Book Review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

fool's assassin

Format: hard cover, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  667

Reading Time:  about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Fitz returns and assumes a quiet life away from Buckkeep, but the specter of Fool continues to haunt Fitz as he raises his new charges, right up to the explosive ending.

 

When I did a classic review of Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice several years ago, I probably did it a disservice in retrospect. That book was so good, I bought the two sequels, and then a second trilogy, and now I’ve embarked on yet another trilogy of sequels. It is a very rare book, and author, that can bring me to tears, and still fewer that can make the hurt so strong that it lasts for days. In fact, Hobb is probably the only author that has ever accomplished this feat as it relates to me as a reader. It happened during the first trilogy, and I will never forget it; Hobb earned my respect as one of my favorite writers, though I never read her Liveships or Rain Wilds series. She is a fellow Washington State native, and I met her once at a book signing at Powell’s Books. This new trilogy is one of the reasons that enticed me to return to reading, and now that the trilogy is complete, I’m ready to tackle it without having to wait for the sequels to be published. So how does this book measure up to her previous books? Read on to find out, and don’t worry about major spoilers – I will present those after the last paragraph as a separate section. There may be minor spoilers here and there, however. First it’s on to guest reviews, of which there are no shortage – which should tell you something about Hobb’s stature within the the literary world (as opposed to simply fantasy fiction)…

 

Memory Scarlett at In The Forest Of Stories states: “The book jumps ahead by years at a time; years where the Fool is nowhere to be seen. I became horribly anxious for him as the chapters ticked by with only the most ominous whispers to hint at his whereabouts. I worried about him for his own sake–Hobb is awfully good at making the reader worry about her characters–and I worried about Fitz’s reaction to his absence, particularly given his attitude towards the rest of his family. I should note, now, that the timeline does tend to slow the pace down. This wasn’t an issue for me, since I’m the sort of reader who’s quite happy to watch beloved characters live their lives and to guess which seemingly minor details are actually crucial bits of foreshadowing (another thing Hobb’s frighteningly good at), but I’m sure it has the potential to alienate some folks…I always anticipate the moment in any book where two storylines converge, allowing us to see each character through the other’s eyes. While that’s not quite what’s going on here, it’s still fascinating to see Fitz from someone else’s perspective. Prior to this, we’ve known only what he chose to record about himself, and what he imagined others had observed when they watched him at work. Y’all know I like him so much in large part because he’s an unreliable narrator, and his unreliability becomes even more apparent once we get Bee’s take on him…It’s interesting to note, too, that Fitz himself pauses to address the flaws in his own POV. He wonders how his interpretation of his own adventures has changed with the passing years, and to what extent his past accounts of his life are still fair and valid. In a similar vein, it’s interesting to see how Fitz’s interpretation of Bee fails to match her own sense of self. This is the sort of literary trickery that sends me into paroxyms of glee. I do so love to see multiple sides of a character. We also get plenty of fun bits where one of them thinks they’ve gotten something over on the other–but once we switch to the other POV, we learn they’re totally wrong. This sort of thing delights me. I must emphasize, too, how very much I liked Bee from the moment she began to tell her own tale. My feelings for her only intensified as the story progressed. I’m a total sucker for fictional children who actually come across as real people. Bee is intelligent and articulate, but she’s still very much a small child. She can absorb a great deal, but she doesn’t always interpret it correctly, whether it’s an historical treatise she’s swiped off Fitz’s desk or a conversation she’s overheard.

Lauren Davis at io9 says: “Hobb’s name is often linked to George R.R. Martin’s, and with good reason. Like Martin, she has built a world with a rich history and she uses a light—but often terrifying—touch with magic. But where Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling narrative spread across numerous characters, Hobb prefers intimacy, spending an entire book with just one or two characters’ voices in our heads. Fitz is so often stumbling for his place in a world that has little use for bastards, but a grave need for heroes. It takes a deft hand to ensure that parties and daily tasks and talk of distant politics aren’t boring, and Hobb manages to make this world rich and inviting, even while the shadow of future tragedies looms overhead. Much like Buckkeep Castle served as a significant character in the Farseer trilogy, so too is Withywoods manor an important character, one filled with its own secrets—a surprisingly appropriate home for a former assassin. For even in Withywoods, Fitz can’t escape the man he once was. And when the outside world intrudes upon his haven, Fitz once again has to decide who he wants to be and where his loyalties lie—something complicated by the changing shape of his immediate family…Hobb is an incredibly vivid writer who pays close attention to the interior lives of her characters. She can make you weep over a character’s death, sure, but she can also make you sigh over a conversation between a husband and wife who have finally found comfort in each other, or between a father and daughter struggling to understand one another. Her characters are alive, and a pleasure to spend time with even at their most frustrating. Fitz is a character we’ve watched grow from boyhood, but he’s still evolving, still learning the lessons that come with being a husband and father…Fool’s Assassin is a slow burn of a book, building to a cliffhanger that will clearly lead us into a more action-packed series. But its deep focus on character ensures that the story never drags. As I approached the last hundred pages of the novel, I found myself getting wistful, realizing I’d only get to spend a few more hours with these characters at this point in their lives—at least until the next book comes around. Fool’s Assassin feels like a visit with an old friend, one you haven’t seen in years but who still holds very special a place in your heart. Fitz may have grown older, but he’s still exciting company.

