Sunday, June 9, 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is the first book in the Farseer Trilogy published by Voyager. A synopsis of it can be found here. Apprentice, published in 1996, is often cited as a source of inspiration for many modern authors I enjoy. I have not read any of Hobb’s work and thought now would be a good time to fill in such an important gap in my reading. Hobb presents a slow-burning tale that straddles the past and the future of fantasy. I found it enjoyable if occasionally frustrating to read.

The novel centers around Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne. This a classic trope, one that normally leads to the protagonists displaying enormous skill and instantly fitting into the existing social structures. Hobb nips that right in the bud. Fitz is special, but for all the wrong reasons. Fitz is a bastard. His very existence sends his father into exile, which relegates him to a hated outcast by all who should love him. Fitz’s salvation is being noticed by the King, who decides to turn Fitz into a tool--a tool kept under close watch so that none but the King may wield it. In this way, Hobb presages a more modern handling of heros by creating character growth through suffering and adverse conditions.

The highlight of Apprentice is the relationships between characters. Hobb has an almost maniacal focus on character interaction. The result is a complex weave of political brinksmanship, murder, revenge, and greed, centered around a lonely boy wanting nothing more than to fit in. The motivations are all very elemental and very real. Regal’s venality and puff-up sense of self worth is palpable. Burrich’s taciturn nature and loyalty to Chivalry, Fitz’s father, struggle to find balance while raising a child, Fitz, who has turned his life upside down. Lastly, Fitz wants nothing more than to belong. He is given a miserable lot, yet he soldiers on never really knowing why he is destined to suffer so.

Hobb’s pacing has been described by some as plodding. I would describe as it as lingering and bereft of action. Hobb gravitates towards the personal drama of a scene, shunning action and bloodshed. He also has a tendency to linger on each scene which results in a bit more dialogue than perhaps needed. The few scenes of action are short, blunt, and deal more with the horror of the participants than any sense of glorious combat. In this way, Hobb keeps the focus more on the characters and less on the events. The events merely prod the characters along-- a silent conductor to the unfolding drama. Overall, Hobb’s prose has a more stately quality, reflective of earlier fantasy rather than the more kinetic feel of modern fantasy.

The most common source of my frustration with Apprentice is the world building. For all the detailed work devoted to character building, the world of Apprentice feels remarkably sketched in. A lot of the world has an ‘over there’ quality which seems tenebrous. I also found the prose to be frustrating. While very well written, the prose was twee in regard to world building. The descriptions of things-- various mannerisms, cultures, and most importantly names-- were occasionally off-putting.

Overall, I enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice. I understand why Hobb is so often cited as a source of inspiration. Apprentice is a book with a foot in the past and a foot in the future. The more modern elements of Apprentice are the most enjoyable, while the classical elements feel affected. I look forward to reading the rest of the Farseer Trilogy and to see if Hobb steps more firmly into the future. Assassin’s Apprentice is a good book on its own, but I also recommend that all fans of fantasy read it to understand how much it has influenced the genre.

Memorable Quote:
“Take it all. I would die anyway. And you were always good to me when I was young.”
Voyager: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Image Source: NPR
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9780007374038