Why has it taken me this long to read Robin Hobb? Truthfully, I am not quite sure, although I suspect the pressure of committing such time to a new fantasy series somewhat daunted me. Fears aside, I took the plunge, and can assuredly say it was well worth the wait!
For the sake of clarity, I started with the first of the various series which make up the books set within the Realm of the Elderlings. This meant starting with Assassins Apprentice, the first installment in the Farseer Trilogy. This novel follows young Fitz, a bastard child fathered by the crown prince. The kingdom of the Six Duchies is living through turbulent times and attacks when Fitz’s existence is realised, meaning that his father is shamed into abdication. As such, raised under a banner of shame, Fitz starts his life in the castle stables, despised and ridiculed by many who seek to undermine the royal blood in his veins. Soon Fitz is trained to be of the utmost loyalty to his king in the form of an assassin, trained in the magic of the Farseer family. But many do not want to see this child, a bastard only in their eyes, live to be a threat to the political factions they favour. In a world where Fitz is already discredited, he is forced to fight for his survival.
The first thing I have to draw attention to is the beautiful front cover, which I believe is a newer edition of this series. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, with its simple yet elegant design (look at that gold foil!), but it also really evokes a medieval period, back to when the feudal system reigned.
This standard thankfully carries over into the bulk of the book, with the first chapter being very clever and immersive. Whilst nothing overly dramatic happens, we are able to gather a sense of the world within the kingdom of the Six Duchies, and to explore the dynamics of the society and the royal court. Hobb is very skilled at this, coming across as a very natural fantasy writer. She is able to give enough information for us to embrace this world, yet holds back aspects to enhance the experience. I also really liked the fact that the novel starts and focuses upon this young child. He is seen as a lowly bastard who threatens the stability of the monarchy, yet for the reader he is our underdog. Fitz is quite literally living at the bottom, even sharing his bed with the stable animals, yet we are drawn towards his youthful innocence.
I have really fallen in love with Robin Hobb’s style of writing. It has so much substance and sophistication which I think high fantasies can sometimes miss. Having said that, she does not over complicate her writing, leaving more room for the plot to mature. I think she really excels in both her descriptions and her speech. When she describes the town, the court, even the hustle and bustle of where the trading ships dock, it is with such vibrancy and colour that it carries through and inspires my own imagination. Likewise, Hobb has a very tight grip on the speech used within her works. Not once did I feel that there was a conversation which was stilted or unrealistic. I think this is also a tribute to her brilliant characterisation, with the cast of characters all fully fledged beings in their own right.
With this book we are given the main plot (the bastard king and the future of the kingdom) but then you have many other threads which come into play. One of these is specifically the magical elements within this world; both the Skill and the Wit. Whilst one is explored and favoured more than the other, both were extremely interesting aspects which I feel will be explored further in the rest of the trilogy. I also love the theme of animals within the novel, and the importance which is placed upon them. The animals are seen in a very human light. That is not to say that they are babied and mollycoddled, but rather that they are viewed by certain characters with a capability of dignity and complex emotions which many do not attribute to them.
One of the things which this series reminded me of was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Game of Thrones series. Obviously there are similarities with the complexities surrounding the throne and the political aspects which influence this. It also looks at the facade of a ruling kingdom, and the diplomacy which is required, often resulting in decisions being made for the greater good and to maintain political tact. Yet, unlike George R. Martin’s series, this does not focus so much upon the open brutality of such things, or involve the mammoth battles which are fought between a divided kingdom. Neither is it saturated in multiple perspectives. Here, the focus is much more upon the subtleties which govern the kingdom, with Fitz’s trained assassin skills being a perfect encapsulation of the behind the scenes approaches often favoured.
One of the advantages of this novel was that whilst things were suggested, or links made, it was not necessarily obvious which thread was going to be fully followed. Even halfway through, I was still unsure which direction the novel could be heading. What also surprised me about this novel was that it was very self contained. There are definitely areas from which sequels and parallel series can spring, yet the book can also be read completely by itself. Most firsts in a series are quite slow, with the initial book used to set up and establish the rest in the series, but I did not find that here.
My first foray into Robin Hobb’s world was a roaring success. It is so refreshing to find more women who are challenging the stereotypes of a genre which is so often favoured by males. Hobb writes with such naturalness that I could not help but be pulled in by the narrative she employs, and I cannot wait to delve further into the series.
Publisher: Harper Voyager