Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I consider myself a fan of fantasy and science fiction and there are certain names that always get mentioned by people in the genre. Robin Hobb is one of these names and yet I had never read her books. Given that Sword & Laser, one of the shows on the amazing Geek & Sundry lineup, is reading the book this month, I figured: it's time. And I have to say I'm glad I finally read Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice.

Click through to find out why.

Overall Impression
Three books came to mind as I was reading this one, given the similarity of topics covered. The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton, for the coming-of-age story told within the Dream; The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, for the singular focus on the main character and the narrow point of view despite its epic nature; and The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, for the tale of an apprentice assassin. There are, of course, substantial differences in all these 4 books. One could argue that Robin Hobb has drawn from the best of those books, but that is incorrect. These are all approximately contemporary and Hobb's was clearly first (by nearly a decade if I have it correct). The real case here is that all these books draw on similar, timeless stories that connect people: this is the story of a young man with a great gift, but deprived of his family, who must now struggle to find his place in the world. A good author can tell such a story with his/her own spin and make it have a long-lasting impact. This is what I got from Assassin's Apprentice.

The story is, at it's simplest, a coming-of-age story. It relates how the boy Fitz grew up in Buckkeep, how he was shunned as a bastard son of a well-loved prince, how he came to take care of the hounds and horses, learned skills of court life, and got apprenticed to a royal assassin. The tale is told by him as he recalls these events from much later in his life. In part, there is an amazing amount of detail he recalls (for example, from when he was only 6 years old), but we have to remember that he only remembers that which is important and his training did force him to pay attention to details.

The main story is that of his experiences, but at the time there is trouble brewing in the Six Duchies. The so-called Red-Ship raiders have started attacking the coastal villages despite the towers, watches, and patrols. Their demands are astonishing: "pay up and we will kill the people we've captured, otherwise we'll just return them." Yes, you read that correctly. It should come as no surprise that when the captives are returned, they are... different and perhaps death was the better choice.

The one issue that stands out is that the pacing is very slow. The reader gets a leisurely ride through the world and characters and only at the end do things really pick up. If you are the type of reader that needs instant action right from the get-go, then you might be disappointed at Hobb's style.

The story revolves, and is narrated by, the 'boy', the bastard, the one called Fitz. Fitz, however, is not his real name; it actually means something like 'son of.' The boy is the illegitimate son of Prince Chivalry, hence, he is literally FitzChivalry. Like many fantasy books, I felt he at times leaned too far into the character-is-awesome-at-everything end of the spectrum. He does have his flaws (loneliness, absent parents, feeling out of place), but with the Skill, Wit, fighting skills, herb (and poison) knowledge, and his pragmatism amidst court life, he just feels too good to be true (reminded me a bit of Kvothe from The Name of the Wind). However, as he matures through the novel we realize he doesn't actually excel at everything, so it's more a consequence of the first-person narration and the inexperience of youth. The neat drawing I've placed below was made by deviantArtist Crooty and depicts Fitz in his room. He looks so small and alone in it.

Fitz arrives in his room and examines the painting of King Wisdom and an Elderling. Credit: Crooty

There are some other characters that play key roles in Fitz's life. Most notably: Burrich, Chade, and the Fool. Given the limited viewpoint, we never see who they are inside and thus some of their actions are shrouded with some appealing mystery.

One thing I noticed was that the villains were very clearly marked. When you meet certain characters you immediately know they are bad. In a sense, this is just a consequence of the unreliable first-person narration. I would have preferred a little more subtlety, but that would have required a different way of telling the story.

Setting / World Building
This is fantasy, and as such, the world is not our own and there are aspects of it that stand out. Foremost among them are the psychic abilities Skill and Wit. From this book alone, I wasn't able to pinpoint the difference between the two. Both are mental abilities that allow you to connect to others, however, Skill is primarily used on humans and Wit on animals. My gut feeling is that these two are actually a single magical ability and are only called separately by virtue of their history. The Red-Ship raiders appear to have some connection to this as well, given the state of the people they return back to the Six Duchies.

Names have power, both in this book and in the real world. In this story, we hear hints and rumors about how names become part of who people are. A person named Shrewd, will be just so, and so will a person named Wisdom show wisdom. Whether or not it is because the names themselves shape the person or the names are chosen with some unconscious foresight is not made clear. This is clearly something that looks like it will explored in the subsequent books. The importance of names is emphasized with the fact that we never officially learn the name of the son of Chivalry until about 75% into the book, when we already know very well who he is.

One interesting tease throughout the book is the mention of 'elderlings.' You only hear about them on 3 or 4 occasions, but you get the feeling that they are important, powerful creatures. Very little is revealed, however, and we see no actual examples except in paintings like the one above. However, I'm confident that this is foreshadowing for the rest of the series and will play a key role in things to come.

Final Thoughts
This was a very good book, but not outstanding compared to others I've read. The slow pace lets you savor the world, but I expect many readers might turn away from that in favor of faster action.  It opens up the Farseer universe and promises much more to come. Given that this is part of a trilogy and the trilogy is actually part of a set of trilogies (so 9 books total), there is far more to see in this world. I am certain I will be revisiting this world in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment