Review: Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

DSCF1469After far too long a time of putting it off, I recently made the excellent decision of dipping into the world of Robin Hobb. For the sake of clarity and continuity I started with Assassin’s Apprentice¸ the first book in The Farseer Trilogy. As you can see from my review here I fell in love with this series. A few weeks on and I am still kicking myself for not getting to this brilliant world sooner. It’s therefore to be expected that I wasted little time in getting to the sequel, Royal Assassin.

In this second book we once more follow Fitz, the young character I became so very attached to in the first book. As a royal bastard and a trainee assassin who has sworn his life to his King, it is understandable that the struggles Fitz must face grow ever more burdensome as he tries to recover from previous events. With outside enemies in the shape of the Red Ship raiders, and the more subtle foes from within the court itself, Fitz’s skills are continually put to the test. But with the King’s health mysteriously failing, and the King-In-Waiting, Verity, bound up in defending the realm, there is little to stop the malicious Prince Regal from taking advantage of the situation. Who can stop him but perhaps Fitz, even if it means sacrificing all that he is.

Robin Hobb immediately showcases the skills she possesses as a writer in the prologue we are first given. In this introduction we are given an eloquent recap of all that has already passed, yet it never feels boring or stale. This is because Hobb cleverly disguises this refresher in the form of Fitz’s interior monologue. Reading his thoughts as they pass, the recap of events feels entirely new and fresh; it is as if we have lost no time in entering the Kingdom of the Six Duchies once more. From here, the only way I can describe the rest of the book is by saying it is as if the author has taken a magnifying glass to her previous works, enlarging and intensifying the ideas and themes we have touched upon in the first book. It never feels as if we are going over old, repetitive territory, but as if each and every part of the book is seen through keener and more mature eyes, with the underlying hints of what could come to be lying ever present.

One such example of this is the much stronger female characters we read about who draw on what we initially found in the first book. Although the novel still very much contains Fitz at its centre, there is a very dynamic female presence exploring both age and social position. Perhaps this is to be expected with a female author, but I really did love seeing the perspectives of these characters grow through the eyes of Fitz. Kettricken in particular comes into her own in this novel, with a much closer look being taken in relation to the position she holds in this society still so new to her. Struggling to come to terms with the both the gender and social ideologies of Buckeep, Fitz finds it his duty to try and prepare the Queen-In-Waiting.  Here, in a society where women of social standing are not expected to exert themselves physically, she must learn the ‘spidery ways of power in the web of the court’, gathering the power ‘into her hands’ and so binding the ‘throne firmly to Verity in the minds of one and all’ (p. 103). Although a direct contrast in social hierarchy, we see a similar struggle which the character of Molly must undergo as she finds herself both working for Kettricken, as well as being in love with the royal bastard.

One of the things which I really envy Robin Hobb for is her brilliant ability of turning her novel into an effective microcosm of the larger world. Although focused mainly within one locality, she is able to give us such richly detailed moments within the lives of Fitz and the other characters which reflect on the rest of her world. Although there is a clear and defined plot, I would not actually say these books are ruled by such, with is quite strange for a high fantasy. Instead, what I found so completely engaging was her very intense day by day, minute by minute accounts of the minutiae of Fitz’s world. It is this, and her brilliant characterisation, which really makes these such fantastic novels. Although in theory this might sound as if the novel would feel slowly paced, it is far from the truth, and I could not help but feel completely immersed in their lives once more. Fitz talks of ‘gossips and intrigues’ as trifling things in one sense, but in another the ‘details which secured Verity’s position’ (p. 368).  This assertion I feel is true of the book as a whole.

If I am too praise the author, I must almost mention her phenomenal handling of the passing of time. She does not rely heavily on the narrator telling us rather blandly how long a time period has passed, but more often than not does it herself through her writing. Similarly to the first book there is a great emphasis on the seasons and the natural world to show this, as well as a gradual maturity which evokes the hardships that the characters are continually having to endure as time moves swiftly and unapologetically forwards.

Indeed, as time moved forwards, so does the nature of the relationships we see in this book, and we see a lot! From friendships to the familial, romantic and terse; every kind of relationship which is presented feels entirely real, and never orchestrated or superficially designed for the sake of plot. In this aspect it held a very much similar place in my heart to that of Harry Potter, as not only do we watch the characters grow as individuals, but also see the relationships they build and maintain. To see Fitz move from the boundaries of friendship into the more romantic felt not only natural, but also touching.

I think it comes with the territory that as we mature we all question our own identity, as well as explore far more complex ideas.  Fitz’s world is no exception.  From a young age he found himself sworn to a king, and now as he begins to grow he must come to terms with what such devout loyalty to the throne means for his own identity. How can you be yourself, how can you live for yourself, if you have already sworn your life to another? What does this kind of loyalty mean for your own physical and emotional welfare? How do you cope with the sacrifices it entails? These are all extremely complex ideas for anyone to face, let alone someone still so young as Fitz, who lives in the space afforded by the precarious balance of royalty and illegitimacy. He learns, ‘it would be much easier to die for one’s King than to give one’s life for him (p. 343). By contemplating such topics, the author not only draws us even further towards this young man, but also into the series as a whole.

Although this book is firmly grounded within a fantastical world, it is not solely limited to this generic category. There is so much more to this world than any magical elements, with the books being a profound exploration of society. In many ways, the fantastical elements can be seen as more of an embellishment, secondary in nature to the characters themselves. On the other hand, the magical abilities of this world are explored to a much greater depth in this book, especially that of the Wit and Fitz’s bond with animals. I absolutely loved this, and in many ways found it similar to the ways we learn much more about Jacob’s abilities in The Library of Souls.

At this point in the series, we have been with Fitz from childhood, and have seen him endure things beyond comprehension. Even though we are emotionally attached, the author does not take the easy way out, giving us the happy endings we so naively desire. Although hard to accept at times, it is not only true to the nature of these characters, but true to the nature of the world in general, and shows once more that this world is not just simply orchestrated. This may be fantasy, but it hits true to the mark. Even so, I thought the ending was superb and the book in general extremely well executed. On reflection, I cannot think of one thing to fault this book for. This, combined with the sheer enjoyment of reading, makes this a five star read for me.

Publisher: Harper Voyage

Rating: 5*/5*

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