Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

John Howe cover from 1997

Assassin’s Quest, published in 1997, is the third book of Hobb’s Farseer trilogy and, as so often with fantasy trilogies, is by far the longest of the three. By far, far, far the longest. And it felt… so much longer.

The story starts with Fitz having just escaped death at King Regal’s hands by, well, dying — just not, it turns out, irreversibly. Having a Wit-bonded wolf helps in this sort of situation. As a result, Fitz finds himself free, but believed dead by pretty much everyone: enemies, allies, friends and the woman he loves. But, after complaining that formerly he’d been forced into the life of a royal assassin with no say in the matter (“I killed people as a boy. It didn’t make me a man.”), what does he do with his freedom?

“Free to do the only thing I had the heart or the courage left to do, the only thing I could do to lay my old life to rest behind me. I would kill Regal.”

…He becomes an assassin. Not a good enough one to see his task through, though, so that when he fails, and is at the mercy of Regal’s coterie of mental-powered Skill-users, Fitz is saved by his Skill-connection to distant (and also assumed-dead) King Verity. (So that’s twice Fitz has been saved from death by a magical connection to another person.) Verity had gone off in search of the Elderlings, a mythical race of powerful beings who once, long ago, saved the Six Duchies, and is, like Fitz, lost and presumed dead. Now, it turns out, he needs Fitz’s help in raising the Elderlings’ power to save the kingdom again, and he implants an unbreakable command, forcing Fitz to come to him.

It’s a long journey to reach Verity. A long, long, long journey. And it felt… so much longer.

2020 Del Rey cover, art by Paul Lycett

Reading Assassin’s Quest was a strange experience. Something just made it excruciatingly hard work to get through, yet at the same time I could never quite convince myself to give up on it. Part of what made me finish the book, in fact, was an attempt to understand why it was so difficult to get through. Another part was sheer stubbornness: I’d got through two books of the trilogy and had enjoyed them well enough, and knew if I didn’t finish the third it would nag me. Then I’d slog my way through a chapter, and realise there were forty one of these things in all. I gave up for a bit, then decided to try to read a chapter a week for a while, just so I was making some progress (and so I could get on with other books I wanted to read in the meantime). Then, once I’d finally got near enough to the end that I could push through with some sense I was finally getting somewhere, I finished it off. And when I did, I checked the date I’d started, and it was just over a year to the day…

1997 Bantam cover, art by Stephen Youll

The sheer stasis of the narrative, which had been frustrating in the previous book, but which there had at least served as a build-up towards an explosive finale, here had no excuse. Fitz was no longer stuck in Buck Keep with its mounting political tensions. He was now out and about, free, and on a quest. Things could happen. Things could be accomplished. But instead, chapter by chapter passed and I began to feel I was being forced to chew something that not only took a lot of chewing, but when it went down left me no less hungry. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it wasn’t at all badly written — which was part of the trouble, because it made it harder to see the problem. The problem, though, was that nothing was happening — nothing of any significance to the story, anyway, nothing that had real meaning. The narrative, and Fitz’s feelings about his life, just went over the same ground again and again and again. Characters had conversations, but it was only afterwards that I realised nothing had been said. There were endless descriptions of the minutiae of setting up camp, making meals, and characters being brittle with one another in the same way, day after day, or mulling endlessly over their regrets, losses and failures. Fitz started going through this cycle where, one chapter he’d be captured and beaten up within an inch of his life, then he’d escape, then he’d realise he’d been taken off his route and so would have to spend another chapter, beaten and bruised as he was, struggling to catch up. If this had just happened one or two times it might have been interpreted as demonstrating how hard Fitz’s quest was (and quests are supposed to be hard). But it just happened again and again and again. I ceased to care how difficult Fitz’s quest was.

And this was perhaps the key thing. After a first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, that had been all about building up character, with Assassin’s Quest it became obvious that Fitz, as a character, had reached his limit. He’d stopped giving anything to me as a reader. He became a one-note placeholder for a human being, and the single note he sounded was failure:

“An overwhelming dreariness rose up in me and I longed simply to lie down where I was and die. I tried to tell myself it was the elfbark. It felt more like the after-effects of near-constant failure.”

