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.


Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Harper Collins, 1995. Art by John Howe.

Assassin’s Apprentice, first book of the Farseer Trilogy, came out in 1995, a year before George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hobb’s world of the Six Duchies shares something of the feel of Martin’s, with its Machiavellian politics, bitter ruling-family dynamics, and the general grimness of its world, where a likeable character can be killed off suddenly. Both have an unreasoningly bleak background threat (the White Walkers in GoT, the Red Ship Raiders here). But Assassin’s Apprentice’s world is smaller than GoT’s, and a little bit more politically stable, so it doesn’t have quite the Renaissance-tragedy levels of revenge, counter-revenge, and general bloodshed, though the potential is certainly there.

The thing that most struck me at the time it first came out, though, was that it was written in the first person. I’m sure this must have been done in genre fantasy before then, but it seemed to me something of an innovation. I read I, Claudius around the same time time and felt Hobb was taking a similar approach. Like Robert Graves’s Claudius, Robin Hobbs’s FitzChivalry is writing the story of his life from a now wiser perspective, and like Claudius, FitzChivalry’s tale is of a ruling family told from the knowing perspective of its (initially, at least) most looked-down-upon member.

2019 Del Rey cover, art by Paul Lycett

FitzChivalry’s name means “bastard of Chivalry”, Prince Chivalry being the name of the (at the time) next in succession to the throne of the Six Duchies. In this world, nobles are given the names of admirable qualities, in the belief it will instil these qualities in them (“names that would shape their lives and beings”), but generally these names come across as ironic. King Shrewd, though often wily, is mightily indecisive over at least one key point affecting his realm; Chivalry quite unchivalrously fathers a bastard then ignores him; Regal is foppish and selfish; Lady Patience is flighty and impulsive. But FitzChivalry doesn’t even get that name until a long way into the first book. Initially, he’s just known as “fitz”, “boy”, or, at best, “Newboy” by a few child friends he picks up in the nearby town.

This concern over naming reminds me of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster Trilogy with its heavily-loaded, poetic use of the word “name”, to mean “identity” in the deepest sense. Like that book (and so many other fantasies) Assassin’s Apprentice is about the ways we pick up or form identities, and therefore our destinies (or, as here, just our life stories). At first, Fitz has no name because to name him is to acknowledge him and bring him into the royal family. But, as King Shrewd says in one of his shrewd moments:

“A bastard, Regal, is a unique thing… He may safely be sent where a prince of the blood may not be risked… So, what will you make of him? A tool? A weapon? A comrade? An enemy? Or will you leave him lying about, for someone else to take up and use against you?”

Shrewd apprentices Fitz to his own bastard-brother Chade, to learn the arts of the “hand that moves unseen, cloaked by the velvet glove of diplomacy”:

“It’s murder, more or less. Killing people. The fine art of diplomatic assassination. Or blinding, or deafening. Or a weakening of the limbs, or a paralysis or a debilitating cough or impotency. Or early senility, or insanity…”

This first book is mostly about FitzChivalry’s education, and not only in the arts of assassination. There’s also this world’s two magical arts which, it turns out, although they’re both rare, Fitz has some ability in.

Bantam 1995, art by Michael Whelan

First there’s the Wit, which enables someone to share the mind and senses of animals, usually specific ones (in Fitz’s case, it’s dogs). Then there’s the Skill, a mind power fostered by the ruling elite (it’s presumably how the Farseers got their family name), which enables long-distance communication between minds.

Both of these arts have their negative side. Over-indulgence in the Wit can drag a person down to the level of the beasts whose mind they share, or so popular prejudice has it. (Fitz’s main protector in his early years, Chivalry’s stableman Burrich, is so sure of this that he thinks any sign of the Wit needs to be stamped out immediately.) The Skill, on the other hand, seems to act more like a drug, where it can make its user so aesthetically sensitive he or she can get lost in endlessly staring at one thing for hours — or even the rest of their life — so rich does every sensory experience suddenly become. (Apparently it was wondering what if magic were addictive that sparked off the series in Hobb’s mind.)

2011 cover

So, both forms of magic can eat away at a user’s individuality, one working from the lower instincts, the other from the higher. There’s a third fantasy element in this book that also destroys individuality, and that’s what the Red Ship Raiders are doing to people on the Six Duchies’ coasts. Apparently part of some Outlander cult, the Raiders capture people and in some way destroy the part of them that makes them fully human. People who have been “Forged”, as it’s called (after the first town to suffer such an attack), aren’t physically hurt, but become “Heartless ghosts”, “sound of body, but bereft of any of the kinder emotions of humanity”:

“As predators, they were more devoid of decency and mercy than any wild animal could be. It was easy to forget they had ever been human, and to hate them with a venom like nothing else.”

This is the most intriguing part of the book, but for the first part of the trilogy it’s generally a background element, a threat that’s being set up to (presumably) be dealt with more fully in the next two books.

