After I told a fan of fantasy books that I had enjoyed Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss, he insisted I had to become acquainted with a “star” of fantasy fiction, Robin Hobb. I am quite happy I took his advice. The author’s first set of books is a trilogy set in the imaginary realm of the Six Duchies. This character-driven plot explores the demands and limits of love, loyalty, and duty; speculates about repeating cycles of history and the relative importance of “heroes” versus the catalysts behind the heroes; highlights a respect for nature, the resiliency of women, and the bonds of friendship; and delivers a coming-of-age story in the bargain.
Background (No Spoilers)
This is a saga about a boy, Fitz, who spends his life always in reluctant service to others – in particular, the Farseer Rulers of the Six Duchies. Fitz wants so much just to follow his own dreams. Yet his royal blood means that self-determination can never really be his fate. Like the rulers of the Mountain Kingdoms acknowledge, those with royal blood must be a “sacrifice” to their people, and have no other choice: “the true ruler of a kingdom is the servant of all.”
Fitz was born out of wedlock to Chivalry Farseer, the King-in-Waiting of the Six Duchies. At age six, Fitz was taken away from his mother by his grandfather and handed over to Verity, Chivalry’s brother, at Buckkeep Fortress.
With Fitz’s existence known, Chivalry was forced as a manner of honor to abdicate his right to the throne and to leave Buckkeep. Fitz’s care was given by Verity in part to Burrich, the Stablemaster of Buckkeep and Chivalry’s right-hand man. A third brother, Regal, was jealous of Chivalry and Verity, and when Fitz came, Regal began to hate Fitz the most of all of them. Regal resolved to get rid of all three of them so he could rule after the death of their father, King Shrewd.
The others ignored Regal, because the Six Duchies had bigger (or so they thought) problems. They were being besieged by pirates from the Outislands, who traveled in distinctive red ships, raiding the shores and stealing the wealth of the Six Duchies. Then the Outislanders began kidnapping villagers and by some unknown process returning them as zombie-like monsters. Because this practice began with the village of Forge, such people, no matter their origin, were ever after known as “Forged.”
People who were Forged could not even be detected by the Skill. This was a magic common to those in the Farseer line enabling a person to reach out to another’s mind, no matter how distant, and know that person’s thoughts. If the other person were Skilled also, the two could even communicate through mind-speak, and if one had evil intent, he or she could control or even kill the other person via the Skill.
The trilogy can almost be seen as a catalog of Fitz’s suffering. Yes, he is a hero, but not a shining, caped hero that escapes repeated trials to save the day. Rather, he is battered and bruised, both physically and psychologically, with few moments of happiness. Thus it is that the rare glimpses of sunlight in his life make you want to weep for him. It is not at all spoilery to tell you he survives however, because the trilogy begins as a recounting by a much older Fitz of his memories. But as for how intact he is when he writes down these memories, and what his current status is – for that you have to read the books.
What I Liked Most About This Series:
- Female take on Epic Fantasy – Much of this sub-genre is produced by male writers, a dominance to which I attribute (perhaps falsely) the overwhelming theme of blood and gore. In this series, there is more psychological than physical violence (although there is no shortage of the latter), and more feeling for parental bonds.
- First person narration, allowing the reader to get as much inside the mind of the main protagonist as possible, and glean an intense understanding of his loneliness, pain, anger, fear, and occasional joy.
- Most of all, I love the relationship between man and animal portrayed by this series, and in particular, the bond between Fitz and his wolf. It is a portrait of love and loyalty that will have you sobbing. (Well, had me sobbing, at any rate.)
Specifics (or skip to Non-Spoilery Overall Evaluation and Rating)
Assassin’s Apprentice (No Spoilers)
In Book One, King Shrewd’s half-brother Chade trains Fitz to be The King’s Assassin. It is Fitz’s job to go where the King (through Chade) sends him and to quietly get rid of enemies, including the Forged whenever he finds them.
King Shrewd also insists that Fitz receive training in use of Skill, and so Fitz becomes part of a “coterie” of students taught by Galen, the twisted, masochistic half-brother to Regal. Galen is a cruel teacher and hates Fitz, so it is difficult training, in which Fitz does not excel. Galen brutally beats Fitz, trying, it seems to Fitz, to kill him. But in spite of (or because of) Galen’s malicious treatment, Fitz feels like a failure, having internalized Galen’s relentless negative judgments of him. Galen also did something damaging to Fitz’s Skill, but it is difficult for Fitz to figure out what it is or how to correct it.
As the book ends, Fitz is sent along with a group to the Mountain Kingdoms to retrieve Princess Kettricken to come back to Buckkeep and be wedded to Verity. Verity is busy using his Skill to try to attack the Red Ship Raiders, so Regal is to go in his place to seal the deal. Burrich goes along to tend to the horses, and Fitz goes with an assassin job to kill Ketricken’s brother Rurisk. Regal has convinced his father that Rurisk needs to be eliminated. Fitz is bound to carry out the King’s will, but he begins to suspect Regal has engineered this murder for nefarious reasons.
Soon Fitz discovers that it is not only Rurisk that Regal wants dead, and Fitz and Burrich must also fight for their lives.
Royal Assassin (Spoilers for Book One)
As Book Two begins, Fitz, 15, is recovering from Regal’s attempt to poison him. King Shrewd’s fool (who only goes by the name Fool), and who is also Fitz’s friend, serves as Fitz’s healer. During this time, Fitz begins to “Skill-walk,” i.e., travel to other minds when he is sleeping, and experience whatever they are experiencing. In one of these dreams, he sees his childhood friend Molly threatened by Forgers. He is determined to find her and see if she survived.
