Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

cover art for Assassin's Apprentice, featuring an old white man in a robe resting his hand on the head of a white boy who holds a dog. The figures are in tones of yellow; the background is shades of blue.
I have a terrible habit with series. Far too often, I'll read the first book, love it, resolve to read everything else as quickly as possible, and... not do that. Sometimes I search high and low for subsequent volumes but never manage to find them. Sometimes I'm too damned lazy to remember to look for them at the library. Sometimes it’s a little of both.

Which is to say: I read ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE when I was sixteen, having found a copy in the library sale1. And even though I loved it, I never actually bought and read any of the sequels. In fact, I barely remember searching for them.

Past Memory often disappoints me with her choices.

It wasn’t until early 2007, when I was an active member of the Green Dragon group on LibraryThing, that Robin Hobb sprang to mind again. Everyone else in the group loved her so much that I resolved to read her again.

This time, I made sure I had all three volumes of The Farseer, the author’s first as-Hobb2 trilogy, before I began so I wouldn’t have an excuse to duck out. I got ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE from BookMooch, then bought the others at my local Children’s Hospital’s annual Book Market3.

And y’all? I was sunk. I reread ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE in mid June, and by the end of August (which is how long it took me to find all the other Realm of the Elderlings books, most of which came from BookMooch), Robin Hobb was one of my Top Three Authors of All Time.

I get ridiculously excited about her books, so I’ll warn you: this is gonna be a rambly not-really-a-review.

Some summary, now. ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE is the story of Fitz, a royal bastard who's dumped on the royal doorstep around his sixth birthday and causes his father, Crown Prince Chivalry, to abdicate due to the shame of it all. (There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s how Fitz sees it for most of the book so let’s stick with that explanation for now.) Nobody other than Chivalry’s particular servant, Burrich, takes much of an interest in the kid after that. They don’t even bother to give him a name; Burrich just calls him Fitz, which means "bastard," and that’s a pretty big deal in a country where most people have names that are meant to define them.

So basically, Fitz is screwed from the get-go.

When the king finally remembers he’s got a bastard grandson running around his castle, he decides he’d better put Fitz to some use lest the kid become bitter and seditious. To that end, he has Fitz trained up as the family assassin4.

The book follows Fitz through roughly his first decade of life at court as he explores his secretive role in the country’s inner workings, wrestles with two very different magics, and learns a whole bunch of effective strategies for killing people. It’s frickin’ awesome.

You can maybe guess it’s not a particularly happy book, though. If the premise doesn’t give it away, Fitz tells you straight out within the first few pages. He’s writing this down a couple of decades in the future (hurray for stories that physically exist in-world!), at a point when he’s miserable and in pain and intent on occupying his time by writing a proper history of his country--but dammit, his own life story just keeps on tumbling out.

I loved it when I was in high school, I loved it even more in 2007, and it absolutely blew me away when I listened to the audio earlier this year. Robin Hobb is just so good at this, y’all. The story works on every level. It’s at once an epic struggle against outside forces, a dysfunctional family story, a How Stuff Works book with a focus on mechanisms both magical and mundane, and deeply personal story about a young person searching for his place in the world.

Like I said, I get ridiculously excited whenever I think of it. It’s a struggle not to tell you everything wonderful about the entire series right now, this very second, but I suppose it’s best to parcel the observations out. After all, some of the things I love most about the overarching story don't come out until many, many books down the line.

(Yes, there are many, many books, and they're all hefty tomes. This is the shortest of the lot at 434 pages; the rest are all in the 600-900 page range. They're awesome, though, so you won't mind the weeks you spend with them. Promise.)

Here are some thoughts unique to ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, then, and specifically tied to this most recent reading besides. I listened to the audiobook for ease of consumption, which should've meant I dragged my feet. I love audios because I can easily fit them in alongside print books, but they're peripheral. I have to make time for them, and that can be a challenge when I'm not walking anywhere or cooking large meals5.

In this case, I made lots and lots of time for ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE because it was so very, very wonderful.

