“We follow you, Fitz, to the end, no matter how bitter.”
Kat: If you’re a fan of Robin Hobb’s REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS books (which include the FARSEER SAGA, TAWNY MAN trilogy, LIVESHIP TRADERS trilogy, RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES, and the FITZ AND THE FOOL trilogy) you know as well as we do that you don’t need to read this review to decide whether to read Assassin’s Fate (2017), the last book in the FITZ AND THE FOOL trilogy and, possibly, the last book in the entire REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS saga. There’s just no way you’re planning to skip this book. Let us assure you that Assassin’s Fate is everything it needed to be and more. Bill and I both agree that it’s a spectacular finale to one of the finest epic fantasies ever written. We loved it.
If you have not been reading REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS, get thee to thy bookshoppe (or library) posthaste… and be warned that there are mild spoilers for the previous books in this review of Assassin’s Fate.
Here’s the basic plot: Bee, Fitz’s strange little daughter, has been kidnapped by the servants of the White Prophet, those horrible people who tortured and blinded the Fool and who now want to use Bee for similar evil purposes. Fitz and the Fool set out with a small company to rescue her. To accomplish their mission they will need help from the Rain Wilders, the Liveship Traders in Bingtown, and the dragons. As they quest, readers will get to revisit some old friends (e.g. Brashen, Althea, Malta, Etta, Amber) and learn how all of their stories intersect. Much that was fuzzy finally becomes clear as all the pieces come together in an epic ending that is intense, exhilarating, beautiful, and heart-breaking.
Bill read the print version published by Del Rey Books. I listened to the audio version produced by Random House Audio and narrated by Elliot Hill. It’s 39.25 hours long. Hill has the perfect voice for FitzChivalry Farseer’s morose introspective personality and he does a great job with most of the other characters, too, including the females. He’s superb with the animals. It annoyed me a bit that half the time he mispronounced Vivacia (yes, he actually changed his pronunciation back and forth during the story). That is a mistake that shouldn’t have been made, but still I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the audio version because he’s so good with Fitz.
On to the story… Actually, not quite yet… Let me first mention Hobb’s acknowledgement at the beginning of the book which caused me to burst into tears (the first of several times I burst into tears while reading Assassin’s Fate):
To Fitz and the Fool, my best friends for over twenty years.
That’s the way I feel about Fitz and the Fool, too. They’ve also been my friends for over twenty years. I love them. For that reason, I dragged my feet finishing Assassin’s Fate. I desperately wanted to know what would happen, but I was dreading it, too, because I didn’t want to be finished with Fitz’s story. When I got to the end (in tears, of course), I loved and hated it. The ending was perfect. It was glorious. What did you think, Bill?
Bill: I didn’t drag my feet while reading it, but I absolutely held off picking it up way longer than I would have normally with a new Fitz book because I was pretty sure I knew where we were going here, and I (like the characters) just didn’t want to face that. And yeah, that ending. It felt wholly inevitable, absolutely perfect as you say, and yep, I both loved it and hated it. I’m pretty sure that will be the consensus view of other readers as well.
Kat: Bill and I both read TAWNY MAN and LIVESHIP TRADERS. It’s necessary to read TAWNY MAN before FITZ AND THE FOOL and, while it’s not strictly necessary to have read LIVESHIP TRADERS before reading Assassin’s Fate, it sure does help. For me, it made the experience of Assassin’s Fate even more satisfying because I already knew and loved those characters and it was rewarding to see what happened to them after their story finished in LIVESHIP TRADERS. Did you feel that as well, Bill, and do you feel that reading RAIN WILD CHRONICLES (which I have not read) also increased your enjoyment of Assassin’s Fate?
Bill: Absolutely on both. Though I’d agree having read those two series isn’t strictly necessary; I think it’s not only helpful in knowing who these people are, but it adds to the emotional and narrative richness of the story. I was actually marvelling throughout at Hobb’s deftness at bringing all the multiple threads of this tapestry together. Often when authors do this sort of convergence, I find it feels forced or shoehorned in, not at all part of the natural, organic structure/plot of the story. And/or it has that sort of empty whirlwind feel of those advertisements you see on college classroom walls: 30 Countries in 6 Days! (Snapchat caption: “Church in Spain. Maybe Portugal. Possibly Lithuania. Never mind — it’s Cleveland”). This had none of that. All of the old characters and storylines were given due respect, and I just reveled in having a chance to spend a bit more time with them all.
Kat: I agree! I was amazed by this, too, and I think it was one of the best features of the book. I kept wondering whether all of this was planned out from book one (Assassin’s Apprentice). I have never seen this so deftly done. Assassin’s Fate is, in essence, the finale to five series of books.
Bill: That’s a great way of putting it and absolutely accurate. I had the same question about how much had been planned out. I’m guessing very little from the start, but that’s just further testament to Hobb’s skill. And it’s the sort of thing I’d expect from an author who, as I noted in our review of the last book, Fool’s Quest, deals “in the entirety of the complex web of human (and animal) interaction.”
Kat: I don’t know… it was so perfectly woven together than I suspect much of it was planned at least by the time she wrote LIVESHIP TRADERS (her second trilogy, published after the original FARSEER trilogy). Either way, she’s a genius.
