Robin Hobb’s FARSEER series well earned its current classic status, and any serious reader of fantasy had to be thrilled to hear that Fitz, one of the genre’s most beloved characters, would be returning in a new series. I certainly was. But I was also curious, and, I confess, a bit nervous, about how her evolution in storytelling, especially as displayed in her SOLDIER’S SON and RAIN WILDS series, might play out in a long-delayed return to an old favorite. After all, in those works, I had to admit that said evolution — which I described as Hobb seemingly “exploring just how much plot she needs in her novels to actually have a ‘story,’ as if she’s feeling her way to as quiet and minimalist a style (in terms of action, not language) as possible” — had left me thinking she had carried the experiment (if such it was) a bit too far for my liking. So what would happen when aforementioned old and beloved character FitzChivalry Farseer met the newer and less beloved narrative style? Well, true to the new style, not much “happens.” And true to the original character, I absolutely loved it.
Fool’s Assassin picks up some years after we last saw Fitz, with him well into middle age by now. Removed from the politics and deadly intrigues of Buckkeep Castle, he is contentedly ensconced as Holder (think country squire) Tom Badgerlock on the estate of Withywoods, where he resides with Molly, the love of his life. It doesn’t take long, though, for cracks to begin to show in this idyllic picture.
The first disruption comes from without, as one winter’s eve, mysterious strangers arrive at Holder Tom’s door. One is a messenger whom Fitz unwisely delays meeting. The others are a strange group who may or may not be in pursuit of said messenger. Events that night cause Fitz to fear his old life may be intruding into his new one.
The second disruption comes from within, as Fitz struggles with how he and Molly age at a different pace thanks to a long-ago “skill healing” performed on him:
A familiar ache squeezed my heart. It was a fear I fought against every day. Molly was aging away from me, the years carrying her farther and farther from me in a slow and inexorable current… The undesired magic had kept me fit and youthful, a terrible blessing as. I watched Molly slowly stoop under the burden of the stacked years she bore… The remorseless current of time bore her steadily away from me.
These are the twin poles around which the story circles: Fitz’s past life threatening to catch up to him once more, bringing with it the accordant death and deception and fear and danger; and Fitz’s current life threatening to unravel before his very eyes. This duality is mirrored by the two settings: Buckkeep castle, with its familiar characters of old Spymaster Chade, Skillmistress (and daughter to Fitz) Nettle, Queen Ketticken, and others; and the Withywoods Estate, with a cast of entirely new characters, such as Revel, Fitz’s uber-competent and somewhat judgmental Steward (Fitz’s memories of the long-disappeared Fool bridge the two settings).
It would be inaccurate, however, to imply that these two storylines are equally balanced. The truth is that the vast majority of Fool’s Assassin is centered on the domestic relationship, with the other driving a tense opening scene and an even more tautly compelling final scene, but only occasionally rearing its head in the ninety percent of the book in between. Actually, there is a third storyline, but to say any more about the plot would be venturing into spoiler material, and I’m not going there.
Hobb’s focus on the of domestic side of things is what I’m referring to when I say not much happens, if one defines “happens” in the usual fantasy fashion of quests a-borning, mucky treks, swordplay, dark lords to be put down, battle scenes, spell-slinging, and the like. On the other hand, because the focus is domestic, what “happens” is life, and thus, everything happens, and does so all the time. And what, after all, is more important than day-to-day living? Of course, how much one subscribes to that idea will go a great way to determining how one responds to Fool’s Assassin in terms of its plot and its pace, which might charitably by called “leisurely.” At least for the most part, though one of my favorite aspects of the book is how gracefully and economically Hobb dispenses with years at a time, jumping ahead months or years in a phrase or two.
Thematically, the two plotlines are paralleled by dual themes, each falling under the single umbrella of change. One deals with change bringing loss, as when Fitz comments on a journey he undertakes to attend a funeral:
I had known that Buck had changed. Now I saw that the changes had happened all through the Six Duchies. The roads were wider than I recalled, and the lands more settled. Fields of grain grew where there had once been open pastureland. Towns sprawled along the road… The wild lands were being tamed, brought under the plow, and fenced for pasture. I wondered where the wolves hunted now.
