This year, I have been trying to make positive choices and get to know myself better. That means going back to basics, and doing the things I love. My mother fostered a love of reading and books in me and my siblings at a young age, and that love has endured. I loved analyzing classic literature during my college years, but as often happens after graduating I had to teach myself how to read for fun again. During quarantine, I turned to books to wile away the long days, reading Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, but also children’s fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series, The House of Many Ways and KiKi’s Delivery Service. The comfort I found in these inventive worlds led me to think about a childhood game involving magic, wizards, and the legends of Camelot that my sister and I invented as children, and this grew into my ongoing novel, The Alchemist’s Daughter. I’m also continuing to rekindle my love of reading and sharing my growing ‘library’ here on the blog. This month’s book club pick is Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.
I was recommended this book by a friend after finishing Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin (which HBO recently adapted into the series House of the Dragon). Martin has spoken highly of Hobb’s writing, and their work shares a similar medieval fantasy setting. Hobb’s detailed and immersive prose immediately invests the reader in the protagonist, FitzChivalry Farseer, and conveys the world of the Six Duchies through Fitz’s eyes. Fitz is the illegitimate son of the heir to the throne, the beloved and respected Prince Chivalry. When Fitz is left at the gates of Buckkeep Castle, the discovery of his existence leads to his father’s political downfall.
Just a child, Fitz struggles to comprehend his situation: his father’s importance, the shame of his own birth and the role it plays in his father’s exile, the resentment the royal court feels for him, his new life as a de facto stablehand being raised by his father’s former man at arms turned castle horsemaster, Burrich, and Fitz’s ability to telepathically commune with animals. Later on, Chivalry dies, ending any hope Fitz ever had of meeting or even seeing his father from afar in person.
It’s a lot to unpack, but Hobb deftly manages to capture the mind of a child struggling with prejudices and politics out of their grasp in the midst of the keen disappointments and sorrows and gladdening acceptance of simple comforts and pleasures. As the story begins, Fitz is a little boy getting used to a new home, and the sights, sounds, tastes, and personalities of Buckkeep Castle, and to a lesser extent Buckkeep Town, become very real to the reader, too.
As Fitz grows older, his grandfather, the aptly named King Shrewd, takes notice of him and decides his fate: by the king’s wish, Fitz begins to train to become an assassin. Fitz is a bright, talented boy who really longs to belong somewhere and to be useful to someone, so for me it was heartbreaking to know that his own grandfather condemns him to a life in the shadows, committing political assassinations for the good of the realm. He develops a close bond with his mentor, the assassin Chade, which somewhat makes up for his sometimes tense relationship with Burrich who disapproves of Fitz’s gift for mentally speaking with animals (which is called “The Wit”).
When Fitz’s father’s wife, Lady Patience, takes an interest in him and attempts to play a sort of godmother-ly role in his life, she convinces Shrewd that Fitz should learn “the Skill” the art of reading and manipulating people’s minds. His uncle, Verity, employs the art to psychically fight a hard war against vicious pirates that have been menacing the Six Duchies, the Red Ship Raiders. The master of the art loathes Fitz because of his illegitimate birth, and his treatment of Fitz makes Professor Snape look like teacher of the year.
Eventually, Fitz is given the task of murdering a prince of a neighboring kingdom, and finds himsel the target of a cloak and dagger plot laid for personal gain by someone close to the throne. Getting to that point is an immersive and sensorily rich slow burn, and the last third of the book has an engaging mystery plot set at a royal wedding.
The Beauty of Words
Hobb is a gem! Her writing is so rich and thoughtful, and whether describing a busy market, a cozy spot by a fireplace, a girl’s clothes, a desperate flight or a cuddle with a puppy, Hobb gives the reader a vivid picture of what is being described. Her ability to capture emotions is even more palpable. This book plants the reader firmly in its hero’s shoes, feeling a child’s vulnerability and an adolescent’s rapid fire vacillations between hope and despair. As Fitz’s training in both “The Skill” and assassin craft get more serious, so does the menace of the war with the Red Ship Raiders. By the last third of the book, the wedding plot and its many dangerous situations, rescues, and revelations, one feels as if they have read three books for the price of one: a children’s fantasy, a Young Adult fantasy, and a mystery novel with a medieval fantasy setting! That’s quite impressive for such a short book, and it is a truly impressive work all around.
I’m so grateful to have been recommended this book! It came to me at a time when I was eager to find my next read. I loved Fire and Blood, but having read all of the previous installments of Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, for me it was a homecoming to the familiar world of Westeros. Hobb’s world was brand new to me, and she brings it to life with such carefully chosen, vivid words that I felt like a kid again, being read to by a parent or teacher at storytime. That is rare magic, indeed! I can only hope that my own efforts as a fantasy writer will give my readers a similarly captivating journey to an enchanted world.
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