Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

1996 edition, art by John Howe

The second volume of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, published in 1996, starts immediately after the events of Assassin’s Apprentice, with Fitz still in the Mountain Kingdom, recovering from a serious attempt on his life by his own uncle, Prince Regal. Soon enough, though, he and Burrich return to Buckkeep, and things get back to normal. King-in-Waiting Verity, though newly married, spends all his time in his tower, using the far-seeing mental powers of the Skill to sense incoming attacks from the Red Ship Raiders; Prince Regal carries on living the high life whilst elbowing his way into power; and Fitz, despite being physically weakened by the poisoning, goes back to his very occasional duties as an assassin.

A few things have changed, though. There’s now a Queen-in-Waiting at court, Verity’s bride Kettricken, who is mostly nonplussed by life at Buckkeep. Among her Mountain Folk, a king or queen is known as “the Sacrifice”, and sees his or her job entirely in terms of serving their people; here, she finds she’s supposed to just sit around and simply be royal, with no true powers or duties. The ageing King Shrewd, meanwhile, seems caught in a Wormtongue-Théoden situation, being drugged into a state of senility by his manservant Wallace, and nobody is doing anything about it. Fitz finds his childhood town-friend Molly has become a servant at Buckkeep, and the two admit their love for one another, though have to keep it secret, as Fitz knows his life is still in danger and his love for her will just make her a target, while both are concerned she doesn’t become the subject of gossip.

Del Rey 2020 edition, art by Paul Lycett

For a lot of Royal Assassin, the feeling is of frustration at how Prince Regal — clearly the villain, though nobody wants to admit that, as to do so would be treason against the royal family — eats away at Prince Verity’s rule, while setting things up for his own. Regal’s loyalties, through birth, belong to the inland kingdoms of the Six Duchies, and he seems to want to move the centre of power away from Buckkeep, and to simply leave the coastal duchies to the mercy of the Red Ship Raiders. About the Red Ship Raiders, we get a few exciting episodes, as Fitz is enlisted on one of Verity’s new ships and actually gets to battle with them, but we don’t learn much more about what they’re doing or why. Rather, the mystery deepens, as Fitz glimpses a White Ship that hangs back, but which seems to be guiding them.

For a good deal of this book, then, things are simmering closer and closer to the boil, and it’s only when Prince Verity makes the clearly stupid move of leaving Buckkeep in the hands of his power-crazy brother, to go off on a quest for the mythical Elderlings (who were said to have offered help to the Six Duchies, should they need it, but most people have long since ceased to believe they exist), that things start to happen. By which I mean, get worse.

1996 edition, art by Michael Whelan

As with the previous book, the main themes that emerge in Royal Assassin are about loyalties and relationships. Fitz is a King’s Man, and so is loyal to the king, and has to obey his every command, but the king is clearly failing, and not aware of all that’s going on. At what point does blind loyalty to a failing, or selfish, or even outright villainous monarch become folly? But Chade, Fitz’s fellow assassin and guide, reminds Fitz that being a King’s Man means being loyal with no misgivings:

“You and I, we swore to the Farseer line, of which we are but random shoots. Not to King Shrewd alone, or to a wise king alone, but to uphold the rightful king of the Farseer line. Even if he is Regal.”

Prince Regal, unfortunately, is something of a comic villain, the sort who splutters and chokes with fury when he’s foiled, and arranges complicated Bond-villain-style torments and tortures, rather than simply polishing off his opponents (thus allowing our hero a chance of escape).

Fitz, meanwhile, spends a lot of his time lying to various people. Despite the loyalties he’s built up, there’s no one he either can or will share the entirety of his life with. He keeps the fact he’s an assassin quiet from everyone except those royals who know it — and that includes keeping it from Molly, who starts to sense she isn’t the entire focus of his devotion. From those who know he’s an assassin he keeps further secrets — it’s only Verity, at first, who knows of Fitz’s ability with the Skill, and no-one but the disapproving Burrich knows of Fitz’s ability with that other magic of this world, the animal-communicating talent known as the Wit.

