Robin Hobb burst onto the fantasy scene in 1995 with Assassin’s Apprentice, the opening volume of the Farseer Trilogy. These books sold so well that Hobb wrote two later trilogies set in the same world. Soon word leaked that “Robin Hobb” was actually long-time mid-list fantasy author Megan Lindholm. The success of the Farseer Trilogy transformed her career and brought many of the old Lindholm novels back into print. As the book that started that revitalization, Assassin’s Apprentice also helped lead the growing mid-90s trend of character-centered fantasy.
Hobb’s first-person narrative eloquently captures the emotional growth of the noble bastard FitzChivalry, as he comes of age among his royal kin. Fitz suffers through pain and alienation as he fights for respect after the death of his father. The flashback perspective of Fitz as an old man drips with somber nostalgia, producing a far more mature narrative voice than most coming-of-age fantasy. Hobb excels at delicate tactile details of things that Fitz experiences, especially his mental bond with animals. Yet the narrative unfortunately offers no correspondingly deep details of many plot-related points, such as how Fitz steals the letter left in Prince Regal’s chambers, or any of his assassin training.
The first three-quarters of the novel move slowly as the plot bounces Fitz through a string of mentors and trades, including Burrich, Chade, Lady Patience, and Galen. Each period of his training seems to ignore the previous one(s). These characters and others, such as Verity, Regal, and the Fool, veer wildly from background to major importance with no apparent reason in the plot.
Fitz’s rare forays out of Buckkeep involve only fleeting glimpses of external plot threads. He sees the remnants of the raid on Forge, but not the actual attack. The setting of the Six Duchies rarely feels more than an ordinary, quasi-medieval fantasy kingdom. The nobility’s convention of taking names that fit their character traits provides ridiculous epithets like “King Shrewd” and “Lady Patience.” The pseudo-historical passages opening each chapter feel like forced exposition from outside the point-of-view, rather than integrated historical accounts or the old Fitz’s nostalgia that Hobb seamlessly weaves into the narrative.
In contrast, the last quarter of the book speeds toward an abrupt climax of court intrigue, almost jarring in the shift of pace, plot focus, and style. The conclusion provides several surprises among the obvious twists, and most of the previously discarded characters retain importance as prominent or gratuitous participants. The city and culture of Fitz’s mountain hosts are far more vividly and uniquely described than anything in the Six Duchies, but the emotional focus of the first three-quarters of the book is largely abandoned. The intrigue concludes without resolving the main external plot of the entire book, the coastal raids, and the sudden ending leaves the novel feeling like a set-up for the next volume of the trilogy.
Assassin’s Apprentice slowly builds Fitz’s character through the poignant first-person narrative, but the ordinary plot and the uneven pacing dull the novel’s brilliance. Regardless, Hobb’s debut shows her character-centered focus, while maintaining enough traditional fantasy elements to ensure the book a wide readership. And given the tremendous odds against mid-list writers in the modern publishing business, that may be the book’s greatest achievement.