Assassins Apprentice, Robin Hobb

Assassins Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Publisher: HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)
Pages: 460 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: The Farsser Trilogy #1

Rating: 

In a faraway land in which members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong sides of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals – the old art known as the Wit – gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household he must give up his old ways and learn a new life: weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an older man looking back on his youth, both main characters are royal bastards with magical powers looked down upon by their contemporaries and more at home with servants, and both go on to use skills and cleverness, even more than their natural magic, to become invaluable weapons and support to their royal patron. The difference is, however, that the Crystal Cave is pretty rubbish, while Assassin’s Apprentice is very good. So why then only 3.5 stars? Well, quite simply it was one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ books – I enjoyed it very much when I was reading it but every time I put it down it just didn’t have the ‘grab’ factor to make me want to pick it back up again. And without that ‘grab’ factor I don’t think I can really award it 4 stars or above.

And there were other factors as well that led to reduced stars.To be honest, this book and I didn’t quite hit it off right from the start. On the very first page in fact, after the extract from the ‘history of the setting’ textbook which prefaces each chapter, I almost hurled my book across the room with a dramatic ‘Noooooooooo!‘ when I saw that the first line was ‘My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip‘. A whole 400 plus page book in first-person present tense? Say it ain’t so! Thankfully, reading on a couple of pages proved it wasn’t so as the narrator slipped back into narrating his story in the past tense. Even so, it was an unpleasant scare and one that probably affected my enjoyment of the early parts of the book more than it should have done.

But I got past that and, by the end, I was really enjoying the book. Fitz is an interesting character, a little slow at times perhaps, and unusually prone to having people just reveal important facts when he’s around, but interesting and fairly realistic and sympathetic in his flaws and concerns. Other characters…Verity I quite fancy actually. As a middle sibling I think I have a lot of sympathy for the second son, always overlooked in favour of his brother, trying to come to terms with the inevitable comparisons and do his best despite not feeling adequate.  Burrich…I believe I was meant to like, or at least grow to like him.  But I didn’t. Not that I hated him either; I could see all the reasons why I should like him and why he was a complex character but it all seemed so obviously designed to make me like him that in the end I just felt a bit ‘bleh’ ambivalent about him. And that’s a fault I found with the characters all the way through actually. While the good guys were not perfect (the main character’s training to be a killer after all) they were notably sympathetic while all the bad guys were unambiguously evil, untalented, petty, jealous and vindictive with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. All of which made the final confrontation rather predictable and unsurprising. Even the reveal had me going ‘well yeah, how could you not have worked that out for yourself already?’. It didn’t help that this plotline was rather rushed, being pushed into and then resolved in, only the last few chapters.

While Assassins Apprentice it’s a very good introduction to the world of the ‘Six Duchies’, the key character’s that inhabit it, and  the overarching plot for the whole series, it fell down as a self-contained story. It’s the first part of a three-book ‘biography’, and it reads that way; the majority of the page count is spent on Fitz growing up and the experiences that effect his development, so much so that the final conflict comes off as rather rushed and forced, having only been a very minor thread for the first four fifths of the story.  But that’s not all a  bad thing. The overarching story of external threat being set up for the series as a whole is much more interesting than the almost cliché political scheming for power that this first book concludes with. Had the story had more of a single-book plot focussing more on what became the eventual climax of this book, I would probably have read it as a standalone and not been fussed about picking up the next in the series – but the mystery of the Red Ships and the sense that the shit’s going to really hit the fan in some nasty, scary, and sinister ways in the next couple of books has me hooked.

So overall this was a book I enjoyed and, while I didn’t love it, I can see why my friend who recommended it to me does. As someone who read a lot of fantasy (both good and horrendous) when I was a child and teenager, a lot of the elements did feel like stuff I’d ‘read a million times before’ and that probably did affect my enjoyment. But the characters and the larger set up for the next books outweighed the familiarity of the main conflict in this one. The second and third books are definitely going on my list of books to get out of the library and I expect to enjoy them very much. After that though…I probably won’t bother with picking up any of Robin Hobb’s other books unless those two wow me.

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