This next passage is from Fitz’s narrative, but could easily be describing my feelings of reading my way through the middle section of this book:

“I dreamed a dream at once vivid and stultifying. I chipped black stone. That was the entire dream, but it was endless in its monotony. I was using my dagger as a chisel and a rock as a hammer. My fingers were scabbed and swollen from the many times my grip had slipped and I’d struck them instead of the dagger hilt. But it didn’t stop me. I chipped black stone.”

(And one of the frustrations of this book was how full Fitz’s narrative was of fever dreams like that — which, yes, were relevant, because his ability with the Skill was giving him glimpses of other characters — but it just added to that fever dream air of the narrative as whole: being trapped in some endlessly repetitive and often meaningless task, unable to escape or make sense of it, rising out of it occasionally only to fall back into it again.)

But anyway, I finished. One reason I finished, aside from simply not wanting to leave things unfinished, was I wanted an answer to the one thing that had intrigued me at the start of the series: the Red Ship Raiders. What was it they were doing when they turned up at coastal towns and “Forged” their inhabitants, turning them into, essentially, brutal psychopaths, people who could “no longer sense or feel emotions from others”, nor recall any bonds from before they were Forged. As Fitz points out:

“Their tactics were peculiar. They made no effort to seize towns or conquer the folk. They were solely intent on destruction.”

Whatever they were doing, I felt, would go to the heart of Hobb’s world and its themes, but I needed at least the hint of an answer before I could start to digest it. But no hint was forthcoming, even this far into the series. There are, though, other examples of dehumanisation in Assassin’s Quest. King Regal, for instance, is described as having “thrown humanity aside, to embrace something darker”:

“He pleasures his body with drugs and deadens his soul with his savage amusements. Aye, and spreads the disease to those around him… The very coinage of life becomes debased. Slavery spreads, for if it is accepted to take a man’s life for amusement, then how much wiser to take it for profit?”

Regal uses his coterie of Skill-users as tools he can do what he likes with — sacrifice on a whim, if he wants. In his view, and under his influence, human beings become less than human. Meanwhile, we learn that the essence of the power held by the Elderlings is also rooted in dehumanisation of a sort, or at least that they need the lives of others to give themselves life and power, which is, again, a debasement and devaluation of human beings. There’s a third form of dehumanisation, though, which is perhaps the most hard to spot, but is the most pervasive for Fitz:

“So quickly it was done. Vengeance. I stood looking down at him, waiting to feel triumph or relief, or satisfaction. Instead I felt nothing, felt as lost to all life as he was.”

As the saying goes, if you seek revenge, dig two graves. In this case, though, the second grave needn’t be dug, because that other death — the death of the avenger — can be a living one. I might charitably say the dullness and drudgery of finishing this third book of the trilogy, and the way Fitz’s character became so monotonous, might be a clever device on Hobb’s part, showing how he’d been hollowed out by his focus on revenge. But if so, it was taken, perhaps, to too great a length.

2022 Del Rey cover, art by Alejandro Colucci

The Farseer trilogy has a lot in common, in some ways, with George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, whose first volume was published around the same time. Both were presenting a very gritty, more “realistic” version of fantasy, minimising the magic (and making what magic there is very costly and dangerous), while undermining all ideas of heroes, noble quests and the like. (Though I have to say, Hobb lacks Martin’s dark humour and sword-and-sorcery vitality, both of which are necessary to offset the sheer grimness.) It’s as though fantasy, at that time, were trying to get as far from the fairy-tale fulfilment of the likes of David Eddings’s Belgariad as it could. I don’t see this as a necessary corrective, just the other side of the coin. Eddings’s fairy-tale air may be unrealistic, but it comes with a lot of hope and wonder. Hobb brings a darker edge, but also a much drearier and un-wondrous air.

But that’s just my feeling. Hobb’s books have been very successful, so much so she’s gone on to write three or four more trilogies set in the same world, and the Folio Society has brought out this first trilogy in luxury hardback form, putting her alongside Tolkien, Le Guin, and George R R Martin in their catalogue.