2014 edition

The most interesting part of this instalment in the series lies in Fitz’s adoption of a wolf cub he finds caged in a market. He initially buys and looks after it intending to free it into the wild, but thanks to his Wit-ability with dogs, he finds the wolf bonding to him. And a wolf, it turns out, isn’t as blindly obedient as a dog. It’s a wild creature, with a fierce instinct for survival, and a fierce loyalty to the pack — and at the moment, Fitz is the pack. Fitz finds the wolf’s sharply curious mind invading his own even when the two are apart, and gets its laconic commentary on the complex (and clearly wrong) politics of the human world, as opposed to the stark simplicity of life in “the pack”.

Ultimately, this is the middle book of a trilogy, and while it keeps all the storylines set up in the first instalment simmering, it doesn’t really get any of them significantly closer to resolution. For most of the book, Fitz has no guiding purpose or autonomy. He’s there to do what he’s told, and while he investigates and tries to work out what Prince Regal is doing, he just can’t do anything. I’m hoping, then, that things will start to resolve in the final book of the trilogy, Assassin’s Quest. And there’s a lot to get on with resolving.


The Spring on the Mountain by Judy Allen

Children’s Book Club edition, art by Kay Wilson

The Spring on the Mountain, first published in 1973, was Judy Allen’s first novel. It evidently had some success because, after being published by Jonathan Cape, it was brought out by the Children’s Book Club (run by Foyles) in 1974, and then as a Puffin paperback in 1977. Like her second novel, The Stones of the Moon (which I looked at a few mewsings back), it takes some traditional YA elements (city kids spending their holidays in the country get tangled up in a mystery) and brings them in contact with early-70s concerns, such as Earth-mysteries, sacred sites, and the oppressive influence of the past.

A trio of twelve-year-olds, Emma, Michael and Peter, are spending the end of their school holidays at the cottage of Mr and Mrs Myers. Mr Myers has recently retired from a city job to live on the interest from his savings in “a large cottage in a high moorland valley”, and his wife has decided to earn a little extra (and, perhaps, stave off boredom) by taking in children for the holidays. Emma, Michael and Peter haven’t met before, and are, it seems, from quite different backgrounds (though we only learn about Peter’s, that I recall, and then only that he has a “blunt Yorkshire manner”), and at first they fail to gel. But they go for a walk, and soon get introduced to some local mysteries: there’s a lane with a sort of dark-feeling, maybe-haunted corner, and beyond that, over the moor, reached by a straight path, a single mountain that Peter instantly decides he wants to climb.

The trio are introduced to a local old woman, Mrs White, who provides some no-nonsense explanations about lingering energies and powers within the earth. For the haunted lane, there’s this:

“At some time… fear has been felt at that place, very, very strongly. No one knows what the cause of the fear was, and it doesn’t really matter. That’s gone long ago. But the emotion itself has become trapped and repeats itself in an endless cycle.”

And for the mountain, Mrs White says that its remarkably straight approach is known as:

“…Arthur’s Way. That’s because some people an exceedingly long time ago had the idea that the Holy Grail was hidden at the top and that Arthur’s knights would have come this way in search of it.”

HB from Jonathan Cape

But Mrs White, it turns out, has had her own direct experience of the strangeness of the mountain. Years ago, she climbed it and found a spring which had a magically rejuvenative effect (“I was refreshed beyond all possible expectation. I felt more alive, more awake.”), and since then she’s always meant to return and divert the spring so it joins the river flowing into the local village, so everyone can feel the benefit. She, though, has got old — or perhaps some force is preventing her from being able to climb the mountain — so when she learns Peter, Michael and Emma are interested in going up, she persuades them to have a go at finding the spring and diverting it at the source.

