What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t already been said by countless other reviews? Probably not enough to excuse the time it took to put my conflicted thoughts into words, but I’m still going to try because I loved this epic fantasy like a fat kid loves cake.
The characters have become as much a part of me as any other fantasy cast. Fitz, the main character of the trilogy, is right up there with Harry and Bilbo. Not just the characters, but the slightly altered common fantasy tropes were like a hint of nutmeg in hot chocolate, adding to the flavor without choking what makes a fantasy novel fantastical.
The entirety of the story wasn’t all cupcakes and rainbows. The ending of Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest was less-than-auspicious and left a bad taste in my mouth. It was a lot like reaching into a bag of candy only to find it filled with black licorice. Some will gobble it up in a masochistic thrill, and others will chew through them with a bearable disappointment. At the end, I was the latter. But despite those conflicted personal feelings, the trilogy had plenty scrumptious chocolatey delights.
Robin Hobb, author of the trilogy and the Farseer universe, is the pseudonym for Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden (I’ve never understood why an author would use a fake name. Everyone knows Mark Twain, but hardly anyone recognizes Samuel Clemens). She published under her real name first and found some success, but was not well known. When she decided to write under the name of Hobb, she found immediate, radiant success. Assassin’s Apprentice was the first book of her epic fantasy trilogy published in 1995, and she finished the trilogy just two years later. It may be as old as I am, but Hobb has kept the universe she started more than twenty years ago alive, publishing her latest instalment to this world in 2015. I figured if I were to review any of her books, it would be the one that made Hobb the author she is today, and though she may have published other books under her real name before, The Farseer Trilogy is where her career really took off. If you haven’t read the books I recommend you do so.
The story follows FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard boy of ex-king-in-waiting Chivalry Farseer and our impulsive protagonist. We basically grow up with Fitz; the story is told through his eyes—first person point-of-view. It begins with the boy having no memory of his past, not even his name. Burrich, the stablemaster for King Shrewd of the Six Duchies kingdom, ends up raising and naming FitzChivalry the best way he knows how in Buckkeep Castle. Fitz grows up in the stables, where it is discovered by Burrich that Fitz has the Wit–a magic that allows some a deeper, intimate connection with animals (think Aquaman on a smaller scale). Non-Witted folk feel strongly enough about the magic to hang and mutilate those proven to have it, so Burrich forbids Fitz’s interaction with animals as much as he can. Luckily, Fitz also has the Skill–another magic that allows for a deeper connection with other humans, telepathy being its main use, and it is admired rather than execrated. Between the two magics, Fitz is able to navigate the dangerous life he was thrust into when King Shrewd, Fitz’s grandfather, eventually apprenticed the boy to his assassin, Chade. Without going into much more detail (I don’t want to spoil anything) I can tell you that Fitz grows in his magic and assassin skills, experiences love, fights zombie-esque creatures, and strives to save the king and kingdom from threats both within and without.
Characterization and Other Lovelies
Hobb is the master of characterization, and this trilogy does not disappoint. All Fitz’s anguish, self-loathing, understated heroic deeds, and romantic endeavors are divulged as he attempts to serve his king as the assassin’s apprentice. I often tell my students when we begin our narrative writing unit, “Show, don’t tell”. Hobb does a great job showing us the other characters in her world through Fitz, and while he might have his own opinion on some of the characters, the reader is still able to decide what to think of them. They are not entirely human. Regal, Fitz’s cruel and petty uncle, is a great example of this. He is a bad guy through-and-through. He has no excuses for his selfish behavior, but that unrealistic cruelty and petty behavior only add to the malice felt towards his character. I don’t want to like the bad guy, and it is satisfying that Hobb gives you little to admire. So while the characters might have some unrealistic aspects, it only adds to their development as characters and the story as a whole. Fantasy is not meant to be entirely realistic, and occasionally, it’s okay for the characters to be fantastical.
Another nice tidbit in the trilogy is the page-skipping tension, such as when Regal captured Fitz in Royal Assassin and accuses him of having the Wit. Long story short, Fitz suffered both physical and psychological torture while in the clutches of his uncle, but Fitz survives. The point is that each passing day Fitz spent in a cell added to Regal’s malicious portfolio. There was a shared loathing that built inside both Fitz and me in the last few pages of that second book. It was what kept me reading on to the final book in the trilogy, hoping that Regal would finally get what he deserved.
In Assassin’s Quest when Fitz finally breaks into Regal’s mind with his Skill, the cause for Regal’s petty, cruel nature is revealed. Regal deserved to suffer, but Fitz finally made a logical, thoughtful decision. Instead of reflecting the cruelty Regal had shown him all his life, he chose something that patched up the entire kingdom and solidified his “good guy” appeal.
The Black Licorice
On to the nasty jellybeans and melancholy. While Fitz does develop into a character you can’t help but love, he makes his otherwise decent life feel dreary and oppressive. For example, “The King’s tool. I see.’ An oppression settled over me. My brief glimpse of blue skies arching over yellow roads and me travelling down them astride Sooty suddenly vanished. I thought of the hounds in their kennels instead, or of the hawk, hooded and strapped, that rode on the King’s wrist and was loosed only to do the King’s will.” He tends to fall into that feigned helplessness, that inability to do anything about his life despite having all of the skills and resources to do so, as the story progresses. He pontificates on his misery over and over again, especially in the second book, Royal Assassin, but his life is not the slavish torture he would have readers believe (well, except for when he was actually tortured).
The boy makes irrational, impulsive decisions which, though consistent to his character, become a burden on the actual events and excitement in the plot. His journey along the Skill Road in Assassin’s Quest should have been an exciting and engaging adventure filled with events and clarity. Instead, it is filled with Fitz’s longing for Molly and his child. It was much like having a rock in my shoe, gnawing at me with each passing chapter. I should have known Fitz’s fate, but I’m stubborn and like for my heroes to be recognized for their great deeds.
The only quirk in how the conflict ended was that Fitz didn’t get any recognition. In fact, his name was reviled by all but his friends. His memory was tarnished by his connection to the Wit magic. What FitzChivalry chose in the end was true to his chivalrous bastard name, but it didn’t have the nice Disney-hero ending. He went the distance, though crowds did not cheer when they saw his face and a voice did not keep saying, “This is where Fitz is meant to be”. It’s a missed “feel good” opportunity. The only upside to an ending like that is a sequel, which Robin Hobb has already given her readers in The Tawny Man and The Fitz and the Fool trilogies. So fortunately, you don’t have to wait to see if things change for FitzChivalry Farseer.
Have any thoughts on this trilogy or books like it? Feel free to comment below.