But first, on a trip to the town, he stops at the market, and encounters an angry and abused wolf cub in a cage. Fitz feels like he has come face-to-face with himself. Fitz is “Witted,” meaning that he can communicate with animals, and potentially bond with one. When he sees the horrid condition in which the cub is kept, Fitz buys him from the vendor. He intends to treat the wolf and release him in the wild, but the cub is hungry, cold, and tired, and his pack was all killed. Fitz’s heart was grabbed, and the cub, named Nighteyes, and he bonded. They came to communicate perfectly with one another through mind-speak, becoming brothers who shared their food, their souls, and sometimes even their bodies.
Meanwhile, Fitz finds Molly where he leasts expects, in the Buckkeep Castle working as a lady’s maid to Patience, the wife of his now-deceased father Chivalry. Patience forbids Fitz to court Molly, because he has royal blood and must only marry who King Shrewd demands he marry. She reminds him he has sworn his life to King Shrewd, and “a man whose duty is sworn to a King has little time for anyone else in his life.”
Fitz knows this is true but he can’t keep away from Molly, and they begin a clandestine affair. Or at least, they think it is clandestine. In a castle full of Skilled people, however, nothing remains secret for long.
Fitz harbors bitterness at just being a “pawn,” especially because it keeps him from just marrying Molly and leaving for a life of contentment with her. But Fool lectures him that his life is more than he thinks, that Fitz in fact is a Catalyst. A Catalyst, Fool explains, is someone who is born in a unique position to alter predetermined events, which in turn cascade into new possibilities. Wherever Fitz is, the Fool says, different forks are taken in history. Fool tells Fitz he can change the future of the world, but Fitz is only horrified by the idea.
The situation with the Outislanders continues to deteriorate, and Verity is desperate, Skilling at all hours and using Fitz’s strength to aid him. Molly decides she has had enough, and tells Fitz she is leaving. For his part, Verity determines he must travel to the Mountain Kingdoms in search of the ancient and perhaps mythical “Elderlings,” who pledged to his Farseer ancestors they would help in a future time of trouble.
When Verity leaves, Chade and Burrich deduce that Kettricken and Fitz are in more danger from Regal than ever, especially since Kettricken is pregnant with another potential rival for Regal. They decide to try to help them escape.
Fitz doesn’t know if Kettricken gets away, but he gets caught, and Regal almost succeeds at killing him by turning others against Fitz because of The Wit. The Wit is seen as a degrading and wicked magic by the people, and they fear it, a fear exploited by Regal. But Fitz has a secret weapon, ironically thanks to his Wit – Nighteyes.
Assassin’s Quest (Spoilers for Books One and Two)
As Book Three begins, Fitz is living with Burrich in a hut. In the previous book, Fitz had escaped vicious torture and almost certain death in Regal’s prison by taking a poison that made him appear dead, and then transferring his mind and soul to the wolf, Nighteyes. When it was safe, Burrich and Chade dug up Fitz’s body and coaxed Fitz to re-enter it. But Fitz still thinks and acts like a wolf, and it is a long time before he recovers. Most people assume he is dead.
King Shrewd has died, and Prince Verity is missing, after having left on his pursuit of the Elderlings, the legendary allies of the Six Duchies. Regal announced Verity was dead, and took over the kingdom, turning it into a kleptocracy. More and more towns fall victim to the raiders, since there is no money for defending them.
In time, Fitz finally returns to “himself,” but is full of anger and venom, even toward Burrich and Chade, who care for him the most. They tell him he is free to leave, and he resolves to go find and kill Regal. Before leaving, however, he is attacked by some of the Forged. He survives, but Burrich believes him really dead this time. Burrich, doing what he thinks Fitz would want, sets out to find Molly and help her.
Fitz fails in his attempt to assassinate Regal, and hears a Skill command from Verity to come to him in the mountains. He and Nighteyes join a group of pilgrims setting out in that direction. Regal has a huge reward out for them, however, and they are recognized, and fall into a trap. Once again they escape, and joined by two of the pilgrims – the minstrel Starling and a mysterious old woman named Kettle, they continue their journey. Later they are also joined by Verity’s Queen Kettricken and Shrewd’s former Fool, who had helped Kettricken escape from Regal.
As they continue on, all the plot threads coalesce and we finally get answers: will the travelers find Verity? Did Verity ever reach the Elderlings? What happened to Molly? Will Regal prevail? Who will rule the Six Duchies?
Even though these questions are resolved, in truth, the story is not yet over. It continues with The Tawny Man Trilogy. You will at least want to read the first of this series, Fool’s Errand, to get additional resolution to the plot.
Overall Evaluation: Whatever shortcomings these books may have, such as perhaps a need for editing (a need rarely exercised with fantasy sagas), the characters – particularly Fitz, Nighteyes, Verity, and Kettricken, are noble, admirable, and become “real” to you over the (very) many pages of the series. You won’t want to let Fitz and Nighteyes in particular out of your heart. Hobb lets you see so far inside these characters that you cherish the good and nobel ones, sharing their dreams, their pain, and their love.
Assassin’s Apprentice published by Spectra, 1996
Royal Assassin published by Spectra, 1997
Assassin’s Quest published by Spectra, 1998