Michael is established early on as being a sceptic as far as earth-energies and the like go, saying “I believe what my eyes tell me” — whereupon Mrs White ridicules him for having to believe, then, that objects in the distance are smaller than those that are close by. Peter, on the other hand, is of a more mystical bent, and has already had a vision of sorts by gazing into a crystal ball (though the Myers say it’s only a fisherman’s weight). Michael thinks Peter has “no intellectual discrimination at all”. Emma, meanwhile, keeps out of the debate. (Though Peter says “You want to believe him [i.e., Michael] because it sounds safer. But really you believe me.”)

It sounds like a set-up for an interesting exploration of scepticism and belief with regards to the supernatural, but by the halfway point Peter is proved right in his belief that “There are forces on the earth, you know there are.” “Why,” he continues, “shouldn’t a sort of life-force flow in straight lines?”, and Allen is evidently on his side, as she concludes the book with an author’s note:

“There really are ancient tracks, like Arthur’s Way, all over Britain. If you would like to know more about them and about how to discover if there is such a track in your area, you will find information in The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins and The View of Atlantis by John Michell, both published by Garnstone Press, London.”

Alfred Watkins was the first to suggest the existence of “ley lines” linking ancient and modern sacred sites through a series of straight lines. The View Over Atlantis (1969), meanwhile — “the book which”, historian Ronald Hutton says “more than any other, defined and energized the earth mysteries movement” — links ley lines to UFOs and flows of earth-energies, like the lung-mei or “dragon paths” of ancient China. This, and other post-60s beliefs, led to an alternative archaeology movement throughout the 1970s, though it wasn’t till Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s Ley Lines in Question (1983) that the idea of ley-lines was subjected to more rigorous and academic interrogation, and found wanting.

None of this should detract from Allen’s book, but I have to admit I felt a slight C S Lewis-like sense that here the writer was, by making their own beliefs the justification for the fantastical elements in a story, going to skimp on giving their tale that deeper sense of reaching for the truly mysterious that a less dogmatic basis would have had.

Puffin PB, art by Jill Bennett

Michael, Peter and Emma climb the mountain, encounter some weirdness — including a Merlin-like figure called Aquarius who warns them away from diverting the spring, not because it shouldn’t be done but because it’s Mrs White’s Quest, not theirs — but the ending is a bit rushed. Why shouldn’t the kids divert the spring? Why should Mrs White be the one to do it, or attempt to do it? Why hasn’t she managed to do it? What would happen if she did? Or didn’t? These questions don’t get answered (nor the larger question of who’s deciding all this “meant to be” stuff), but we do at least glimpse the event that sparked off that haunted feeling in the lane (a hanged man, intense emotions, and a divergence in the straight track causing an energetic “whirlpool” where life-energies get trapped), thanks to Peter slipping briefly into the past.

There are similarities with other YA novels of the same era — William Mayne’s IT, for instance, with its need to rebalance some ancient boundaries in the land so as to lay a troublesome power — but Allen’s novel lacks the sense (in Mayne’s IT) of a redoubtable protagonist ultimately overcoming a supernatural difficulty in their own personal, if quirky, manner.

But I think that’s why it’s interesting to read the, as it were, second-rank offerings in a genre, just to find out what makes the top rank work. Garner, Mayne, John Gordon, and Penelope Lively bring in the supernatural but the focus is always on the characters first of all and, ultimately, the way they deal with these pervasive influences from the past, from myth, from the landscape: because, supernatural though they may be, they always tie in with the characters’ personalities and relationships, meaning they can be read without having to believe in anything but the story as a story. Allen’s, I think requires a measure of belief in earth-energies, and semi-human powers like Aquarius, who pop up to tell us that certain things are just meant to be this way or that way, but without any reason behind them. Not to believe means you can be left wondering what it was all for. (Though I am, of course, approaching these books as an adult. The top rank YA books can be re-read as an adult, less so the lesser works.)