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The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (spoiler free)

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (spoiler free)
4.5
Book Name: Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, & Assassin’s Quest
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher(s): Voyager Books (UK) Spectra (US)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: April 1, 1995; March 21, 1996; March 3, 1997

For Robin Hobb, the power to construct such masterful, compelling stories must be innate. With thirteen books set in the Farseer world already written and the next instalment due in August, it’s easy to see how she has become one of those precious, revered fantasy authors that, though we don’t talk about her all the time, has an impressive mastery over the genre. Her fantasy is often quite traditional – dragons, swordplay, warring kingdoms – but her writing is so visual, so vivid that these often overused tropes blossom into something new and beautiful through the eyes of her brilliantly portrayed characters.

That said, with the release of Fool’s Assassin, Hobb has returned to the forefront of fantasy, with elegant and modernised covers of her books appearing almost everywhere. To celebrate her new release, Fantasy-Faction will review each of the four series in turn, beginning with the Farseer Trilogy, and a small bastard boy named Fitzchivalry.

Assassin's Apprentice (cover)Assassin’s Apprentice is Hobb’s first book under the pen-name, first published in 1995. In the opening, our protagonist’s first memory of arriving in the capital of the Six Duchies, Buckkeep, stirs the reader’s attention through the warm, dreaminess of Hobb’s writing. We see through Fitzchivalry’s eyes, experiencing his first days in the capital, almost through a haze as he remembers the men that discuss him as he rests on his pallet in the barn, or the days spent playing on the beach with other children. By the time that Fitz has matured we’re hooked into the story. It’s a subtle snatching, and it’s brilliantly done. One of Hobb’s major talents is her ability to engage the reader’s interest without the overuse of brutal opening battles or overdrawn prologues that simply confuse the reader.

As a royal bastard, Fitz is often isolated. He spends much of his time with Burrich, the grizzled Stablemaster with a connection to his real father. Burrich is the closest thing he has to a true parent, and their relationship is one of the most interesting in the novel. When Fitz later discovers that the family hospitality comes at a price, he becomes a ‘King’s Man’ and trains to become an assassin in service to the throne.

The two magic systems Hobb employs are an embodiment of her major theme: loyalty. The Skill, a telepathic link often found in royalty, opposes the oft-despised Wit, a similar link with animals. Fitz, of course, displays talent in both systems. Choice is a major aspect of the story. How much choice does Fitz have when his loyalty comes into play? He is bound to a life in which he is pulled between fulfilling the wishes of a greater power (the Skill) and a desire to live his own life free of servitude (the Wit).

Hobb’s writing is vivid and dazzling. Her characters are dripping with dimension, as rounded and fleshed-out as if the author has spent years with them in her head. The villains, the arrogant Prince Regal and the Skillmaster Galen, are so brilliantly written that their hatefulness drips off the page. Their treatment of Fitz is cruel, but it sets him up for even greater cruelties to come.

Assassin’s Apprentice is often criticised for its inability to exist as a stand-alone novel. Plot threads like the Red Ship Raiders that attack ports and leave their inhabitants alive but devoid of any humanity, do pose great questions to be answered later in the series, yet there’s just enough closure during the terrific ending to allow the novel to stand on its own.

Royal Assassin (cover)Royal Assassin continues directly after the dramatic climax of Apprentice. The Red-Ship Raiders take centre stage as their forging of the populace becomes a crisis into which Fitz is immediately embroiled. His role as an assassin brings him into direct conflict with the invaders. It’s bloody, brutal and much darker read than Apprentice but just as fantastic, visceral and fabulously plotted. Fitz is entwined even deeper in the political situation as he matures. But this maturity leads him to fall in love, threatening and complicating his position as King’s Man.

Meanwhile, his Wit magic becomes ever more dangerous. He knows that such a secret could lead to his downfall, something his enemies seek to accomplish. When he meets a potential Wit companion, a new dimension of threat is added, which only makes reading about him all the more exciting. Hobb isn’t afraid to hurt her characters. Life isn’t sweet in the world of the Farseers, but it’s realistic.

Royal Assassin suffers from very little plot development, but the character of Fitz is so compelling, and the stakes made so high that it’s not a struggle to get through. It’s a read that demands patience but promises reward. And it does. The slow middle is wiped clean by a climatic, dazzling, beautifully heart-rending ending in which Hobb brings the narrative together in a way that changes everything. The entire course of Fitz’s life takes a sudden turn, and though it’s brutal, it’s also fitting, natural and absolutely satisfying in every respect.