And finally, Justin Landon at Tor.com explains: “There’s little doubt that Fool’s Assassin will leave a wide variance of impressions on its readers. It is, without question, a slow novel. Comparing it to more pastoral family dramas would be more appropriate than the action packed epic fantasies the previous Farseer books are often compared. It’s also, unquestionably, beautifully written, with the kind of prose that not only compels you to keep reading, but manages to burrow beneath the skin and crawl around…Fool’s Assassin returns to the inside of Fitz’s head, reliably unreliably interpreting the actions of those around him. The reader is privy to his every thought, including journal entries that he writes of days long past. These entries, which open every chapter, are a phenomenal way for Hobb to remind the reader of what’s come before…Fitz is joined this time around by a second point of view, also written in the first person that bounces back and forth without obvious delineation. This second point of view, challenging as it can be to separate the two, elevates the lugubrious pace to a more interesting place. Written as a young adult novel, within an adult novel, these chapters provide an entirely new context to Fitz and the surrounding narrative. The character, who I won’t reveal for purposes of spoilers, is a classic fish out of water young person. She is different. Smaller than her peers, with a slight congenital disability, she struggles to adapt to the environment she finds herself in. Like Fitz, she’s often incapable of decoding the intent of those around her, assuming the worst in everyone (sometimes rightly), even her own family. She is put upon and misunderstood and far more capable than anyone expects, especially adults…Hobb’s alternate point of view suffers from some of the maladies, but in observing them in each other, the reader is given a much more comprehensive view of the issue. Our narrators are troubled individuals who are forced to not so much overcome their challenges, but succeed in spite of them…Although Fool’s Assassin is not a tour de force, it succeeds on a massive scale. Her prose sparkles, her characters leap off the page, and even her staid milieu is perfectly textured. I wanted to be bored, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to be annoyed by Fitz’s kvetching, but she made it impossible. I wanted to be thrown out of the story by the shifting points of view, but she ensured every single one had a point. In other words, Robin Hobb is an absolute master of the craft and it’s on full display in her newest novel.

 

I think all three of the reviews above absolutely nailed much of how I feel about this book. The pacing is agonizingly slow. In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz’s character is defined through a coming of age story, where proving one’s worth, depending on friends, and simply surviving are the key takeaways. In Fool’s Assassin, the pastoral setting (as Justin describes it), focus on relationships, and reminiscing about the past – which serves as a recap for those who haven’t read the previous series or a reminder for those who have – robs the story of any tension. Most writers would lose readers if they attempted this, but Hobbs’ brilliance is that her characters are so real and so engaging that you can’t help but to be fascinated by them, even when they are performing the most routine tasks or having pages of conversations. The closest parallel I think of from a writing standpoint is Charles Dickens, where the characters and their relationships carry an otherwise mundane story.

Another brilliant move by Hobbs, as Justin points out, is duality of narration. Bee’s perspective is also a coming of age story, which is heavily formulaic in fantasy writing, but it is balanced by the viewpoint of Fitz, who is an older and far more experienced character, and a viewpoint from an older character is something seldom seen in modern fantasy. The balance here is superb. As Memory Scarlett mentioned above, certain events are seen from contrasting perspectives, which is fascinating, and often one narrator makes assumptions about the other that are off base. In this way Bee is very much like Fitz.

Of the three charges that Fitz must look after (much in the way he raised the boy Hap in previous books), Bee is the most engaging and fully developed. She is intelligent for her age, but not infallible, and I absolutely loved her character. She becomes central to the plot, and her odd quirks, small stature and quiet demeanor only make her more endearing. FitzVigilant (or Lant for short) was a confusing character. He arrives far too late in the story to have a serious impact, and his contrasting behaviors gave me no insight to his motivations or feelings, and no clue as to how I should feel about him. And then there’s Shun. When Fitz first meets Shun, she behaves in a completely different way than she does later when she arrives at Withywoods as Fitz’s charge. In fact, I had to go back and re-read a previous chapter just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. In my mind, Hobb made a big mistake with the consistency of Shun’s character, and it really irked me, but most readers probably won’t notice it. Hobb always gives us (at least) one character to despise, and despite the presence of some young bullies, for me, Shun had the most unsympathetic personality traits.

Fitz himself spends much of the story flitting between happiness, brooding, and grief. He continues to show that he has difficulty in being a good (and dare I say competent) father or ward to his charges. The brooding and grief are a major factor in the slowness of the pace, and at times his self-pity is extremely annoying, which had me looking forward to Bee’s narrations more. Still, with all Fitz has been through it’s hard to be critical of him. And he does make progress in his relationship with his daughter Nettle. I enjoyed Nettle’s character and wish she had more pages devoted to her. Riddle, Nettle’s love and Fitz’s good friend, does have a more prominent role here which is welcome. And Revel, the Withywoods butler, is a delight. But it is Molly that is the most important character in Fool’s Assassin. In almost every aspect of the story, Molly’s impact drives many of the feelings and actions that take place. I have always had a love/hate relationship with Molly. In earlier books I felt she was an unnecessary distraction, and up until now I felt her characterization was lacking the most of any prominent character. However, in Fool’s Assassin, Hobb has turned that around, and kudos are due to her for accomplishing that feat.

