Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Photo credit Penguin Random House

4 out of 5 fantastical stars

I have seen so many people that were very lukewarm about this series. I don’t know about the other two books, but I really liked this. I fell into it from the very beginning – I just love it when you start to read a book and there’s no transition time, you are instantly transported. In the good old days, when epic fantasy was really the jam, the first book could come off like nothing but a setup for the 2nd. But this novel is all story, all the time. There are three big arcs of experience that you have with the main character, Fitz.

When we meet our main character, he doesn’t even have a name. They call him boy. His grandfather drags him up to the keep of the town and hands him over. He says the boy is the get of Prince Chivalry. He’s fed and clothed him for 6 years and never seen a coin, though the Prince knows about the boy. He says now he can have him. This throws the whole royal family into a tizzy – because there should be no question about succession. Prince Chivalry is the King-in-Waiting, and his first son should be the next King-in-Waiting. As a bastard, Fitz is a wildcard. Is he the next in line or is his uncle, Prince Verity? Also, in this time, the whole bastard thing is a big deal. Chivalry’s own wife has not been able to bear a child after 6 years of marriage. As a result of this indiscretion, the perhaps-overly-scrupulous Chivalry abdicates, and that puts Prince Verity, his brother, next in line. (This is ironic, because the 6 Duchies is pretty much crawling with bastards.)

Let us begin with the names. The author tries to ease you into it and says that in this time, they believed the name of those in the royal line would shape their character, and it’s been that way since the very first king of the 6 Duchies (the kingdom our story is set in). That names were sealed to newborns by magic and they would then “betray the virtues of the name they bore”. So there are crazy names like Verity, Chivalry, Regal, Desire, etc. I guess this is a throwback to Prince Charming, but she didn’t go quite that far. It’s the only thing I don’t like about the book – it seems hokey to me.

The history of the kingdom is relayed at the beginning of every chapter with a few paragraphs of history written by our narrator. You know from these glimpses of his current life that he is telling his own history as well (kind of like the Kingkiller Chronicles). The family name of the royals is Farseer – for the magic that runs in the family line.

The first arc of the story is his childhood.Fitz does not have an easy time of it. He’s treated brutally by some people – mostly the little pissant fop Prince Regal, King Shrewd’s youngest son. Prince Verity is kind to him, ruffling his hair and leaving him alone. He’s raised in the barns and stables with Burrich, a man who was his father’s right hand man. When Chivalry abdicated, he wouldn’t let Burrich follow him into exile, but left him with the King and to oversee his son’s childhood. This is how Fitz becomes Fitz – which basically means bastard. Burrich has to call him something, and is a rough but honest man, with a natural affinity for animals. Fitz has the same affinity – a little too much. He has an ability called “the wit” – which means he can speak to animals. Burrich is horrified by this – it’s like some nasty, dirty habit, and he warns Fitz that everyone, especially the nobility feels the same. He tells him to never bond with animals like that, that it can take over his mind and he’ll end up running wild like a dog. He’s also running wild in the lower city, having fallen in with beggar kids. He comes under the scrutiny of the king, completely by accident, and it’s decided something has to be done with him, and he is set to begin a trade.

During all this growing up, things are going on in the kingdom. The Red Ship raiders are growing bolder and doing horrible things to the victims of their raids. The duchies are fighting about who should pay for the upkeep of their defenses and the populace feel like the King isn’t doing anything. There are also rumors running around that Verity is looking to marry or that he NEEDS to marry, especially with the kingdom in the state it is.

This leads to the second arc of the story, which is two fold. First, Fitz swears to King Shrewd that he will be a King’s man and he is sent to Chade to learn the art of the assassin. Yes, there is some weapons training, but for the most part, his studies are all about stealth, discovery, and poison. However, there is another kind of magic that has come to Fitz through his bloodline called The Skill. Basically, it’s a sort of telepathy. The most obvious thing you use the skill for would be magical telephone, passing information from place to place. But someone using the skill can also confound another person, make them see something that’s not there, etc. The skill used to be more common but it had become the fashion that only the nobility would use it. Now there are very few, only the King and Prince Verity and the skillmaster, Galen who use it. Galen is a jerk. One the jerk scale, he’s only a little below Prince Regal. For the longest time, he refused to teach Fitz, but the King pulled rank and told him to do it. Not only is he teaching Fitz, but they need more people to use the skill to try and defeat the Red Ship raiders.

Galen is a brutal taskmaster. He isolates and brainwashes his students – basically, he’s the worst. You want to crawl through the pages and do horrible things to him. But all you can do is watch him browbeat and degrade Fitz until he’s a shadow of himself. I mean the kid can’t catch a break. It’s pretty clear to me that he and Regal are up to no good. There is a lot of drama and betrayal and everything during this part of the story, and it leads into the 3rd arc.

It’s time for Verity to wed. I can’t go into any detail about this – other than there is a Royal procession that goes to the Mountain Kingdom to start the whole wedding deal. This is the best, most intense part of the book and it shows Hobb’s brilliant plotting. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are great, the world building is good but the story is not just plotted, it’s crafted. And the rush to the conclusion of the story is so amazing. They say that the author is supposed to put his character up a tree and then throw stones at them. Hobb puts them up a tree and sets the tree on fire. I can’t wait for the next one to be available from the library.

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