daily life, but I felt like the story dragged a bit when he was very young. At that age, he didn’t interact with very many people, and he had little understanding of the world around him. As a result, the reader wasn’t given much information about anything happening in the world that didn’t directly involve Fitz. His knowledge and experience increased as he grew up, and the story began to broaden, involving court intrigue, foreign threats, and more. From the early scenes on, though, I appreciated how the foundations of connections between characters were established, and how important these relationships continued to be throughout the story. Though much of the novel had a kind of “slice of life” feel, it eventually built up to an exciting finish. Some questions were answered, but some major plotlines were left open for the rest of the trilogy to explore.
My Rating: 4/5
Assassin’s Apprentice is a familiar kind of story, following an unwanted, illegitimate boy as he grows up in a troubled court. The setting is a fairly usual medieval-style kingdom, and the magic consists mainly of powers of the mind and telepathic communion with animals. For me, the strength of the story was in the characters, which were fallible, mostly sympathetic, and very human. I enjoyed following Fitz’s life, watching his painful failures and hard-won successes. The story began slowly, with Fitz’s early childhood, but eventually built up to an exciting ending. While I enjoyed this novel on its own, it is clearly the first third of a larger story, one that I am looking forward to reading!