It threw me a little at first, since narrator Paul Boehmer has a seriously posh voice and I figured Fitz would sound... well, I don’t know exactly, since I hardly ever hear characters’ voices in my head as I read, but not like an aristocrat. Which is silly, really, because he does grow up in the middle of a castle, and he is technically a royal, and he’s got enough training that he should be able to fit in with any group from the aristocracy to the poorest peasants... Anyways, the voice issue required a bit of an adjustment, but once I got used to it everything was smooth sailing. Boehmer delivers a performance that illuminates the story without ever getting in its way. He makes each character distinct, too; always a plus with any audio production.

I sank straight back into the story. It had been long enough since my last reading that I’d forgotten some details, while I anticipated certain beloved scenes or viewed others in a new light now I knew what was coming. For example, I completely missed the significance of Fitz-as-Catalyst the first time through, so I took a whole new delight in that bit. And I reached a point where I could not remember what happened to Smithy and spent a few heartrending hours consumed with worry for the little guy.

Worry and frustration are ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE’s main ingredients, really. Fitz's early revelation that he doesn’t get a happy ending is a spectre that hangs over the entire text. Despite this, it’s difficult not to want things on his behalf; to hope he’ll get a little happiness, and maybe some support he can recognize as such. (The adults in his life do help him out along the way, but he almost never realizes what they’re doing.)

When I step back from the text, I see so much more than I do while I’m right down in it. Viewed from a distance, Fitz is deeply flawed and often frustrating in his inability to see what’s right in front of him. When I’m actually reading (or listening), though, when I’m right inside Fitz’s head, the immersion level is so deep it can be difficult to see anything other than what Fitz himself sees. So far as I’m concerned, to read Robin Hobb is often to forget I’m actually reading, and y’all know how rarely that happens to me. Fitz’s preoccupations become my own, and so do his blind spots.

Well, some of them.

Shortly before I reread the book in 2007, a fellow LibraryThinger told me her favourite thing about Hobb is that Fitz makes terrible decisions that seem perfectly acceptable until the exact moment when they go to shit, at which point Fitz and the reader simultaneously realize he’s done the exact opposite of the right thing. This is absolutely true, and it strikes me now that it’s possible because Hobb leaves no distance between the reader and the character.

This is subjective, of course, and I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same experience. I hope you do, though, because it’s really fucking wonderful.

There’s so much I haven’t mentioned yet. Like the Fool! Fitz and the Fool have my favourite friendship in all of fiction. (There’s your monthly quota of words that start with F, right there.) I love them so much, and have them so tangled up in my mind, that I was more than a little surprised at how long it takes the Fool to actually enter the picture. Their friendship is just a tiny little possibility at this point in the series, but oh! What a wonderful possibility it is! The seeds Hobb plants, y’all! The seeds!

Plus--and this is kind of a spoiler, but I believe it’s important to bring these sorts of things out into the open on account of representation--the Fool is gender fluid (and, thus, the reason I often recommend Robin Hobb as LGBT fantasy). Fiction needs more gender fluid folks.

There’s magic here, too: the Wit, which is poor people magic tied to animals (and effectively outlawed as "unclean"), and the Skill, which is reserved for rich folks and looks a lot like telepathy with benefits. Fitz straddles the two, though he has to keep his Wit a secret, and his abilities play out in some big ways over the course of the series. More seeds, friends! More wonderful, glorious seeds!

There's also a big, epic struggle against raiders who steal peoples' souls and let their bodies loose to terrorize their former loved ones, but that's mostly a backdrop for all the other awesome stuff that goes on. The obvious villains threaten everything from a distance, but their effect on the residents of Buckkeep is more truly the antagonist here.

And I'll shut up now, because I've gotta save some thoughts for the rest of the series.

I'd hoped to revisit the other books on audio, too, but my library doesn't own them. Poop. This is probably for the best, though, as I doubt I'd have remained satisfied with the necessarily slower pace of audiobooks. I dove back in a couple of weeks ago and now appear to be in the middle of a Robin Hobb binge. As I write this, I'm halfway through SHIP OF MAGIC, and I doubt I'll manage to pull myself away for longer than a day or two6 until I've turned the last page of FOOL'S ASSASSIN (which the publisher very kindly gave me through NetGalley). Sometimes, it's worth shunting everything else aside while you wallow awesomeness them for weeks on end.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, you can try:

  • Kobo (e-book; for purchase; coupons don't work)
  • The Book Depository (paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
  • Amazon (paperback & Kindle; for purchase)
  • Audible (audio; for purchase or via one-month free trial)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the above links.

