The Farseer Trilogy was a book series I first picked up solely for the reason I heard Robin Hobb’s name over and over again. When an author’s name is referenced alongside authors whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed, I have to at least give it consideration. When they are referenced alongside those authors over and over by multiple readers whose opinions I trust, I’d be foolish to ignore it. So I went with the start of her fantasy world, and being under the assumption it was (only) a trilogy, it didn’t feel as daunting as other series. I quickly found myself drawn in by the characters and storytelling to a world that felt both familiar and original, and I read the entire series in little more than a week. Robin Hobb’s reputation as an author preceded her, and her craft as a storyteller quickly put her within my list of favorite authors. Assassin’s Apprentice became one of my favorite reads of the last year, and a golden standard of a well-written story that holds to its strength without compromising.
Assassin’s Apprentice is a story about the bastard son of a prince raised in the shadow of his royal family. It is the story of a boy who grows into manhood while living as an outsider, a person caught between his two worlds. Fitz is the illegitimate son of Prince Chivalry, the heir to the Farseer throne. When news of Fitz’s existence is made known, the prince abdicates his claim to the throne and retreats into exile. As illegitimate, Fitz is given over to be raised by Burrich, the rough stablemaster of Buckkeep. Treated as an outsider in some regard by nearly everyone at Buckkeep, Fitz is taken by his grandfather, the cunning King Shrewd, and given over to be trained as a royal assassin. For Fitz carries in his bastard blood the Skill, a magical power that runs in the Farseer bloodline. Tasked as a king’s man, Fitz must serve Shrewd without question as he is trained to be an assassin, even from a young age.
So the story follows Fitz from the first moment he is brought to Buckkeep as a child and as he grows into a young man. We see his world, how his royal uncles view him, how he sees his grandfather rules as king. Readers see how Fitz is raised among the hounds by the stablemaster, how he is later moved within the keep so he might have a place at court, and then trained in secret to be a royal assassin. Assassin’s Apprentice brings readers into the world of the Six Duchies, a place of politics, rich history, and struggle. Life at court is brand new for Fitz, but as he learns what it takes to be an assassin, he also learns where his place is as a royal bastard. Hobb’s crafting of the story of this boy growing into a young man as a bastard in his grandfather’s house might sound familiar, but I found it to be anything but what I expected. There are scheming family members who are eager for the crown, political struggles that threaten King Shrewd’s domain, and the young Fitz grapples with all the challenges of youth.
Compared to most fantasy novels that are currently being published, Assassin’s Apprentice is remarkably simple in both its design and its slow burn of a story. There are not endless characters to follow, or even multiple point-of-view characters. The magic system is not convoluted, nor the world sprawling and endless in its scope. The magic system is extraordinarily simple, which allows the author to wield it very finely and intentionally. The story is simple in its approach, with an easily grasped setting, and does not need to rely on grand villains or the threat of a great doom to entice readers. Hobb’s work stands out through her craft and skill as a writer and storyteller.
Hobb’s grasp of crafting an exceptionally well-written story that is simple, but still keeps the reader fully engaged and invested, is unparalleled. It struck me as I neared the halfway point in the book. I reflected on what had actually happened up to that point in the book, and realized it was remarkably unsophisticated. And not to make that out to be a bad thing, because I was invested within the first chapters by the strength of the craft alone and the compelling way the author writes her characters. It didn’t matter what the story was about, or that the story developed very intentionally and very slowly over nearly the course of the entire first book, I was hooked. I needed to know. Whatever happened, I needed to know what happened to the characters. Her expertise is in taking very simple concepts and narrative threads, and weaving them into a story that is so well written, and with such authentic characters, that it doesn’t need to be grandiose or thrust full of exciting twists to engage the reader. The story is legitimately one of the greatest I have read in a long time, and part of its beauty is how simple and authentic it is.
The true arc of the Farseer Trilogy is barely touched on in Assassin’s Apprentice, which is remarkable in how enjoyable of a book I found it to be. The strength of Assassin’s Apprentice is in how Hobb uses Fitz and his experience to showcase his world. It is a world where he has almost singular access, yet can never truly find any actual belonging. He is a royal bastard, so he carries the privilege of calling King Shrewd his grandfather, but he can never be recognized as a legitimate member of the royal family. And since he cannot truly belong to the royal family, he is allowed certain flexibility regarding how and when he mingles with the common folk. That is how he meets Molly. But Fitz will always stand apart, that is his lot as a royal bastard. He is trained as an assassin, which becomes one of the dominant ways through which he is taught to see the world. Even Fitz’s magic sets him apart, both his grasp of the Skill and the Wit, both drive him away from ever allowing anyone to understand him. And thus he continues to be the outsider, on the fringes where no one actually knows him.
One of my favorite things that Robin Hobb does in Assassin’s Apprentice is how right everything feels. The characters respond authentically, the situations and challenges aren’t outlandish or fantastical, they all make sense. Even Fitz’s training as an assassin is surprisingly ordinary. It’s not donning a dark hood to stealth into a royal bedchamber at midnight to slit a man’s throat. It’s subterfuge and spying, it’s cunning and manipulation. Fitz is trained to watch, to listen, to belong and move all while not being noticed. He learns to treat at court, and how to make ordinary people like and trust him. He is trained in poisons and ways to kill a man days or weeks hence, or even better, to find ways to have someone else kill for him. He is taught to judge when to kill and when not to, sometimes tasked with ascertaining the nature of the problem himself, and then given the choice to find a solution, whether by killing or otherwise. Assassin’s Apprentice doesn’t follow the flashy, edgy assassin tropes we often think of in fantasy. Fitz is not a dark and dashing hero wielding justice. He is trained to do terrible things in the name of his king, and there is a certain rawness in how that is presented, both narratively to the reader and to Fitz himself.
Assassin’s Apprentice provides a fantastic doorway into the world of the Six Duchies and Fitz’s story. There was very little, if anything, I didn’t like about this book, which is exceedingly rare for me as a reader. Even in some of my favorite books, I will have small preferences or critiques, or aspects I wish had been further explored or done differently. In Assassin’s Apprentice, and in the Farseer Trilogy as a whole, the narrative is so confident in itself I found myself fully invested in the story, finding no faults or critiques, despite it being a very different style of fantasy than I tend towards. I could not be more satisfied that I picked up Robin Hobb’s work, and after reading Assassin’s Apprentice, I knew it would not be the last of her stories I would be reading.
Assassin’s Apprentice is written by Robin Hobb, and is published by Del Rey.
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