That wolf of course is a reference to Fitz’s soul mate Nighteyes, one of the most memorable characters from the original series. One can sense the loss inherent in the above description, both of a world passed and loss of a more personal and grievous nature, the kind of inevitable loss that comes with living a decently long life, as Fitz reflects on:
I was losing my beloved Molly… I had lost the Fool, the best friend I ever had… I wished with all my heart to see a gray shape flitting through the trees… But of course I did not. My wolf was gone these many years… He lived only in me now.
Change, though, is not always loss. It is also growth, development, rebirths, and this theme counterbalances the more sorrowful focus on grief, though again, I won’t go into detail as to how this happens so as to avoid spoilers.
Plot and theme are all well and good, but what often makes or breaks a novel for me is character. And as one would expect based on prior experience with this particular character, as well as with Hobb’s other works, this element is one of the book’s major strengths. Fitz is simply a delight of a character, not because he is always right or good or charming but because of just the opposite: he is often wrong, he is bad at certain things (and not just minor things), and he can be oblivious, harsh, rude. In short, he is a real person, fully dimensional, complex and contradictory and multi-layered, one that comes alive so fully not simply through his first person point of view but thoroughly through a myriad of tiny accretions of details. The same can be said for the other characters, especially the other points of view, but also including smaller characters such as the Steward Revel or some of the other workers on the estate.
Really, I had only two small complaints. One is that Fitz seems a little too obtuse with regard to one can’t-be-mentioned plot point. And the other is that the book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. The latter is only a complaint in the sense that the book is so good, and that ending so provocative, that I want book two now. Seriously. Right now.
If Hobb’s increasingly minimalist approach with regard to action has been an experiment in creation, then in Fool’s Assassin she has found the perfect balance of ingredients: absolutely effortless prose that particularly shines in tiny details of everyday life; a structure that bookends a long stretch of “nothing happening” with taut, compelling action; a two-pronged approach to narrative time, where she sometimes lingers for some time in close focus on small domestic scenes, but at other times zooms suddenly out to let months or years fly by in a matter of a few words; and finally, deeply rich characters whose internal richness is furthered and deepened by the relationships among them. I’m adding Fool’s Apprentice to my list of best books of the year.
I have some mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I’m tremendously pleased that Hobb is writing Fitz again. He remains (for me at least) her most entertaining protagonist, and represents a return to form following what I believe to be her experimentation in the SOLDIER SON TRILOGY in particular. And the book is good. So far at least, Hobb has managed to resist her tried-and-true soul-splitting motif, and we get a complete human being to follow. Hobb depicts his life with sterling characterization and subtle nuance, reminding me why she is considered one of the best (possibly even the best) in the fantasy genre when it comes to introspective narratives. During the first third to half of the novel, this was enough. In the second portion, though, I admit that I found myself increasingly concerned at how slowly Hobb was building events.
Now, let’s be clear: Hobb has never been a particularly fast-paced author. Her plots tend to develop at what we might call a deliberate speed, with a lot of time given to character moments in and around the big events. This isn’t a bad thing, and is indeed a large part of what has made her style so well-regarded (and justly so). The issue is that, in recent years, she has tended to tantalize with just enough to keep the reader reading while giving as little of the main plot as possible book to book. I won’t call it padding — Hobb, I firmly believe, regards none of her material as fluff. Rather, I think that her enthusiasm for character focus can carry her away.
Anyway, the plot is as follows: after taking leave of his great friend the Fool in the last book, Fitz has settled down to a peaceful life with his childhood sweetheart Molly on her estate of Withywoods. There, he can lead the tranquil life of a country squire, a dreamy happily-ever-after following his many tribulations. His old master and friends at court occasionally make efforts to draw him back into the assassin’s life he left behind him, but — in contrast to just about every other fantasy hero ever — he actually isn’t bored stupid in his pastoral retreat (at least, not obnoxiously so) and for the most part doesn’t spend his time yearning for the good (or bad) old days. He is fixated on making up for lost time as a husband and father, and the only real source of discontent to him (aside from the usual Fitz-esque self-pity and gloom) is the continued silence from the Fool. The text follows Fitz as he moves from middle years to old age, and deals with the quieter sorrows and trials of his advancing years. In the world surrounding his peaceful valley, however, forces have begun to slowly move in the shadows, building toward some unknowable goal. A series of mysterious occurrences, scattered across years, begin to form a picture of a world that may not be quite as secure as Fitz had imagined, and perhaps may draw him in the evening of his life to take up the blade of the assassin one last time.