  1. Back in the days before la TBR was a source of stress, I took frequent advantage of my library’s fill-a-bag deal. Discarded library books cost $0.50 each for paperbacks or $5 for hardcovers and catalogued materials (they’ve only recently begun to catalogue paperbacks), or you could stuff a grocery bag full of the things for $5. I got so many wonderful books that way, including BELGARATH THE SORCERER by David and Leigh Eddings, the third, fourth, and fifth OUTLANDER books by Diana Gabaldon, and some Steven Erikson and Lois McMaster Bujold titles which are still on my shelves, waiting for me to love them.

    I also got a copy of THE SUMMER QUEEN by Joan D. Vinge in one of those sales, discarded it when I realized it was science fiction, and said a lot of awfully nasty things to myself when I actually wanted to read it ten or twelve years later. Like I said before, Past Memory made an awful lot of disappointing decisions.

  2. Robin Hobb is also Megan Lindholm. She uses the pseudonyms to distinguish between two styles of writing. Hobb is epic and distinctly secondary world, while Lindholm runs the gamut from contemporary fantasy to science fiction to something that looks like prehistoric fantasy (though I could be totally wrong there, as I’m procrastinating on reading that series, too).

  3. The April 2007 Book Market was a good ‘un. It was the first time I actually had a sizeable amount of money and the expectation of more, so I bought everything I’d ever wanted. I got the two Hobbs, as previously mentioned, plus pretty well all of Raymond E. Feist, an awful lot of R.A. Salvatore, some Robin McKinley, and a whole ton of random stuff.

    I ended up abandoning Feist after SILVERTHORN, and I never even particularly tried to read the non-Drizzt Salvatores. Hobb worked out well for me, though, as did McKinley and a few of the random books.

  4. I don’t know about y’all, but I wouldn’t be the slightest bit bitter and seditious if my grandfather trained me up as a killer.

    Thankfully, my grandfather never trained me up as much of anything, though I did have an uncle who tried to prepare me for life as a circus performer. This didn't work out for either of us, as he only gave me two or three training sessions before he moved to another province and/or lost interest. When I tried to carry on my own self, I was promptly expelled from gymnastics class for being a "disruptive influence."

    Too bad. Circus performing looks like fun.

  5. I listened to a lot of fiction last December, since I was trimming Christmas trees and producing large quantities of baked goods. Once I reached late January/early February, which is when I listened to ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, I was mostly just cooking my own less-involved meals and occasionally cleaning. I get a lot of listening in while I walk around, but I don't walk anywhere in the winter because I can't tolerate the cold. Basically, I have limited listening time at certain points in the year.
  6. If I keep to my current pace, I'll finish SHIP OF MAGIC right on time to participate in the Readathon. I don't really want to spend all twenty-four hours with the same book, so I'll take a wee break to scarf down some novellas and maybe a few comics before I launch into MAD SHIP.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my all-time fantasy series, Memory. I devoured them as they came out. I've gone on to read the Tawny Man series (also love), and just completed the Liveship series, which was amazingly fun. I'm just about to start her ongoing dragon series, which comes right after the Liveship series. So....yes, she is one of my favourite authors too!

    The Fitz and Fool are my favourite team too in fantasy. I often remember Fool's sudden appearances and whimsical words that end up being true to the nature of the Fool in the tarot.....I do like how you see Fitz as so flawed and yet we are so close in his head that we don't see his mistakes until he does. I do remember one scene with Molly when he leaves her when I shouted out "No! Stop! you fool!" lol. There is a lot of emotional depth in this series that I found made it feel like I was living there with the characters. One of my all-time favourite fantasy series, that now that I know a new book (a Fool book I think) is coming out this year, I might have to reread soon. I'm so happy you are finding it so good, too!