Speaking of animal interaction, I loved the crow.
Bill: Oh that crow! In some author’s hands it’d be simple comic relief. And certainly it works that way here. But nobody is simply one thing in Hobbs’ worlds. And nobody ever stays one thing. A theme driven home by all the multiple identities, all the gender-title switching, all the evolving we get. It can, I would guess, get frustrating for some readers (wait, who is the “she” now?), but I like that it also gets frustrating for the characters, as when Fitz realizes he just doesn’t like Amber (one of the Fool’s many facets). But we don’t get to just pick the part of the people we like, we have to take them as their entirety, and I think that’s a beautiful theme throughout this book/series. A theme made explicit in an early conversation between Fitz and Perseverance:
“So that’s who she really is? A girl named Spark?”
“Spark is whoever she is. Sometimes that’s Ash. It’s like being a father and a son and perhaps a husband. All different facets of the same person.”
Kat: I was stunned when Fitz said he didn’t like Amber… I mean, I knew he didn’t, but when he actually said it, it (what you said above) hit me, and I thought it was brilliant of Hobb to bring that out that way.
Bill: Yeah, and I laughed out loud when Per (I think) went “What?” after Fitz announced that. The expectations we put on people to be the people we want them to be, to play the roles we want them to play in the manner in which we want them played, is another running theme, and while we see that in traditional, realistic ways — disputes between parents and children for instance — the way Bee has to learn to fend for herself —, as can often be the case in fantasy, we also see how a metaphor can become literal in a subplot involving the Liveships and their own personal evolution.
Kat: Related to that, I think, are the different ways that we are able (or not able) to love someone and the different ways we are able (or not able) to express love. Fitz loves Molly, Bee, the Fool, Kettricken, Chade, and Nighteyes, and he loves them all deeply, but all in a different way. Just like we do, Hobb’s characters sometimes get confused and/or jealous about this.
Bill: Yes, and whether we’re talking about the love of a parent for a child, one lover for another, a mentor for a student, and others, it’s always mature love and mature expression and mature confusion. Not YA “which hot boy do I ‘like like’” or clichéd bad boy — good boy/popular-outcast or Hollywood “insta-love.” You feel the weight of experience behind all this expression/confusion, the heft of lives already lived, the onus of consequences from acts already taken (as opposed to the clean slate of history we see way too often). That last idea comes up repeatedly in a tag-line mentioned several times, either verbatim or in various formulations of the same thing: “Never do that which you can’t undo, until you’ve perceived what you can’t do once you’ve done it.” What a different world it would be were this our guiding light.
Kat: I’d say that there are times when the love between some of Hobb’s characters doesn’t feel exactly mature (e.g., Fitz and Molly in the first book, two young couples in this book, perhaps even Fitz and Bee in the earlier books in this trilogy), but it always feels reasonable and weighty nonetheless because of all the space Hobb gives to each of her characters — we understand their attractions and feelings for each other. They make sense.
Bill: Yes, they do. And you’re right that it’s due to that “space” we get with them. And because Hobb spends so much time depicting both characters and their inter-relationships in such detail, and brings back so many characters and threads from other books/series, Assassin’s Fate is a pretty big book. I’ve been sick and in bed, so I basically read it in a few sittings over a single (long) day, and though I knew as I’d read that I’d have to talk about how yes, some people might find the pace a bit slow, I was shocked when I looked up its length for this review and saw it was nearly 900 pages in hardcover. I would have guessed more in the 600-page range, so while it has the trademark slow pace of a Hobb’s novel, it moves along deceptively fast (and yes, I realize that’s more than a little paradoxical — it’s fantasy!). And I’d argue that the length is pretty much necessary to contain all those elements and still have a sense of balance and richness, as opposed to dropping in prior characters for the equivalent of a Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel film. Hobb just doesn’t do shallow; whether a character appears on 500 pages or 5 or 1, they always feel substantive, fully alive and enmeshed in a network of connections even if we don’t alway see them. Even the crow.
Which is why that ending is so damn perfect, so damned inevitable and horrible and inspiring and cruel and warm and perfect (yes, I know I already said that). Why it left me buoyed and depressed, hollowed out and filled with joy. Hobbs stuck the landing, dropped the mic, freed the wolf, Fitzed the Fool. You want those pages at the end to both be done and to just keep going.
Kat: I experienced the same thing. I finished it on a day I was home from work, just around the time my husband got home and the kids showed up to greet him. I had the box of Kleenex and my eyes were red and I was quiet. My son said, “Mom, are you sick?” I said “no.” They waited… He said, “why all the Kleenex, then?” I said “I finished my book.” My husband rolled his eyes and says “that Robin Hobb book? You are sooooooo pathetic!”
They just don’t understand.
Bill: Yeah, if I hadn’t finished it at like three in the morning, I would have taken it up to the attic and told my family I and my ending needed to be alone for a while… Assassin’s Fate is a true gift to Robin Hobb’s fans, and sometimes a review can be summed up in two words: Thank you.
Kat: Thank you.
THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships — rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…
TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.
THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…
FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….