Folio Society, art by David Palumbo

I haven’t read much — if any, now I think about it — modern fantasy, and it was perhaps at the point where I first read Hobb, back in the mid-1990s, that I stopped engaging with the genre as a going concern, and perhaps it was the feeling I got from her — of a grimness without a balancing wonder — that helped put me off. Assassin’s Quest does end with a rip-roaring final chapter, but only after forty or so preceding ones that were very much not in the same vein. And I did finally get my answer to what the Red Ship Raiders were doing and why, but it was zipped by in two or three sentences delivered in one of the italicised passages that started each chapter, commentaries by Fitz on some aspect of the world, not parts of the narrative itself. This was perhaps my second big disappointment with this book — the one thing about this world I’d been intrigued by was dealt with too quickly, with no attempt at digesting its many implications within the narrative itself. It was almost a throwaway I might have missed.


The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

Henry Holiday’s cover for the first edition

Appropriately for a nonsense poem, Lewis Carroll’s Snark came into being last-line-first:

“I was walking on a hill-side, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse — one solitary line — ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’ I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means now; but I wrote it down: and, some time afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.”

What the above account (from Carroll’s essay “Alice on the Stage”) doesn’t say is that the walk was taken in a break from caring for his 22-year-old cousin and godson, Charles Hassard Wilcox, who had tuberculosis. After tending his godson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), managed three hours sleep then went for that walk, whereupon he became, so to speak, “snarked”. This was July 1874; Dodgson heard of his godson’s death on 11th November of the same year, by which time he seems already to have been making plans for The Snark’s publication. A diary entry for 23rd November mentions Ruskin coming round to look at illustrations Dodgson had commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. Dodgson initially asked for three pictures, one for each of the (at the time) three “fits”, but kept adding to the poem, and eventually had Holiday produce nine in all, including a frontispiece.

In the end, it wasn’t till October of the following year that Dodgson had the “sudden idea” (as he put it in his diary) to get The Hunting of the Snark published in time for Christmas. It turned out to be too late for that, so it came out at Easter 1876. It would go through eighteen reprints between then and 1910.

Initial reviews were mixed. The Weekly Dispatch, 16th April 1876, for instance:

Alice in Wonderland was such a delightful volume for all right-minded readers between the ages of four and fourscore, and Through the Looking-glass was such a capital continuation of it, that, while any book their author may write is sure to be eagerly devoured by them, perhaps no book he could write would be altogether satisfactory to them. The Hunting of the Snark, at any rate, is, we think, quite certain to be popular, and quite as certain to disappoint most of those who take it up. The disappointment, however, will not take shape till they have read to the end, and then perhaps it will be quite as much because the eighty pages to which the story does extend are not more evenly crowded with good things.”

Andrew Lang, in The Academy (8th April), perhaps put his finger on it by saying that, if it was “rather disappointing, it is partly the fault of the too attractive title”. Aside, then, from the disappointment of it not featuring Alice — who, I feel, would have punctured the tale from the start by asking the obvious question “What is a Snark?” — there’s a feeling The Hunting of the Snark simply promises more than it delivers. Or, contrariwise, that there ought to be more of it.

Tove Jansson’s cover for the British Library edition

In part, I think this is perhaps because, like Chaucer at the start of The Canterbury Tales, Carroll sets up his cast of characters embarking on this nonsensical quest (ten in all) but only gives six of them a lead place in one of the poem’s eight “fits”. We could, charitably, suggest he was sticking to the form of the unfinished Canterbury Tales by leaving gaps in his tale, but Chaucer at least had the excuse of being dead. Carroll, still alive, simply failed to give us a tale for the Boots, the Maker of Bonnets and Hoods, the Broker, and the Billiard-marker. The final “fit” is, really, exactly the sort of let-down ending you’d expect of a shaggy dog tale, but Carroll didn’t make his dog shaggy enough for it to work.

Like so many of the other greats of fantasy poetry I’ve covered in Mewsings, this is the story of a confrontation with a fantastical being. Wilde’s The Sphinx and Poe’s The Raven are all about that moment of confrontation; Keats’s Belle Dame and Rossetti’s Goblin Market are mostly about the devastating aftermath of such an encounter. Like The Snark, Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is all about the lead-up to the object of a quest, but I think the greatest similarity lies with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater: both start with an extended indulgence in weird exoticism (for Smith) or nonsense (for Carroll), before that very excess of indulgence leads to a final, terrible confrontation with something overwhelming.

