Classic Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

assassin's apprenticeFormat:  paperback, 1995

Pages:  435

Reading time:  about 9 hours

Another review, another first-person narrative. What can I say, I’m addicted to them. In this case we have the widely-heralded beginning of the Farseer series. This began as a trilogy that expanded into a second set of 3 books. There are rumors that Hobb is working on more, which is cause for celebration. I bought this paperback used in 1996, based on the cover and title, because I really knew nothing about it. I was unprepared for the excellence I was about to discover.

Young FitzChivalry is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the heir-in-waiting to the kingdom who meets with an untimely end. As Chivalry’s only child, he soon finds himself at the royal court, cared for by Chivalry’s retainer, Burroch. Young Fitz has the Wit, a magic that allows bonding with animals and causes great fear among people, muderous fear. The Wit comes from his mother’s bloodline, but it is feared because people believe the person loses their humanity and becomes beast-like. But Fitz also has the Skill, which he has inherited from his father, a magic of the royal bloodline, that can be used for abilities such as telepathy and even killing someone from afar.

The Farseer books are very much character-driven. Though action and surroundings sometime suffer for this, the cast of characters are very well-developed. Besides Fitz and Burroch, there’s also King Shrewd, the aptly-named ruler who at times seems a little crazy; Chade, the ghost-like mentor who secretly trains Fitz to be Shrewd’s assassin; Verity, Fitz’s soldier-like uncle who is now first in line for the throne; Regal, the other uncle who despises Fitz; Galen, the Skill teacher who hates Fitz; Patience, Chivalry’s wife who should hate Fitz but does not; and the curious Fool, the court entertainer who is very close to King Shrewd and seems to know many secrets.

The intrigue behind the story revolves around the growth of Fitz from a boy to a young man. This is not your typical “boy comes of age, and uses his power to become a hero, saving the day” type of story. This is a painful story. Extremely painful. At times it seems like an exercise in exploring how much punishment a young man can take. But Fitz is strong, and finds unexpected allies, somehow managing to survive the abuse, and even something worse. The most intriguing character, however, is Fool. Although Fool does not have a huge role in this book, his importance grows in later books, and he becomes the focus of the second trilogy. In my opinion, Fool is one of the greatest characters in fantasy created in recent years, but as I’ve said, you’ll have to read further into the series to discover this.

Hobb’s prose is easy to follow and a delight to read. Much of the book is dialog, which gives a surprising amount of depth to other characters despite the first-person narrative. She is able to make you care about some characters and hate others. This is also one of those books that as I got closer to the end, I could not put it down. Events build up to a climax that is both satisfying and unsettling. There’s a little bit of deus ex machina with Fitz’s magical abilities, as he often finds a “sudden burst of strength”, but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. That’s as much as I’ll say without revealing too many spoilers. Got to love the Michael Whelan cover, too! I highly recommend this book, and the series as well; it’s one I’d definitely like to acquire in hardcover.

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