Assassin's Quest (cover)Assassin’s Quest is the final instalment, in which Fitz walks and walks and walks. The first half of the novel deals Fitz adapting to the changes in his life after the dramatic changes of Royal. In the meantime, the Red Ship Raiders are ravaging the country, their debased forging spreading inland. There’s a sense of general hopelessness across the land. The Six Duchies are alive with the cold reality that nothing is ever going to get better, and nobody feels it more than Fitz. With only his Witted companion and a sprinkling of familiar faces, he embarks on a long journey that leads him beyond the borders of the Six Duchies. There’s enough unsolved mystery to keep the reader’s head in this long and somewhat disappointing journey across endless mountain.

The writing remains powerful, clear and colourful. Hobb’s themes of perseverance and loyalty are fully realised, but the novel loses momentum with an unrewarding and anticlimactic ending, almost as if Hobb just gave up by the end. Don’t give up on this one though, no matter how tough or tedious the journey gets. Fitzchivarly Farseer endures so much heartbreak, tragedy and suffering in these books that you owe it to him. That’s how real Hobb’s characters are. His multi-faceted, almost annoyingly real characterisation shines strong even as the host trek across endless mountain.

It would be criminal not to mention the Fool at least once in this review, but he’s a character best discovered amidst the pages. The second best thing in the series after Fitzchivalry; expect Hobb to steal your heart and mind through this strange and enigmatic figure.

Despite the anticlimactic ending, Hobb’s first trilogy is a fantasy classic. The beginning of something rare and beautiful, the opportunity to embark on a journey with a character so powerfully realised on the page that he could be somebody you once knew. Every word in this masterfully constructed tragedy is perfectly placed to blow your mind and break your heart. There’s enough originality, enough creative brilliance injected into the trilogy that it remains a fantasy gem, even twenty years after its original publication date.

– – –

The Farseer Trilogy Star Ratings

Assassin’s Apprentice: 9/10
Royal Assassin: 8/10
Assassin’s Quest: 7/10
Overall: 9/10

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Rating: 9.6/10 (25 votes cast)
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (spoiler free), 9.6 out of 10 based on 25 ratings
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8 Comments

  1. Lazarinth says:

    It always gives me pause to moan and face-palm every time someone tries to idolize this trilogy. For so many this was one of their first tastes of fantasy. It demographically targets audiences young enough to affect memories and create the rose-tinted mix of nostalgia from its lengthiness as well as a character relation through Fitz’s journey of complaints for depressed teenagers.

    Allow me to explain; the trouble with first person is that unless their is some kind of plot tool for seeing through others eyes, as their is in this one, many of the events and feelings must be described in excruciating detail to fill books as big as these, especially when very little of the important events in the series actually involve the main character. And when this overly detailed explanation involve a mix of pain, sorrow, regret and just being a plain idiot, you better believe this makes for one of the most depressing fantasy series. And I’m not just talking about the character.

    The writing is drawl, the actual conflicts are brushed over as though unimportant and the ending is NOT worth the three books leading up to it. I would recommend this book to no one unless they desperately needed something to some to point to as an example for terrible fantasy. The only reason I can justify it’s popularity is that some people just want to masochistically share in the suffering, the ONLY thing this series truly delivers in. But if that’s really your thing give The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant a go, at least the main character in that series has some real to complain about.

  2. The_Wanderer says:

    I agree with you, this is a great trilogy. I love how Hobb doesn’t even name the main character until half way through the first book, and when he finally gets a name it equates to Bastard-Chivalry.

    I’m also a big fan of Regal, he’s one of the best villains in fantasy. Regal is like a combination of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in Gladiator and Joffrey from Game of Thrones … the ultimate super-douche. Good thing Regal doesn’t have a sister.

  3. A true classic, everyone should read this and it should be on the schools national curriculum. Subtle magic, great characters and an amazing but credible world.
    Inspirational.

  4. dmol says:

    I would have ranked the second much higher, i felt it was by far the most gripping of the series and unilke the reviewer i felt a great deal happened in terms of both plot and character development.

  5. Jane says:

    You overlooked Nighteyes. One of the most compelling aspects of Hobb’s work is her depiction of animal/human relationships. Plot does not slow in second novel. Fitz’s loyalty is tested, both to his family and to Nighteyes. Without Royal Assissin, none of the other novels makes sense.

  6. natalie says:

    These are by far my all time favorite books. I do not agree what the reviewer says about book 3. Personally I couldn’t get enough of any of Hobbs books.

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