What can be said about the nature of Carroll’s Snark? (And I’m conscious that, some years ago, I wrote a mewsings on the dangers of over-interpreting nonsense — “Fallacies of Wonderland” — but I still like to eke out what can be said.)

Chris Riddell cover

For instance, whereas The Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims represent a fair mix of the society of Chaucer’s day, the Bellman’s crew are often ridiculously specialised, and none with skills that might be of help in a hunt. This is epitomised by the Banker who, faced not with the Snark itself but the presumably lesser threat of a Bandersnatch, can only defend himself by offering the creature a “large discount” (on what?) and “a cheque”. They do not form a society, this crew, but a loose collection of isolated individuals.

The poem was conceived in a moment of isolation (“I was walking on a hill-side, alone” — recalling Keats’s “cold hill-side”) and ends with the Baker alone on a similar height (“On the top of a neighbouring crag”) encountering the ultimate loneliness of disappearing from the world altogether. (And it could well be that Dodgson, when he came up with the line, was contemplating the reality of his godson disappearing from the world altogether.) The only character apart from the fated Baker to encounter a Snark is the Barrister, who does so in a dream, where the Snark starts to take on the roles of the entire court — Defence, Prosecution, Jury and Judge — as though it were turning the entire world into one faceless “other”, that other being, ultimately, just oneself by another name. There’s certainly, then, an air of loneliness, absence (the Bellman’s empty map and directionless voyage) and solipsism about the Snark.

And the Snark is also — perhaps can’t help being — the embodiment, or non-embodiment, of nonsense, too: or the thing that awaits when nonsense ceases to be play and becomes a revelation of the meaninglessness of everything, or even, in the case of the Banker, of insanity (“Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity”). A Snark is sought through the purest nonsense of the non-sequitur, the collection of unrelated, random things forced together:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

It’s as though the way to catch a Snark is to keep assembling unrelated things (including a crew of vastly unrelated professions), until the sheer mass of unrelatedness causes a fissure in reality and the creature, summoned like a demon, appears. (And is this what J G Ballard’s multiple protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition were doing with their “Terminal documents”? If so, what sort of Snark was Ballard trying to summon?)

Mervyn Peake cover

The thing that seems, in the poem, to separate nonsense from the wailing void of meaninglessness is the imposition of rules. The rules don’t, though, have to make sense. They can be as arbitrary as the Bellman’s “What I tell you three times is true.” And it’s notable that this rule is the thing that saves — and brings together — the only two characters who emerge from The Hunting of the Snark happier, and less lonely, than before: the Beaver and the Butcher. These two, who are set up as natural enemies (the Butcher’s specialisation is the butchering of beavers), on facing a moment of terror together, get through it by the application of the Bellman’s nonsensical rule (plus a little equally nonsensical mathematics). The point being, it doesn’t matter what gets them through their experience of terror, only that they do it together, and having done so, have punctured the divisions between them. (The Beaver is also the only character not defined by its specialisation. It’s of course an animal, but, though referred to as an “it”, has characteristics that Carroll’s contemporary audience would have associated with being female: it makes lace, and it weeps. The Butcher, meanwhile, recalls his childhood, “That blissful and innocent state”, and in that moment ceases to be a mere social role, and is humanised.)

Of course, the Baker has a nonsensical rule too:

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!”

And, in a sense, he perishes not of the Snark — which, arguably doesn’t exist — but from the rule, and the fear it engenders. If a Snark doesn’t exist, it cannot be a Boojum; but if it doesn’t exist, it also can’t not be a Boojum, therefore every Snark is, potentially, a Boojum. The “What I tell you three times” rule leads to the truth (or at least a belief that there might be such a thing as truth — “truth” perhaps being definable as a belief that can be shared, and so a way out of isolation), but the “If your Snark be a Boojum” rule leads only deeper into nonsense, and so into isolation.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “so to speak, ‘snarked'”

I think The Snark — particularly in the second fit, “The Bellman’s Speech”, where the Bellman reveals his blank map, and the sixth, “The Barrister’s Dream” — contains some of Carroll’s best nonsense writing, second only to his absolute best, the “Advice from a Caterpillar” chapter of Alice and “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. And, if I can mention just one more favourite, there’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”, perhaps the purest nonsense of the lot.

Patrick Woodroffe cover for Mike Batt’s musical version of The Hunting of the Snark