The problem with starting a blog and planning to review the latest books is that sometimes you have to read a whole lot of books to get caught up.
Like now. Robin Hobb’s latest “Fitz and the Fool” novel, Fool’s Assassin comes out on Tuesday and it looks pretty cool. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the six novels leading up to it. So I’m digging into the first of two trilogies.
After establishing herself in the urban fantasy genre during the ’80s, Hobb, who had previously written under the name Megan Lindholm, delved into epic fantasy in 1995 with Assassin’s Apprentice. The novel follows FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of the heir to the throne of Buckkeep as he grows up abandoned amidst the intrigues of his relative’s court.
Initially turned over at five to the care of his father Chivalry’s groomsman, Burrich, Fitz is raised in the stables, where he discovers he possesses an innate magical ability to communicate with animals. This leads to a beautiful and ultimately heart-wrenching relationship with a young puppy.
And, being a sucker for dogs, Hobb had me right there.
As Fitz grows up he is recognized by his grandfather the king and trained in the only duty suitable for bastards – assassination. He also runs afoul of his uncle Regal and the courtly magician Galen, who is to train Fitz in the “Skill” a magic discipline to communicate and influence people over great distances. Eventually he must face a choice between betraying his honor or betraying his family.
The story was riveting, told in first person, with Fitz narrating his memoirs. Action was kept to a minimum, the story focused more on Fitz’s character development than the world-changing events happening around him. Only as it builds to the climax does the action pick-up, but the book never feels slow as Hobb draws the reader deeper into Fitz’s world and growth.
The narration immediately reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s masterwork “The Book of the New Sun”, with its morally ambiguous and supernatural narrator, but Fitz doesn’t come across nearly as unreliable (or arrogant) as Wolfe’s apprentice torturer Severian. And given my innate mistrust of first person narrators, I was expecting to have to wade through layers of reliability, but I never questioned Fitz – even with multiple explanations of the happenings at the climax. Maybe as I dig further into the series I will, however — I just don’t trust first person narration. Blame Severian and Humbert Humbert.
What struck me most about the novel was the influence I saw on later works. While not even 20 years old, Assassin’s Apprentice casts a long shadow. I can see echoes of Fitz in Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’s “Kingkiller Chronicles” and the Fool is almost lifted whole into Brandon Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive”. Along with George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which hit shelves at the same time, Assassin’s Apprentice helps usher in the move away from sword-and-sorcery and moral ambiguity of the “Grimdark” movement.
But Assassin’s Apprentice never has the dreary weight of Brent Weeks or Joe Abercrombie. It is violent, and deal with dark subject matter, but the violence is on the fringes and in the background. Even the climax has a lighter feel, made even more enjoyable by Fitz’s rapport with animals.
Like I said, I’m a sucker for dogs.