My only regret in reading this book is that now I have so many Robin Hobb books that I must read, because this book was good enough that I will read all of her books for as long as she keeps writing them.
This book was written in the mid 1990’s and there have been countless books about assassins that have tried to copy the general feel of this book but none of them compares to the original.
Robin Hobb writes with prose that feels at once poignant and poetic, beautifully laced words that create an atmosphere that is both medieval and Romantic — in the original sense of the word.
Hobb tells a story of a young boy that nobody wants but is too valuable to get rid of. Fitz doesn’t even have a name — known simply as Fitzchivalry, Prince Chivalry’s bastard. He grows up in a castle where he is trained as an assassin and learns skills that he is not quite comfortable with. Fitz is called upon to act as the King’s assassin and sent on a mission where he is betrayed and poisoned. By the end of the book Fitz has many layers of emotional trauma clouding up his thoughts, not least of which was put upon him through the use of magic by a spiteful teacher.
The magic is subtle and numinous in its power, never explicitly described in detail. For certain kinds of stories this is a terrible idea, making it look like the author didn’t bother to come up with a magic system and rules upon which it is governed. For this book it works perfectly. The story is not about the magic, it’s about a boy learning to grow up in a cruel world that doesn’t want him but needs him and the skills that he has been trained to use.
I find it difficult to describe what I love about this book. The characters are vibrant and alive, Fitz as a narrator is superb. Perhaps it is nostalgia? This book harkens back to the fantasy that I read as a teenager. David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, it has that feel to it of the mid-nineties fantasy, only it isn’t like them at all. There are no Gandalf-analogs, there are no scullery boys or Two Rivers Longbows. Fitz isn’t the lost heir to the throne, he isn’t the prophesied savior of the world. There is evil but it takes the form of terrible men rather than supreme beings. Despite all the differences it felt like coming home, like I was stepping back into that time when I was fifteen and I just discovered another new fantasy series with intriguing cover art.
It can’t wholly be nostalgia, though, because many of those authors don’t hold up well now that I’m an adult. Hobb has written a story about a boy coming of age in a medieval Europe-based fantasy that deals with trauma and depression and pain and loss. It shows the depths of cruelty and the struggle against it. When placed in a situation of cruelty do we fight back and become the monster we hate or do we find another way to thrive and become better despite those trying to beat us down?
Fitz faces this question head on and it breaks him, more than once, but he keeps putting the pieces back together and moves forward.
If you haven’t read Robin Hobb, then what are you waiting for? This is a fantastic book and one of the best ones I have read this year.