Werthead

The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb

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The Farseer Trilogy #1: Assassin's Apprentice

 

The Six Duchies are troubled by internal strife. King Shrewd's eldest son and heir, Prince Chivalry, has fathered an illegitimate son. Riven by guilt and controversy, Chivalry abdicates his position and goes into into exile. His son, Fitz, is raised in Buckkeep and tutored in the ways of becoming an assassin. For King Shrewd, Fitz is a weapon he can use to further the cause of his kingdom. But all Fitz wants is a home and a place to belong.



Assassin's Apprentice, originally published in 1995, is the first volume in The Farseer Trilogy, the first of nine books focused on the character of Fitz and also the first book in a sixteen-volume series entitled The Realm of the Elderlings. For a book that launched an enormously successful series, it is relatively small-scale and restrained.

This is traditional epic fantasy, but one that is slanted a little from the standard. It's medieval faux Europe, but the land of the Six Duchies is based on Alaska (albeit a slightly warmer one) and the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom is more inspired by Tibet. There are existential threats - the Red Ship Raiders who ravage the coastline and the threat of civil war - but for the most part these are kept firmly in the background. Assassin's Apprentice is primarily the coming of age tale of FitzChivalry Farseer as he grows up, gains allies, masters the art of the assassin and encounters two forms of magic: the Skill, a form of telepathic communication and control, and the Wit, a bond of empathy with animals.

Robin Hobb's greatest strength is her deft hand with charaterisation and her naturalistic way of presenting the world. Her greatest weakness is a tendency to meander, to have characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than getting on with things and taking a hundred pages to do what a more concise author would do in ten. These weaknesses manifest much more strongly in the later volumes of the series, however. Assassin's Apprentice is, at 480 pages in paperback, relatively short and breezy by Hobb's standards with both a strong character focus and clarity of storytelling.

Much of your enjoyment of these books relies on your engagement with the main character, Fitz. Fitz is an introverted, introspective young man who spends a lot of time reacting to events rather than taking decisive action (this changes in later novels, in which he is a lot less passive). This can be frustrating, but it is also realistic: Fitz occupies a place less than nobility but more than being a peasant, and this dichotomy leaves him isolated and almost friendless, his position in the world uncertain and unreliable. It is only towards the end of the volume, when he visits the Mountain Kingdom and encounters people less concerned with rank and pomp, that he is able to come out of his shell a little. As it stands, Fitz is a mildly engaging but far-from-compelling central character. However, he does serve as an effectively unreliable narrator: the further things and events are from Fitz's perspective, the less reliable they are. This serves to upset reader expectations several times over the course of the trilogy. It's not exactly Gene Wolfe, but it is an effective way of getting the reader to share in Fitz's biases and ignorance before presenting them with the truth of events later on.

Hobb is a superior prose writer and a gifted communicator of emotions and atmosphere. Although it's not a primary focus of her writing, she is also a good writer of horror: the Forged, people with their morals stripped away to be turned into monstrous echoes of their former selves, are a truly disturbing fantasy creation. In terms of politics she stumbles a little. Concluding events in the Mountain Kingdom are highly implausible and the way that Fitz escapes retribution for the events people genuinely believe that he has committed is extremely unconvincing. Fitz should be dead three times over before the book ends and the fact he isn't stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

But there's also a lot to enjoy here. Fitz's tortured upbringing, his relationship with Burrich and Chade, and his punishing tutelage under Galen are all vividly (and sometimes painfully) described. The Red Ship Raiders are an intriguing enemy and the Forged a horrifying creation. Certainly the novel leaves one wanting to move onto the sequel, Royal Assassin.

Assassin's Apprentice (****) is thus a conflicted book: extremely well-written with a interesting backdrop and a terrific atmosphere, but with a plot that is a bit start-stop and political intrigue that is rather undercooked. But in terms of emotional engagement and its use of an unreliable narrator, Hobb is a formidable writer. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The plan is to ultimately do so. I only read Farseer and Liveship previously, so my goal is to do all of them. Probably over a prolonged period of time though. I won't be blitzing through all sixteen in a row.

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So, I´ll be looking forward to your reviews then. I am about to start my own re-read, too.

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your view on the politics is similar to my own. I also found it hard to swallow how Regal gets away with the things he does. I think the relationships between characters is the highlight - that and it feels a little different from other fantasy series I've read. I'm planning on getting into Liveship once I've finished my Dark Tower (and strong tie-ins) marathon.