First, for the good: Hobb’s characterization is simply brilliant. Old fans of FitzChivalry Farseer will delight in the fact that his depiction here has all the old complexity and rich understanding of the human nature, together with what is perhaps even greater depth and insight. Each character in the supporting cast has his or her own concerns and points-of-view that are simply present without the need for exposition or showy explanation. These are some of the best-realized figures in fantasy, and it’s a delight to see. While Hobb does spend a good deal of the novel on fairly everyday matters (household management, for instance, takes up a sizable portion of the text), she also knows how to space her “events” quite well, so that I (at least) never found myself getting bored with it. There was always something new to ponder or brood over, a testament to Hobb’s bewitching skills given that what kept me so engrossed was often a single brief hint amidst chapters on Fitz’s relationships with his children or surrogate children.
I also must compliment Hobb’s prose in general and imagery in particular. She is an immensely evocative author, and after several good-sized chapters, I could see and almost even smell Withywoods as Fitz interacted with the setting. Hobb is one of the best when it comes to her use of words, as most of her fans will know, and I am happy to report that Fool’s Assassin is by no means an exception to the rule.
Like any book, however, Fool’s Assassin does have its flaws. While Hobb’s flow is for the most part very good, once in a while the dialogue can get a little too perfectly eloquent, as though the prose is trying to leech into the characters’ conversation. Also (and this is a trait common to most Hobb books), while the text has much to offer in terms of more poignant themes, I must admit that it is almost entirely humorless. There’s a gentle smile to be had once in a while at Fitz’s self-deprecating reflections on getting older, but these are too bittersweet to break what is overall a pensive and melancholy tone. Not an objective flaw, but certain readers may find things too serious.
Those are fairly minor quibbles, however. The major issue I have with this book — and the reason I dropped it a star — is that while Hobb unloads practically every weapon in her considerable arsenal to keep the reader from looking for a central plot, she’s not entirely successful. There is a plot running through it, but once one has seen it through all the other literary paraphernalia, what one increasingly begins to notice is that it moves quite slowly. Now I implied above that I liked the pacing, and I meant it. Hobb paces events well. With the plot threads she allocated for this book, she spaced things perfectly and kept the story moving with admirable panache. The issue is not how she applied her plot, but more that there may be a sensation for some readers that there is not enough plot to go around.
As an example, for most of the novel I had no idea who the villain was, or even if there was a villain behind it all. For every twenty pages allocated to Fitz’s steward alone, we get maybe a paragraph that ties back to the overarching narrative in some fashion. Not everyone will agree with me on this, but as far as I’m concerned, the proportions are off. For one thing, it makes Fitz into a bit of an idiot, as he spends a vast amount of text studiously not thinking about The Plot because Hobb knows that thinking about it will draw attention to it and force the reader to start wondering what ever happened to that anyway. For instance, Fitz witnesses what is literally an impossible pregnancy at one point, one about which he logically should have a fairly firm theory. He does not. In fact, he doesn’t really think about it at all after it’s done with, aside from a few shout-outs in dialogue. This tendency is the one jarring note in his characterization, and it troubles me that even the area Hobb seems most passionate about might have had to pay a toll for the plotting (that is if we’re not going to get the usual “it’s because he split his soul!” explanation Hobb seems to like so much). Things do pick up in the last eighty pages or so of the text, but given that the two hundred previous pages mostly concerned Old Man Fitz struggling with domestic woes and contemplating interior design on his estate, I’d forgive readers for getting a little impatient.
Overall, it is still a very good novel and well worth reading, no qualification necessary. Fool’s Assassin is an engaging, fascinating read, well-executed and superbly written. It evokes great feeling. My complaint — and, I reiterate, my only major one — is that the plot is definitely a little slow (even a touch self-indulgent?), and I dread the reader who comes into the novel purely because the cover features the word “assassin” and a grim-looking man with a battleaxe. This is far more family drama than political intrigue for the vast majority of the text. That said, it resonated with me, and I’m excited to read the next one.
I’m in complete agreement with Tim on this one. While I loved being with Fitz again, the lack of plot for most of the book was like it’s own character. I was distracted by it not being there. I’m slightly disappointed in this book after how much I loved the last few stories about Fitz (TAWNY MAN), but I feel certain that Hobb will give us more in the next book.
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….