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Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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The kingdom of the Six Duchies is on the brink of civil war when news breaks that the crown prince has fathered a bastard son and is shamed into abdication. The child’s name is Fitz, and he is despised.

Raised in the castle stables, only the company of the king’s fool, the ragged children of the lower city and his unusual affinity with animals provide Fitz with any comfort.

To be useful to the crown, Fitz is trained as an assassin; and to use the traditional magic of the Farseer family. But his tutor, allied to another political faction, is determined to discredit, even kill him. Fitz must survive: for he may be destined to save the kingdom.
~~~~~
Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book to appear under the Robin Hobb pseudonym of Megan Lindholm, was published over two decades ago; since then it has remained constantly in print, and a number of sequels – the rest of the Farseer trilogy, but also four other series set in the same world – have appeared, the latest, Assassin’s Fate, bringing to a close the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the main character of Assassin’s Apprentice, nine books across three trilogies later, only this year. So it seemed like a fine time to pick up where it all began…

In many ways, Assassin’s Apprentice hews close to trends in epic fantasy from the Eighties; the lowly child who turns out to not only be part of the royal family, but also have special magical gifts – if you’re getting flashes of David Eddings, that’s not unreasonable. However, Hobb uses that basic model to go to very different places; for a start, Fitz is raised as a royally acknowledged bastard – that is, in the palace, with an education to make him useful to the royal family – rather than anonymously; he’s also not someone we see as destined from the word go, let alone to destroy a singular great Evil, since Hobb resists presenting us such a thing.

In doing so, Assassin’s Apprentice is also a very obvious influence on and forerunner of the fantasy of the twenty-first century: grey morality, plots and schemes, an interest in the actual reality of the complexity of politics over simplistic approaches, a more complex engagement with historical influences, and of course, assassins. The trend of the hooded assassin hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s one Hobb is a significant figure in; her book presents us the assassin as conflicted hero, serving his king loyally but not without moral qualms at times, and with a satisfyingly subtle approach to assassination (few knives in the dark here).

Beyond the ways in which Hobb created something of a critical turning point in fantasy, though, there’s the quality of the book itself to consider. Assassin’s Apprentice has some of the subtlest characterisation I’ve seen in a novel, especially in some of the secondary characters. While Fitz is very open, others – especially his surrogate parental figure Burrich – are much more interestingly layered with complexity; not in the sense of mystery, but in the sense that there’s always more than just the surface characterisation. Every single character has their own web of relationships and motives that Hobb has thought through, and those are complicated, interesting, human relationships. The closest we come to an exception is Galen, something of a Snape figure without the eleventh hour pseudo-redemption; but Hobb, unlike many other authors using a similar figure, openly has characters acknowledge that Galen’s teaching is abuse, and Assassin’s Apprentice condemns both it and, separately, points out that it is ineffective for teaching anything but pure obedience.

This is also a book with quite a nontraditional plot. Assassin’s Apprentice reads much more like a true biography than most seemingly-biographical fantasy novels: not everything impacts on Fitz’s eventual victory, although there are some great Chekhov’s guns loaded early that the reader may not realise exist. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, and the more formal model of plot only really occupies the last hundred or so pages of the book; while everything has been building towards it, it’s not an inevitable conclusion, it’s just the most dramatic set of events, that wraps up with a conclusion that could end a series, without frustratingly obvious cliffhangers or the absolute necessity of another book.

Assassin’s Apprentice now doesn’t read as radical in what it does with epic fantasy only because it’s so often been (often poorly) imitated: Hobb’s work is a classic of the genre, and based on this encounter with it, very deservedly so.

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