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Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, published by Orbit Books.
“Some interesting moments, but largely a letdown. I wouldn’t be recommending this one any time soon.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
My “25 Series I Want To Read In 2013” reading challenge continued last month with Robin Hobb’s widely-acclaimed The Assassin’s Apprentice. I’d wanted to get to this novel for quite a while, and it was all largely a matter for finding the right time to read it. As with all the other “big name” SFF novels that I’ve read so far this year, I approached the book with a certain wariness, expecting in quite a few cases to be disappointed in that the book(s) would just not hold up to the acclaim they are granted and that they’d just not work for me. Given Robin Hobb’s stature in the fantasy genre, that was certainly an impediment. Some books have managed to surprise and wow me, others not so much.
The Assassin’s Apprentice happens to fall in the latter camp. It is really slow read where the protagonist is aimless, purposeless, an underdog throughout, and just a whiner in general. If anything, I felt a cold disappointment once I’d turned over the last page, because for me the novel had very little to recommend itself, and it just did not hold up to all the praise I’ve heard of it.
The biggest problem with the novel is definitely the fact that events happen to the character, Fitz, and that he has very little agency. He is always being bullied and manipulated and he is a follower throughout, rather than being a leader. Born a bastard to the royal heir, and thus a considerable embarrassment, Fitz’s life is topsy-turvy from the get go and it stays like that throughout. He exists only to be shamed and manipulated in the schemes of others and thus he remains forever a tool to be used and discarded. Not exactly the kind of protagonist I want to be reading about. There’s naivete and then there’s naivete. Fitz happens to fall in the latter category.
Additionally, the novel begins on a very low-key note, and for much of its length, it stays that way. Things don’t kick into high gear until the very end, and even then, it all happens so fast that the experience left me flustered. It was as if the author wasn’t worried about getting to the end for the first three hundred pages and when the time came to begin the final act, there was some panicking and a plot and resolution were quickly thrown together. It completely threw off the pacing, which was already troublesome to begin with.
Then there’s the fact that Fitz doesn’t do a whole lot and he essentially drifts from one… vocation to the next. For a novel that is supposed to be about the assassin’s apprentice, the protagonist isn’t really doing much in that regard. There’s no sneaking around, no planning a kill, no executing a kill, no scenes full of remorse, etc that happen. Not until the final act any way, which is when Fitz suddenly realises that yeah, he is a trained assassin. When first we see Fitz, he’s given into the care of the royal heir’s manservant, who treats him fairly, but puts him to work as a stableboy. Then we see Fitz train as an assassin. Then there’s a falling out and he’s kind of back to being a stableboy. But then again, he becomes an assassin and ends the book as an assassin. Make up your mind, Fitz! What do you want to be?
To me, Fitz just wasn’t an exciting character at all. And, neither was his supporting cast for the most part. Other than Prince Verity and the King’s Assassin Chade, none of the other character s were in any way memorable. That was even more disappointing, because there really wasn’t anyone here that Fitz could be played off and cast in a better light.
And then there’s the world itself. For want of a better description, it was all… fantasy-lite. Its a world populated with Humans. There are a bunch of principalities and there is a ruling kingdom. There are honourable mountain people and there are sea-faring cannibals. There is magic, and then there’s magic. All good so far, all normal so far. But the thing is the author failed to leverage any of it. Take the magic for instance. There is the Forging magic, which is kind of like the Sith battle meditation technique, wherein a power Force user (a Sith of great power obviously) can raise the morale of his/her allies, and reduce that of the enemy, can communicate with allies, and draw upon the strength of chosen…. apprentices. Its all really great and exciting in and of itself as a concept, but it is barely used in the novel. And then only because the plot absolutely demands that it be used because that’s just the way things are set up. There was no actual organic outflow of ideas and implementation from the protagonist.
Which brings me to another point, to go off on a bit of tangent here. The teacher who instructs Fitz in the Forging was an absolute and cantankerous bastard. A masochist projecting himself on his student. He was the most despicable character in the entire novel, and in a larger context, the most hateful character I’ve read in a while. A bully of the worst sort, biased, hateful, vindictive. If there was an antagonist in the novel, that was him. I hated his guts and the way he treated Fitz served nothing but to enhance Fitz’s portrayal as a doormat. It is quite difficult to like a protagonist who’s naivete extends so far as to so easily and disappointingly predictably fall into the kind of verbal traps that this… teacher draws him into.
To get back on topic, the magic was one of the weakest elements of the novel. There was also another type of magic in the novel, the first of its kind that we see, and it is what began to cement the idea that Fitz is just an… idiot. He is a character who lacks any self-awareness and this entire subplot proved that. Then, it all falls to the wayside and this topic is never explored in any kind of depth again. The entire first and second acts were just cool moments featuring this really cool kind of magic and that was it.
And the descriptions of the scenes and the characters are all just bland. There’s no heart in any of it. Its as if the author is just going through the motions. The writing just generally came off as uninterested in itself and that didn’t do anything to get me interested.
As I said, disappointing.
I don’t know. I can kind of see the appeal in the novel. There are some interesting relationship dynamics here, but nothing that really stands out. The entire politics drama in the final act is quite interesting as well, but it is so, so predictable that reading was a chore. I knew well in advance what would happen soon as the “big” reveal happened early on. It was all formalities by the time the novel ended.
So, I can’t really recommend this novel, or the series for that matter. The Assassin’s Apprentice gives me no reason whatsoever to pick up the sequel. A damn shame since I was rather looking forward to it all the same.