SEPTEMBER 8, 2014
THERE IS A tendency when evaluating fantasy to focus on the trappings: whether these are fire-breathing dragons, elaborate magic systems, or the (often inevitable) large-scale battles. Sometimes the trappings are the sum total of what is there, a genre-induced echo of what has come before. But such was never the case with Robin Hobb’s series of novels that began with Assassin’s Apprentice in 1995 — a series now beginning its third trilogy with Fool’s Assassin. While on its face this was to be a series about a royal bastard training to become a secret assassin in the service of a king — itself a compelling hook — it is the psychological complexity of FitzChivalry Farseer and his relationship with the mysterious Fool that is central to all the books.
Told in the first person — an unusual approach in epic fantasy — these books offer complete immersion in Fitz’s complicated personality, his tormented relationships, and the world of the Six Duchies as seen through his eyes. But while Hobb’s world is as rich in detail as anything created by George R. R. Martin, her focus is on the character’s internal conflicts. Fitz’s limited point of view renders the world as enigmatic to him as it is to the reader; we grow to know it as he grows and learns it for himself. Hobb has taken care to ensure that Fitz is limited — bright and perceptive, but emotionally scarred by trauma and orphanhood in ways that blinker his perspective, sometimes fatally. As in life, there is no magic moment of overcoming the past — the traumas of childhood abandonment and abuse linger and take new shapes as Fitz matures to adulthood. In some ways, the novels showcase a series of tragic errors as he lurches from one catastrophe to the next. But he is also a fascinating character, and has a knack for saving the Six Duchies from destruction even as he continuously fails to save himself.
The character is thus in a constant state of tension between growth and stasis. There’s a part of Fitz that always seems still the boy the reader first encountered in Assassin’s Apprentice. But in Fool’s Assassin, Fitz seems to at last have settled into a wholly secure and conventional life as a householder of the Withywoods estate. After years of separation and heartbreak he is finally married to Molly, his lifelong love. But for a hint of violence in the opening pages of the novel, life in Withywoods is a pastoral idyll with its holiday festivals, woodland surroundings, and devoted servants.
While Hobb’s generosity with detail has pervaded all the books, with the castle of Buckkeep emerging as a memorable setting in which Fitz grows to manhood, her depiction of Withywoods reaches a new level of what Tolkien names “the wonder of things.” This refers to the objects that possess value in themselves but taken together, cohere into a world — in this case, a home. Withywoods is cozy. Like a comforting blanket, the house enfolds the reader, for an experience that feels like a reaction or an antidote to much of twenty-first century life. In contrast to our virtual realities and carapaced devices, here the emphasis is on what is textured, tangible, handmade. Writing tablets and books are luxuries, as are handkerchiefs, beeswax candles, and lace. A trip to the market for such goods is reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, another milieu in which the objects of daily life are concrete and treasured.
This is not only a contrast to the modern world, but to most fantasy, where objects of particular value tend to be swords or gold. Such a setting as Withywoods feels almost radical for epic fantasy. This is not one of the ominous castles now so familiar from Game of Thrones, or even Hobb’s own Buckkeep Castle, where once Fitz roamed secret passageways as an assassin-in-training. Rather than being of battle or intrigue, conversations turn to the uses of herbs, the seasons for crops, and fair treatment of servants.
Newcomers to Robin Hobb, beginning with this book (which they should not) would likely feel that there is not enough tension here to bring readers to the heights accustomed in fantasy. Even returning readers may find themselves wondering at first, or chafing, at the apparent inocuousness of the plot. While the dynastic intrigues of Buckkeep are ever-present and provide some degree of uncertainty, they tend to be background to the daily life of Withywoods.
But Hobb is known for revving the engine in the hundred pages before the end, in ways that can be as dark and disconcerting as anything in fiction. By doing so only after she has taken care to ensconce the reader in a particular world, with sympathies tied to the characters, she increases the payoff (and the heartbreak) at the end exponentially.
One element of tension introduced early on is the vulnerability of a new viewpoint character, a little girl named Bee. Where Fitz is weathered and nigh-indestructible after thousands of pages of suffering and injuries, Bee is unusually tiny and dangerously isolated. She is, in fact, a tiny adult, which makes her more interesting as a viewpoint character than a normal small child would be. There is also clearly much more to Bee than meets the eye that has made her so preternaturally mature, something connected with the mysterious violence that occurred at Withywoods decades before and the disappearance of Fitz’s beloved Fool, and this aspect of the book may have readers wondering why Fitz doesn’t figure it all out a bit sooner. While it’s true that he’s preoccupied with pressing matters, such as his wife’s failing health, his blindness throughout the novel to what seems an obvious connection can be exasperating. Fortunately for the plausibility of the novel, the perpetual obtuseness and tunnel vision of Fitz have been long established in previous volumes of the series. Readers will be waiting for Fitz to realize that he is once again being called upon to be a Catalyst for events that determine the fate of his kingdom.
As in every Farseer novel, magic and brutal violence are fuel for the psychological dimension, not the other way around. One of the loveliest aspects of Fool’s Assassin is the way it rewards the faithful reader by building upon Fitz’s character and revealing new layers to him and to his relationships with others. One advantage of Fitz’s delayed maturity is that his development is still ongoing, still fluid, even into late middle age, and this keeps him interesting as a more evolved character perhaps would not be. Despite having everything he has ever wanted — Molly, a happy home — Fitz still feels compelled to spend time in his study, poring over old scrolls and writing an account of his own life. It’s as if he is searching through the old papers, the old wounds, for the keys to his own identity. The Fool is integral to this search, which makes his absence keenly felt.
It is in the presence of Chade Fallstar, Fitz’s old teacher in the ways of assassination, that Fitz seems most like the protagonist we know. The complicated threads that connect student and master are depicted in a way that is emblematic of much of the character development in the series—what is most important is what is not said.
This is illustrated in a moment when Chade is telling Fitz about a failed candidate for training:
“‘And he doesn’t have…whatever it is that we have that makes us able to kill.’ He drew a breath as if he would say more and then sighed it out. We were both silent, thinking. I wondered if that ability was something we both had, or if we both lacked something, and thereby could do the sorts of things we had done. The silence was not a comfortable one. Yet it wasn’t guilt we shared. I’m not sure a word exists for whatever it was.”
The irrevocable spaces between people, the layered interactions between them, are a recurring motif and strength in Hobb’s Farseer novels. It is watching Fitz struggle to bridge those spaces, struggle with those layers, that is more captivating than any magic. It is the reason that after six hefty novels about FitzChivalry Farseer, thousands of readers still clamor for more.