Folio Society edition, art by David Palumbo

Assassin’s Apprentice is primarily concerned with establishing its main character and his world. Fitz’s position is unique because he combines so many opposites. As a bastard, he’s the lowest of the low, but as he’s of the royal blood, he has the potential to be the highest of the high. He works in the stables, tending horses and dogs, but also learns the most arcane arts of political assassination, political influence, espionage, and mind-power. Identities such as his aren’t like Morgon of Hed’s in the Riddlemaster trilogy. With Morgon, it was all about a magical destiny emerging from within to be written onto the external world; with Fitz, it’s about who he is in relation to others, who his loyalties are to, and how he can be useful to them. Fitz’s inherent identity, his being a royal bastard, is merely a potential; his actual identity in the world is all about how that nature is developed and employed, and most of all about the relationships he forms, both to allies and to enemies.

I read Assassin’s Apprentice when it was first published, but didn’t feel sufficiently inspired to read the next two books in the sequence. But the Folio Society’s bringing out a luxurious edition of the trilogy in 2020 prompted me to give it another go. I’ll be working my way through the rest of the trilogy in future Mewsings.


Game of Thrones

No spoilers here, except to say I found the final series a bit of a let-down.

But it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise, as what drove Game of Thrones through the previous seven series was its constant air of “one step forward, two steps back”: characters only got closer to what they wanted (usually power or revenge) through a sacrifice of equal or greater proportions, whether it was betrayal of someone close to them, the relinquishing of power for revenge (or revenge for power), or through some ordeal of pain or humiliation. And every gain had consequences. The series began some time after a king had been deposed and another put on his throne — a deceptively quiet point before a whole series of new consequences began. So any ending that didn’t feel it was just a pause before more complicated consequences began could only feel false. The whole point about Game of Thrones is that nothing is ever resolved.

Power is pretty much an inbuilt theme in fantasy. It’s there in every fairy tale that ends with its hero or heroine becoming a prince, princess, king or queen. Many of the best works of fantasy (The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea) are about the renunciation of power. Game of Thrones was, in a way, about the fact that renouncing power isn’t an option if you’re born into it — if you have it, you have to use it or be destroyed by those who want it.

I never binge-watched Game of Thrones (though I was often tempted to), but when each season ended, I always felt a certain relief. I loved some things about the show — the moreish storytelling, and the way it conjured that fatalistic, down-to-earth sword & sorcery feel, where notions of honour, loyalty, and a practical, grim humour were set against genuine villainy — but couldn’t help feeling a sort of moral grubbiness at the same time. This, I think, was because the show forced you to side with characters whose morals you didn’t agree with, but you’d end up siding with them just to find some refuge in the relative security of their power. At times — the Red Wedding, the Walk of Shame — the show actually seemed to be doing its best to traumatise its audience. I tended to watch it with a constant anxiety that they were going to kill off the few characters I’d been unable to prevent myself from caring about. Which, I suppose, meant it was doing something right, because I was caring about some of the characters.

This is what eight seasons of Game of Thrones does to you

Fantasy has always had a strong moral dimension. Conan could be brutal and disdainful, but he wasn’t, I don’t think, cynical. Instead, he was surrounded by people who were cynical (and civilised — cynicism going hand-in-hand with civilisation for Robert E Howard), who were there to highlight the brutal honesty of Conan’s own barbaric outlook. Michael Moorcock’s Elric is the first sword & sorcery hero I can think of who was cast as an antihero — he betrayed his own people, letting them be slaughtered because they’d ousted him as Emperor, in a very Game of Thrones-style move — but for most of the stories, though he was tragic and fatalistic, he’d generally act morally. (Though I haven’t read any Elric for a while, so I may be wrong.)

Magic, and the hands-on influence of the gods, was minimal in Game of Thrones, and when it did appear it was either one more aspect of the human desire for power (as with the Red Priestess), or it represented the only thing that trumped the human desire for power, the ever-encroaching onslaught of doom (as embodied by climate change — I mean the White Walkers). Game of Thrones owes a lot more to Renaissance tragedy and Shakespearean history plays than, say, Lord of the Rings. The show was about the Machiavellian messiness of how humans wield power — i.e., badly — without any help, one way or the other, from gods or magic. (And speaking of Shakespearean history, much as I enjoyed Game of Thrones, I thought Wolf Hall outdid it on virtually every count, and it, being based on history, didn’t need gods or magic. Religion, yes; but actual gods, no.)

It’s tempting to draw some sort of lesson from the fact that the previous sword & sorcery TV show that was a worldwide success was Xena: Warrior Princess, which was everything Game of Thrones wasn’t: hardly anyone ever got killed (it was the sort of show where baddies, once they’d been thoroughly trounced, scrambled to their feet and ran off), the main characters were all clearly good people (though Xena herself was a redeemed baddie), and the themes were friendship and understanding. Its best episodes, in my opinion, were the straight-out comedies, where humour (usually slapstick and farce) saved it from being schmaltzy. It could, at times, be genuinely heartwarming. Game of Thrones could never be described, I don’t think, as heartwarming, and its comedy was more along the lines of a grim and fatalistic joke punctuated by someone’s violent death, or just lots of swearing.

But I don’t think you can draw that lesson, if only because to do so you’d have to prove the last five years of the 20th century were presided over by a Xena-esque heartwarming sense of humanity. It was probably as Machiavellian, and as heartwarmingly human, as nowadays — as humanity has always been. Xena escaped the tangles of Game of Thrones because Xena was a superhero — both morally good and more powerful than almost anyone else — which is the only way to escape any genuine complications related to power. And it’s good to have the Xena-like examples to strive for, but you also need, alas, those Game of Thrones-style reminders of what people are really like, too.