The plot, Molly’s impact notwithstanding, largely revolves around the absence of Fool. The mystery of his disappearance and lack of contact unfortunately undermines the plot, as very little is revealed until the final pages. And some red herrings that lead the mystery off in the wrong direction don’t help. In fact, the title of the book is deceptive, as it refers to Fitz feeling the absence of Fool rather than doing any killing on Fool’s behalf. Overall, I thought the plot was weaker and more of a problem than the pacing. The characters are really the driving force that save the story. The pace and tension do pick up over the last 100 pages, and I had to catch myself as I jumped ahead to see what was going to happen.

The setting of Withywoods couldn’t be a better place to set the story. Once bequeathed to Fitz’s father Chivalry and his wife Patience, it now belongs to Nettle, Chivalry’s granddaughter, since Fitz is believed to be dead and is now known as Tom Badgerlock. From its secret passages and interesting rooms, to the ghosts that are seen in its hallways, it is like a miniature version of Buckkeep, minus the political intrigue of court and the protection of armed guards. I found the rural, pastoral lands around Withywoods to be quite charming, and yet it is close to Memory Stones that allow immediate travel to Buckkeep.

One last thing I wanted to point out was it is not easy to pick this book up if you only have a 15 or 20 minute period available to read. Some of the chapters go 30 pages or more without a break. It means you must stop somewhere in the middle of a conversation or action sequence and the next time you pick up the book, you have to remember exactly where you left off and what was happening when you left off. Most books I’ve read lately don’t have this problem, but in Fool’s Assassin it can be tough to find a good stopping point.

In conclusion, several reviews that I had read made me concerned that due to pacing I would not enjoy this book, and that was absolutely not the case. I found the story fascinating despite the reminiscing about previous events and moodiness and grief that often drag the story down. I hate to admit it, but it is largely Bee’s coming of age viewpoint that saves the story. Hobb not only validates her place as one of my favorite writers, but once again displays deft prose and top notch characterization that cement the FitzChivalry books as some of the finest writing in not only modern fantasy, but also in any genre. With other reviewers claiming that each book in the Fitz and the Fool series is increasingly better, I’m looking forward with eager anticipation to Fool’s Quest, the sequel to Fool’s Assassin. Unfortunately, due to the size of the queue I’ll be well into next year before I can pick it up.

 

SPOILER ALERT

Do not read any further unless you don’t plan on reading Fool’s Assassin, have already read it and are checking out my review to get my take, or if you feel that spoilers won’t affect your enjoyment of the story. Seriously. These are major spoilers. You have been warned!

I wanted to add another section with spoilers because I feel that there are some features of the story that should be pointed out, yet doing so would ruin the enjoyment of discovering events in the story for oneself. A separate spoiler section seemed like the best way to accomplish this.

The first thing I want to bring up is Molly’s pregnancy. Hobb does a commendable job in tricking me into thinking that Molly has lost her mind. The birth of Bee was as astonishing as it was improbable, especially given Molly’s age. When Bee is described, my immediate thought was “that sounds like one of Fool’s race”. This is a key point which, along with Bee’s lengthy time in the womb and strangely advanced intelligence led me to the conclusion that Bee was Fool’s hidden “son”. Fool’s gender has always been in question, so it only makes sense that Fool’s “son” may not actually be a boy at all. Still I questioned my reasoning, especially when Fitz meets Jofron, and I was convinced that her grandson was actually Fool’s son. Until, that is, one passage in the story reminded me that Fitz had a transcendent experience where he had actually been in the body of Fool. You would need to read the previous series to understand this, but to me it became clear – Fitz’s brief merger with Fool allowed Bee to come into existence in this new series. It explains how Molly could conceive at her age, the length of the pregnancy, where Bee’s intelligence comes from, and Bee’s physical appearance. I’ll be immensely pleased with myself for figuring the mystery out early on if that turns out to be true in the following books.

The next subject I want to expand on is the inconsistency of Shun’s character. When Fitz first meets Shun, she is posing as a barmaid, and believes herself to be Chade’s assassin-in-training, with a hefty dose of cockiness. Yet when she arrives in Withywoods, she acts like a spoiled royal whose only concern is her wardrobe and living conditions, and proves to be largely inept in a time of crisis. These two depictions of her character are completely at odds with each other, and the inconsistency makes no sense. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong, though, if it turns out that Shun is simply a good actress.

Finally, I was excited to discover that Bee is sensitive to the Skill, may have a form of the Wit, and possesses the ancestral memory of Nighteyes. I can’t wait to see what happens to her character. Should Bee survive to the end, I could see another series that features her instead of Fitz – a brilliant set up by Hobb…

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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.