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.

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