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.

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