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.

Comments (2)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I only tried reading Robin Hobb once – I think it was Fool’s Assassin, but amn’t sure – and gave up, thanks to chapter after chapter in which nothing happened (bar some foreshadowing). I still have no idea what the story was going to be about.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I’m glad it’s not only me!

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