Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series began in 1995 with the release of Assassin’s Apprentice. This was the first novel in what was to be Farseer Trilogy, which chronicled how the royal bastard FitzChivalry Farseer navigated the brutal politics in the Six Duchies. This was later followed by The Tawny Man trilogy, where Fitz accompanies a Farseer prince in his quest to unite the Six Duchies with their former enemy the Outislands.
The problem with any long-running series is power-creep, and the Realm of Elderlings is no different in this regard. After six book, Fitz has mastered the Skill (the ability to communicate with people over long distances), the Wit (the ability to communicate with animals), become an accomplished assassin, a formidable warrior and even killed a dragon. You might think that by this point there is very little that could feasibly scare Fitz.
You would be wrong. You give him the one thing he wants more than anything else, and then threaten to take it away from him. Thus, Robin Hobb places Fitz in the place he most wants to be, yet the one he is least experienced in; a loving family.
Another problem can be with the author attempting to ensure that new readers understand the intricacies of the established back-story whilst not talking down to existing readers. Robin plays this balancing game with deceptive aplomb. In many ways Fool’s Assassin is the ideal jumping on point for readers new to Robin Hobb. Sufficient time has passed since the previous novels to have minimal impact upon Fool’s Assassin.
Readers seeking a traditional high fantasy adventure will be disappointed, as this is not the type of novel that Fool’s Assassin is. Robin Hobb has never bowed down to clichéd fantasy adventures and mighty knights riding forth on noble quests. If you want those books, read David Eddings. Robin Hobb takes a far more grounded approach, with even her magic having being logically explored.
Comparisons with George R.R. Martin are valid, as Robin Hobb is a fantasy writer whose novels are steeped in brutal political intrigue. However, whilst everyone emerges bloodied in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it is Fitz who is consistently screwed over in Realm of the Elderlings. Having said that, Fitz does start to learn how to play the game of Buck Keep politics, and starts to gain pushback, but this is never without consequence.
Which brings me back to Fool’s Assassin. Fitz has left the world of politics, assassins and intrigue behind him; to settle down with his true love Molly. Much of the novel deals with him enjoying a quiet life as the holdster “Tom Badgerlock” with his family at Withywoods Manor. However, like all good things, it must come to an end.
These are stories where actions have consequence. Robin Hobb’s world has magic, but it is rare and often comes with a price, thus people are forced to rely on medieval medicine of herbal poultices and bandages. People who are injured in battle are rarely able to fight again, often leaving them maimed or horribly disfigured.
Existing fans of Robin Robb will love Fool’s Assassin, as many of the regular characters are there. Yet, time has moved on, and they have all evolved during the interim period. Robin Hobb’s line describing how “it has been eight years since I had killed anybody” for Fitz, was bleakly uplifting and demonstrated how the world had changed.
In many ways, Fool’s Assassin is less of a fantasy novel, and more of a family drama. Yet, this slow-burner of a novel thrums with tension as the stakes mount and clues are discovered, whilst Fitz finds himself being dragged once more into the political intrigue he had once put behind him. There is an almost a tragic current to this novel. Fitz does not want this life of intrigue where he is forced to kill, yet his loyalty to his friends and the lengths he will go to protect his family force him down that path, despite the danger of distancing himself from those he loves.
The reason why Fool’s Assassin is such an engrossing read is that all of the characters – from Fitz to the house servant Revel – are so well rounded and developed, that it feels less of a fantasy novel and more like a historical drama (at least until Fitz uses his magic).
Fitz continues to be an engaging character; even if he does seem to be remarkably unobservant. Despite all his training, Fitz continually fails to miss clues that the reader had spotted a hundred pages previously. However, it is refreshing at last to witness Fitz taking command from the outset, rather than simply following orders.
Ultimately, this is a story about family responsibility and accepting one’s role. The theme may not appeal to readers seeking a more adventurous tale. Yet, those who are deterred by these themes will miss a fantastic novel by an author who is writing at the top of their game. The Fool’s Assassin poses new puzzles on every page that leaves the reader begging for more.