One of my Book Bingo tasks this year was to read a book I previously DNF. Now before you start throwing stones at me, I was really sick when I first tried to read Assassin’s Apprentice. It took me at least an hour to read the first chapter and a little of the second before I put it down. At the time I blamed the book for not grabbing me, but it was far more my fault. I just wasn’t in the right headspace. And then I never gave it another go.
What the heck was wrong with me?! I think I’m only now appreciating just how sick I must’ve been to not get drawn into Fitz’s story immediately and irrevocably. I’ve got to have been at death’s door, there’s no other explanation, because Assassin’s Apprentice is, without a shadow of doubt, the most breath-holding I’ve done this year. Close to the end, on a Friday night, I got in from work, dropped onto the sofa in my coat, and read with my heart in my mouth until the last page. Then took myself off to bed without realising I hadn’t eaten or showered.
I doff my hat to you, Robin Hobb.
So what was it I missed first time round? A delectably layered cake of a book. From the deceptively simple opening of a young boy, the bastard child to the King-in-Waiting, being delivered to his father’s family, the story opens out fold by fold to reveal schemes, double-crosses, assassinations, secrets, and magic. The world of the Six Duchies is fascinating, and that there’s the promise of so much more than just the little corner of it we spend most of our time in in this first book would have kept me reading even if I hadn’t ended up caring so much about the characters.
As it is, I need to know what’s going to happen to Fitz, to Chade, to Verity and to the Fool. I need to know what it is that the Red Ship Raiders want. I need to know how Kettricken and Verity are going to get on, and how she will feel about her new life in Buckkeep. I’d like to know more about the Lady Patience. I definitely need to see Regal die horribly, although I suspect that’s not going to happen as soon as I want it to, if at all. Hobb has a canny way of circumventing expectations. She pulls tricks with Fitz’s first-person narrative, for example, that we should see coming, but never quite do (well, I didn’t). I mean, crikey! That scene with Nosey! She tore out my heart with that scene. I cried. Only to cry long and loud all over again at the end of the book. (I am being deliberately vague – I won’t ruin this book for anyone if I can help it. Even though that means I can’t share with you the nickname Hobb has earned in our household as a result of Nosey and Smithy’s storylines).
Fitz is a really well-written character. His growth from boy to teen is believably rendered through his changing point of view, as he slowly becomes more aware of the precarious position he holds in society both because of his parentage and because of King Shrewd’s decision to have him become an assassin for the crown. He’s not a Chosen One, he has no outstanding qualities as such, although he’s smart and has the Wit, (an ability to share minds with animals). His odd upbringing leaves him very vulnerable with strange gaps in his knowledge and a frustrating lack of guile – I’ve never been so exasperated as when it was obvious that Galen was playing dirty and Fitz just … took it. Although I understood that this was in part due to the utter control Galen had gained over his trainees using abusive methods, I still felt that Fitz as the ‘hero’ should see through Galen’s tricks and smite him. This is on me. By the end of the book it’s pretty clear that Hobb is not playing by those well-worn rules (you know the ones: heroes go through trials, overcome them with their innate brilliance/cunning/magic, smite the bad guys and generally kick butt where butt needs kicking).
I’m starting to think, in fact, that Hobb has more in common with George R R Martin than I expected. As Assassin’s Apprentice went on what I thought of as the fairly straightforward threat posed by the Red Ship Raiders gets knottier and more problematic. The “Forging” for instance, does not (yet?) make sense. Why are they doing it? How are they doing it? I feel like they are playing a longer game that I can’t yet see. As Hobb introduces us to the Mountain Kingdom her world gains a dimension and I start to feel the sheer size of the lands beyond Buckkeep. And as Fitz grows and learns he seems to face bigger and bigger threats and complications. There is no feeling for me that he is growing into his powers, only that he is human and as prone to mistakes and misunderstandings as any of us. It’s great stuff!
So, what am I hoping for in the next two books? More beautiful, complex relationships (the relationship between Fitz and Burrich is a work of art). Much more about the Fool, I feel like Hobb hasn’t played her Ace yet, and I suspect it’s going to be him. I hope there will be a complete and thorough explanation of the Red Ship Raiders’ motives and methods. More dogs, (I don’t think I’ve ever before realised that there are not enough dogs in fantasy fiction. Bring on the dogs!) I’d like to know more about the Wit and the Skill. How has nobody realised that these are almost the same thing? What’s with Burrich’s threats that those who use the Wit can lose their humanity? Is that true? And will Fitz ever get his Skill fixed? And finally, Regal’s death, please. Please? I really don’t like him very much.