My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, widely known in the fantasy world by her pen name Robin Hobb, published her first novel in the Realm of the Elderlings back in 1995. She recently (2017) completed her series of 13 main novels with the release of Assassin’s Fate. Thankfully, a brief search on the FAQ section of her website appeased me as a huge fan, as she explains that she is always working on the next book.
I was first introduced to Robin Hobb’s work through her Liveship Traders trilogy, the series that follows the Farseer trilogy. I was captivated by Hobb’s story-telling but a few years past before I sat myself down to start reading all of her major novels in the Realm of the Elderlings. I told myself, 2018 will be my year with Robin Hobb. Oh, and what a wonderful decision this has been! It all started with Assassin’s Apprentice…
In the Six Dutchies, it is customary for royal children to be given a name that signifies a quality or skill, so that, as they grow up, they shall aspire to exercise that virtue after which they have been named. The bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the King-in-Waiting, has grown to resent being asked his name. He has none. They call him “boy” or “fitz”.
The boy’s bitter memories begin when he was only six years old, on a grey evening when he was abandoned, despite his mother’s weak protestations to her father, by the large wooden gates with the fort guard.
‘Chivalry’s,’ the old man said, and he was already turning his back on me, taking his measured steps down the flagstoned pathway. ‘Prince Chivalry,’ he said, not turning back as he added the qualifier. ‘Him what’s King-in-Waiting. That’s who got him. So let him do for him, and be glad he managed to father one child, somewhere.’
He ends up in the care of Burrich, the man who tends to Chivalry’s horses and hounds and who holds great admiration and respect for the Prince. He puts the boy with the dogs in the barn and, before they return to Buckkeep, the First Dutchy, where they royal family resides, fitz forms a strong bond with a young pup named Nosy. Prince Chivalry resigns his place as the King-in-Waiting and is driven in shame away from Buckkeep, without ever meeting his bastard son. As fitz grows in the shadow of this highly respected man who has done great good for the people of the Dutchy but whose one night of transgression has caused a scandal and humiliation, he cannot help but feel abandoned yet again by a father he will never know. His only solace is Nosy. The boy’s connection with the pup grows every day to the point where they seem to share one mind. Such a bond, worthy of envy by many dog people reading this story, Burrich finds unnatural and disturbing. He takes Nosy away from the boy, breaking their connection and shattering the boy’s heart. The bitterness and loneliness that comes when one is not able to be the person they want to be, and of a relationship that is severed by the will of another make the boy vulnerable to the cold, grabby hands of depression and loneliness. When King Shrewd meets the child for the first time, he sees potential. And so, a mysterious man appears in the boy’s room at night. Chade is his name, and he is to train him to become the King’s assassin.
One can expect so much from an author’s first novel, especially one titled after the two words that have become the salt and pepper of fantasy fiction through the decades. And yet, somehow, Robin Hobb takes these tropes that used to make fantasy great, and, with much confidence and palpable pleasure, creates such a captivating story that, when it is over, can result in a serious case of “book hangover”. This is what happens when characters in the hands of a talented author come to life and form a relationship with the reader. It is difficult to move forward to other stories and other worlds, much like saying goodbye to old friends. Thankfully, this is only the beginning of a long series that has set the bar high from the first book. This is the definition of great fantasy, a debut novel called Assassin’s Apprentice.
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