Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Published March 1, 1996
It’s easy to see why Robin Hobb has remained such a popular writer more than two decades after her debut. Published in 1996, Assassin’s Apprentice features a clear and sophisticated writing style, a sympathetic protagonist who just can’t catch a break, and a number of enigmatic and engaging secondary characters. The problem is that it’s also very much the first book in a series. Does Assassin’s Apprentice lay the groundwork for more dramatic and larger scale challenges to be faced in future books? Absolutely. Does it stand on its own as a compelling novel? Arguably not.
For one thing, it is the very definition of leisurely-paced. Although I was never bored, Assassin’s Apprentice only got its hooks into me late in the narrative. It’s the sort of book I enjoyed a lot while I was reading it, but not one that I had trouble putting down. This is largely because years pass before anything significant really happens. Fitz is a likable enough protagonist that I didn’t mind spending time with him and the hounds, but if I’d been offered the montage or fast-forward version of his childhood, I definitely would have taken it.
It’s also a surprisingly quiet fantasy novel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with quiet sci-fi and fantasy – Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven are all-time favourites of mine – but when the plot moves slowly there has to be something else there to hold interest. Assassin’s Apprentice is well-written, but it doesn’t have the lyrical, haunting prose of Station Eleven, and while Hobb’s debut is populated by interesting enough characters, they and their relationships don’t have the depth I would expect from a character-driven piece.
Often fantasy debuts will info-dump their world-building, eager to show-off everything they’ve planned out. Hobb actually goes too far in the opposite direction for my tastes. The initial impression is of a fairly generic medieval-ish kingdom set apart from any number of other high fantasy worlds only in its custom of naming royal babies after the quality they hope the child will embody (Chivalry, Shrewd, Patience) and in its two kinds of magic – the Wit and the Skill. More is revealed as the narrative unfolds, but it’s definitely a slow burn. Hobb plays her cards close to her chest, which in this case means saving additional details about the structure and politics of her world for future books.
This sounds very negative, and while the book may not have quite lived up to my sky-high expectations, I want to stress that I genuinely enjoyed reading it and have every intention of continuing the series later this year. So let’s talk about what worked for me.
First of all, Fitz. The first-person perspective, even of a man looking back on his childhood, is limiting in some ways (for example the reader hears about a lot of the action rather than experiencing it because Fitz is a child and not always on the frontlines) but it also allows us to empathize with Fitz and the immense loneliness he feels. I found myself more forgiving of Fitz’s flaws and misunderstandings because he is such a young character. It’s hard not to like a character who is so in tune with animals, and I rooted for Fitz throughout.
In general the character work is strong. Drawing on fantasy archetypes, Hobb creates a supporting cast of characters who are multi-faceted, enigmatic, and engaging. I loved reading about Fitz’ complicated relationships with the Fool, Burrich, Chade, and Verity.
I’m also a huge fan of political machinations in my sci-fi and fantasy, so that aspect of Assassin’s Apprentice really appealed to me. It took a long time to get there, but I found the climax of the novel incredibly readable because I cared so much about everyone involved.
Assassin’s Apprentice is a solid effort that undoubtedly sets the stage for later events. Robin Hobb may not have blown me away with her first work, but I’m definitely invested and look forward to seeing where Fitz’s story goes in later volumes.