Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review: Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Cover art for Royal Assassin, featuring a running wolf against a mottled golden-beige background
Fair warning: this is more a collection of thoughts than a coherent review. Try though I might, I just can't be organized about these books. I love them too much.

Maybe I should've done short, gushy, ungrammatical reviews with extensive footnotes. Next time.


ROYAL ASSASSIN'S opening illustrates my favourite thing about Robin Hobb's fiction: everything leaves a mark. The first handful of pages find Fitz horribly injured with no idea if he'll ever make a full recovery. It's clear there's no easy way back; no magic solution, especially of the authorial hand-wavy sort where the reader is expected to forget this debilitating injury or that PTSD trigger. Hobb never ignores what's happened to her characters, be the damage physical, emotional, or both.

It's great, y'all. I mean, it's terrible for Fitz, but it gives this world weight and texture and consequence, and I love it.

When I think back on these books--which I do fairly often, though not so often I remember every detail--I always end up dwelling on these darker aspects; on the consequences and the pain and the sheer amount of shit Fitz goes through. I'd somehow managed to forget that ROYAL ASSASSIN is often quite funny, too. It's hardly a laugh-per-minute type of deal, equipped as it is with a wartime setting and a rather dour premise, but I snickered at regular intervals as one or the other of the characters cracked a joke, or found themselves in a comical position, or offered a pithy observation on the state of the world.

So if I've ever given you the impression that these books are unrelenting suckfests for everyone involved (barring the masochistic reader, of course), I'm sorry. There are funny bits. People are occasionally happy. You (probably) won't crash into the depths of despair more than twice. Maybe three times, tops.

And hey, if you do crash hard, just remember you've got Nighteyes, Fitz's wolf friend, to look forward to! To be honest, I rather wanted to type, "BUT NIGHTEYES, THOUGH!" and leave the review at that, because really. Nighteyes is the best. What else do you need?

(Other than my scattered thoughts on the rest of it, I mean.)

The larger part of me firmly believes in the reader's right to like or dislike whatever they please. This part would never dispute your right to declare that someone other than Nighteyes the best wolf in all of fantastical fiction. There are plenty of them to chose from, after all. Like, there's Ghost, who's large and albino and on TV (and also bonded to an infamous bastard; how 'bout that?). And there are Perrin's wolves in the Wheel of Time. (I can't remember much about Perrin's wolves, but Fantasy Faction confirms their excellence via their Top Ten Wolves in Fantasy post.) Plus there are any number of werewolves, who probably count if you squint.

But that part of me, the part that believes in your right to like other wolves more than you like Nighteyes, is on vacation right now. Nighteyes is the best, y'all. He has a definite personality that remains wolfish even as he settles into his bond with Fitz, he doesn't take crap from anyone, he's often quite funny, and he exerts a strong influence over the story.

Also, I relate to his love of ginger cakes.

I want you to read these books for a whole lot of reasons, but Nighteyes is pretty near the top of the list. And you don't have to take my word for it, because that Fantasy Faction post I linked to above also ranks him at #1.

Clearly, the fine folks at Fantasy Faction know what they're talking about.

Moving on...

I suppose I should highlight that this is a middle book that, to my mind, avoids the whole middle book syndrome thing1. The plot remains chronological (in sense that we move through time along with the characters, not all of whom are in complete control of their next move for an approach that isn't always obviously cause-and-effect), but it's never boring2. Each exchange is fascinating in its own right while simultaneously contributing to the overarching story. The characters are in constant conflict with their circumstances as they feel torn between what they wish to do and what they need to do to preserve their country. It's great stuff.

The Red Ship raiders become somewhat more visible antagonists in this installment as Fitz engages them directly (fight scenes! We get fight scenes!), but they're still primarily of interest because they pave the way for lots of internal strife. Regal, Fitz's younger uncle, has a more obvious impact as a conflict instigator and as the novel's antagonist. Regal is an absolutely terrible human being--the sort of character you spend the entire book snarling at and wishing death upon, even though you grudgingly understand why he is the way he is--which makes him an excellent antagonist indeed. I can't believe I failed to mention him when I reviewed ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE. He's not quite awful enough to make it onto my Itty Bitty List of Least Favourite Literary Characters, but he comes mighty close. Just thinking about him has made me come over all scowly.

Speaking of characters I somehow failed to highlight in my previous review: Kettricken! I love love love love LOVE Kettricken, the very young, very foreign Queen of the Six Duchies. I'm a total sucker for characters who try, and Kettricken fits the bill to a tee. She's thrust into a stressful arena with very little support, but she still tries hard to fit into her new court, to understand the politics in play, to forge a true connection with her distracted new husband, and to help the people she so quickly comes to care for. And, best of all, she keeps a hold of herself as she does it. She refuses to let this unfamiliar place subsume her nature, even as she makes the necessary adjustments to accommodate it.

Kettricken is fabulous. A Kettricken-rich scene is a good scene.

As a small aside, I ship Fitz and Kettricken like crazy. I've fought the impulse, as I always do when a new ship presents itself, and I've lost. I've lost miserably. Y'all know I'm an infrequent shipper (since shipping leads to PAIN and WOE and more than a fair amount of stupidity3), but when I do ship, I ship hard.

It's rough, y'all. Never ship characters if you can possibly help it.

Anyways: awesome book. It made me terribly happy and terribly upset, as all the best books do, and I'd very much like the epic fantasy fans among you to read it. Start with ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, though; this one probably doesn't stand alone.


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 ROYAL ASSASSIN, you can try:

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

  1. It's worth noting that I almost always love Robin Hobb's middle books more than her openings or her conclusions. The exception to this rule is FOREST MAGE, which is the sole Hobb I don't entirely like. It has its good points, but holy hell does it ever meander. I've held off on rereading the Soldier Son Trilogy mostly so I don't have to wade through FOREST MAGE again.

    That said, I won't be at all surprised if I love the hell out of it the second time. After all, I found ASSASSIN'S QUEST pretty meandery before, and I've come around to find it fabulous. More on that on Friday.

  2. Despite what this spoilery Book-A-Minute Summary might lead you to believe. Yeah, there's a lot of talking, and a lot of almost-dying, but it's interesting talking and interesting almost-dying, so that's all right.

  3. You think you're a rational human being who appreciates good fiction. Then you find yourself rocking back and forth, crying and laughing and hugging an irate schnauzer because of a fucking blue French horn in what you recognize was the mostly poorly constructed series finale in the history of television and you're okay with that because your ship sailed.

    I am a cautionary tale, my friends.

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