I've had book reviews out on the web, mostly speculative fiction, for probably more than a dozen years now, and people who have read them often will send me advice on what else I might enjoy. Usually, I can pick through that advice and find out what I would really like and what people are just trying to push on me that probably isn't my style. Acting on several different recommendations over the years, I picked up the first book of Robin Hobb's "Farseer Trilogy", which is called Assassin's Apprentice.
I had avoided this for a while because I was pretty dubious about picking up another fantasy book about an assassin, having been spoiled by Brust's Vlad Taltos series. It's the same reason, in some sense, that I avoid vampire books, having read enough Anne Rice and John Steakley and seen enough on TV and movies lately that I just don't feel up to another vampire story. I worried that this would be a juvenile attempt to write a fantasy story about some super-cool ninja-style assassin with special powers and stupid dialogue, directed to the Piers Anthony crowd.
Then I read the first few chapters and realized my worries were definitely unfounded. This is a story for grownups, not because of language, sex or violence, but rather because of the carefully crafted plots and characters, the subtle writing and symbolism and the gritty "reality" of life.
Yes, the main character is an assassin, but that's because he's a royal bastard whose father is dead and who wants to serve his king somehow and find a way to repay the generosity of those who took him in. The trilogy starts with young Fitz as a child, raised by a stablemaster who takes pity on the boy, then it follows him into early adulthood while the kingdom around him undergoes all kinds of violent convulsions, mostly thanks to a horrible war thrust upon them by barbaric raiders who have a way to turn their human captives into a living zombie-like state that can't be cured.
Impressed, I looked up a bit more about Hobb and realized that it is actually Megan Lindholm, who co-wrote the very good stand-alone novel The Gypsy with Steven Brust. Hell, if I had known that, I would've read this series a long time ago. I'll have to review that book sometime, but back to this series...
Being a bastard is dangerous, of course. Some in the royal line want him dead, just to remove a potential competitor for the throne someday. Others want to keep him close and keep him loyal, including the king, who sees that Fitz is trained to be a royal "helper" who keeps the kingdom stable by poisoning the odd noble here and there who is causing trouble during the war or various other missions.
But there is also the Fool, the court jester, a really neat character who is a prophet in disguise. Few take him seriously, but the Fool sees Fitz as a catalyst who can change the course of history for the better. And so the Fool gives Fitz advice and glimpses of his future while Fitz is trained to help the king with his limited "magical" powers, equivalent to a sort of telepathic gift. Fitz also has "the wit", which means he can bond with an animal as a sort of familiar, in the classic fantasy role-playing sense.
The books are long, and the plot is very dense. I think I've written enough to give you a flavor for what the story is basically about. It's a little slow at times, but in retrospect, I can't imagine anything I would've have seriously chopped out. There are a few really great villains, and most everyone else is human in the best possible sense, with secrets, flaws, personality tics and unpredictability, even the so-called "bad guys" in many cases.
The first trilogy ends with a very long quest (no spoiler there since "Assassin's Quest" is the title of the third book), and to me, that part was the weakest and most boring portion of the whole six books. I was disappointed that the story took the turn that led to the quest, and I was disappointed with the way it was resolved, partly because I was so fond of the characters who were lost or changed so deeply as a result.
The fourth book (first book of the "Tawny Man" trilogy) was maybe my favorite, taking place about ten years after the end of the third book. It actually served as an excellent and very moving epilogue to the first series. You could read those four books right there and have a very fine fantasy set and be done with only a few loose ends. But the last two are great, and the sixth book ends with all of the promise I had hoped to see fulfilled in the third book. There are many emotionally draining, uplifting and satisfying scences in the second trilogy, more so than the first because it is more "grown up" (Fitz is a middle-aged man by this time, after all), and I liked the second trilogy better overall.
But you really need to read the very good first trilogy to fully enjoy the even better second trilogy. This set of books, like I said, is long and dense and took me the better part of two months to fully get through (which is why I haven't posting many new book reviews lately, been waiting to finish this). Hobb has another trilogy set in the same world called "The Liveship Traders" which I'm sure will be good, and she is writing a fourth trilogy set in a completely different world, I believe, that is just coming out with the last book within months.
I may wait a while to read the "Liveship" trilogy just to give my brain a chance to rest and recuperate, but I will definitely read it and the fourth series as soon as it is all out in paperback. Of all the new authors I've tried in the past few years, Hobb/Lindholm is the best, and that's facing some stiff competition with the likes of Elizabeth Moon's "Paksennarion" and Bujold.
I also note that a lot of the same people who like George R. R. Martin are big fans of Hobb's series, so I already went and got the Swords trilogy by him. I'm sure it will be excellent, and I may read that one next.Posted by Observer at March 9, 2007 06:58 AM
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