Ben Johnson's Reviews > Royal Assassin

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
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Mar 09, 11


*This review is for the entire series. There are no spoilers*

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb is the story of Fitz, a bastard of the royal line and tool of royal family. He struggles to carve out a life of is own while serving as a playing piece in the games of courtly intrigue at Buckkeep, all the while struggling to come to terms with his affinity for the Wit - an empathy with animals viewed as an abomination. Meanwhile, the lands of the Six Duchies are threatened by unnatural raiders from far shores, and the royal family is hard pressed to resist. The series is compelling and weighty, an experience rather than escapism because it is too emotionally draining to be read lightly. But it is an experience not to be missed, one that transcends its genre by doing what fantasy does best: challenging our assumptions regarding fantasy worlds and our own society, and how the two relate.
Assassin's Apprentice is the story of a child growing up outside the courtly romance of the royal family, who is treated as a tool as much as the servants and soldiers. Royal Assassin focuses on the domestic sphere during a time of crisis: as the powerful men are out fighting and plotting, the queen and other members of her sphere are left to deal with the problems they create. Finally Assassin’s Quest takes the characters of the series, who had been mostly confined inside castle walls, and places them on a heroic journey of their own.

In a previous review, I lamented the fact that the author seemed to take no real risks with her characters. Robin Hobb has no such problem. Her characters - particularly her narrator Fitz - find very few instances of true contentment or joy and suffering is frequently extreme. Hobb is not scared of seriously injuring a character during a fight that would be routine in any other work of fantasy, and the characters bare an increasing amount of scars - physical or otherwise - as the story progresses. It sometimes feels as if Fitz goes from one convalescent period to another with little gained in between, but rather than an annoyance this lack of authorial protection adds welcome tension to the action.
And it is not only in the fights that Hobb is willing to make her characters suffer. Emotionally this series is less roller-coaster and more bungee-jump. Sure, after a plunge there will probably be a recoil back up - but you’re not going to be as high as you were, and there’s no avoiding the next drop, and there’s no way you can get higher than you started. The series is occasionally bleak, sometimes depressing, but it is in these lows that catharsis is reached. In my opinion, worlds of fantasy are only as real as the suffering they contain - too little and they are merely an artistic fancy, like Disneyland compared to downtown LA.

On top of this, the series is slow-paced. If I was to summarize the major points of the over-arching conflict between the Six Duchies and the Red Ship Raiders, there would be a few in the first book, a couple in the second, and then a whole bunch at the end of the third. Same with the courtly-intrigue. And this just goes to show, the series is not about it’s political conflicts, it is about its characters. Specifically, it is about Fitz. Fitz is the plot, and the slow pacing combined with the first person narration invested me in the character as few books have. I can’t say that everyone will appreciate the strategy as I did - if action is what you’re after (and that’s not a bad thing), you might not make it to the end of the the series. On the other hand, the deliberate pacing combined with Hobb’s willingness to hurt the protagonists means that the action that does occur is all the more thrilling. The books simmer like a kettle on a stove, and when they finally boil over they are impossible to put down. During each book I kept a fairly standard reading pace until the last 20% or so (I have a Kindle so I can know these things), and then finished the book in a marathon reading session.

Every once in a while (and I mean like once or twice every book), there is a brief section that can only be described as an interlude for social commentary. In Assassin’s Apprentice this takes the form of speculation over what sort of women would be the best wife for the prince. “Verity deserves a companion, not an ornament to wear on his sleeve... Someone to ride beside him of a morning when he takes Hunter out for a gallop, or someone who can look at a section of map he’s just finished and actually understand just how fine a piece of work it is.” These interludes feel a bit out of place, but they do highlight the significance of the author’s breaks with “conventional” fantasy. The confinement of the characters to the castle; the vagueness of the external conflict combined with the detailed exposition of home life; the focus on the bastard child, the wife, the fool and the stablemaster as the primary protagonists - all act as a challenge to the primacy of military chronicles as the basis for fantasy novels.

I entered the series with my own assumptions in place: the domestic sphere of the castle is the realm of the women and children, while the king and soldiers do the meaningful work outside. I think that for a very large percentage of fantasy works this expectation is validated. Think only of how many stories focus on a warrior, or a king, or a band of soldiers fighting on foreign soil. Generally, the meaningful work is done outside of the home, on a quest in a far-away land. And yet this “meaningful” work is never really shown in the Farseer Trilogy. In the series, the most significant conflict points are not external but internal ones; the plot is primarily concerned with Fitz’s inner struggles and his interactions with his friends and enemies inside the castle. By shifting the story into the domestic sphere, Hobb shows that this sphere is really no different than any other. It is not gendered, it is not safe, and it is not without it’s own intense struggles. It is not separate from the external sphere of wars and diplomacy, as the concerns of each affect the other. My own expectation of the world as consisting of these two separate domains was no longer valid - there is only one reality, and it is shared by all. Hobb’s fantasy world is not an escape from reality but an insistence that some of our “realities” are more fantasy than we realize.
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