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As I wrote elsewhere I was rather disappointed by the first two books, especially because I found almost unanimous praise in this forum and also from other sources. I was sufficiently entranced by the ending of the first one to get the second one immediately but found the 2nd one so disappointing (outright boring most of the time, although the ending is again good) that I am in no hurry to read the next one and I doubt I will bother with any of the further books.

Overall, I find there are lots of implausibilities. It was already mentioned that Regal oscillates between foppish idiot and criminal mastermind. Likewise the Fitz between badass assassin and troubled (and often very naive) teenager. The politics etc. is very sketchy. For most of the first book it is implied that Fitz should be happy to be tolerated in a niche. But even as a teenage apprentice he seems also essential as part of the very meagre defenses of the six duchies. They should be really happy to have him but again it is not very plausible that someone mainly trained as spy/assassin is the only one (or granted that he is not aware of others, one of very few who could be trusted with that) who can ride out and either simply kill "Forged Ones" or distribute poisoned bait for them. I mean, any huntsman could be told to sneak up on them or throw a few portions of poisoned bread or meat where they would find them.

This might sound like nitpicking, but its dozens of similar things all over. The Skill is rare (tied to the bloodline) and difficult to master and Galen was supposedly never very good at it. But even such a mediocre master can produce a coterie within less than one year! (how long does it usually take to master such magic/psychic Skills - are there evening classes as well?) and some of them turn out to be dangerously capable. Again, if one can get reasonably good at the Skill within less than a year it is not understandable how it could have fallen into complete neglect within about a generation (it is also doubtful how the royal line could control something so quickly mastered). The six duchies seem to be really badly governed in fundamental respects. There used to be raidings (just not at the scale of the Red Ship Raiders) but there are very few defenses and almost no ships. There is apparently no police/militia providing basic security in the countryside. There is almost nothing except an aging spymaster and his apprentice, plus a few defenders at scattered keeps or strongholds. There is no chancellor, chamberlain or treasurer, so Regal can fiddle with the finances and sell off horses and livestocks without repercussions. It's all over the place.

OTOH while I am not sure if it is really possible to understand what it would be/how it would feel to "share minds", the Skill is interestingly done. Also the Wit in the first book. I find the snarky wolf in the 2nd book close to insufferable, though, and what was a mysterious sympathy in the first book is now mostly handled as banal telepathic conversation. (And while the information I find is inconclusive and one could grant artistic freedom in such a case, a single wolf cannot easily kill an armed human adult. Even the ominous  Bête du Gévaudan, a legendary killer (probably hybrid) in 18th century France was apparently repelled by a bunch of pre-teens with sharp sticks who saved one of their comrades the beast had carried away. In any case would an unarmored wolf be in a lot of danger from people with typical medieval weapons...)

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Hobb is a good writer (and Liveship Traders is a massive improvement over Farseer on every single level, to be fair) but a maddeningly inconsistent one. And yes, she is quite bewilderingly overrated, unless Tawny Man, Rain Wild Chronicles and the new trilogy are colossal improvements over the first two series.

Edited by Werthead

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25 minutes ago, Werthead said:

Hobb is a good writer (and Liveship Traders is a massive improvement over Farseer on every single level, to be fair) but a maddeningly inconsistent one. And yes, she is quite bewilderingly overrated, unless Tawny Man, Rain Wild Chronicles and the new trilogy are colossal improvements over the first two series.

IMHO, Liveship Traders is the best series she's written, although Fitz and the Fool may match it when she publishes the last book.

I found Tawny Man "maddeningly inconsistent".  Parts of it were outstanding, parts of it boring (especially Book 2).  Rainwilds was the weakest series IMHO.

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Tawny man was my favorite, by far, but I haven't read Rainwilds or Fitz & the Fool yet.  I never found issues with any of the above though since Fitz is such an unreliable narrator.  It's first person and he is an outsider, so IMO it's expected for things to seem wildly inconsistent to the reader.  It's all part of his characterization, how introspective he is, and how everyone has times where they feel on top of the world only to be shat on by something you didn't see coming because what you thought was... wasn't.  It's a feature, not a bug.  This is also why Liveship didn't suffer from this, because the politics were seen from multiple angles and the reader had the ability to determine what was reliable and what was not.  The only complaint I have are the few hundred pages of travelogue that happen in all of her series'.

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3 hours ago, aceluby said:

The only complaint I have are the few hundred pages of travelogue that happen in all of her series'.

That is the entirety of the first two books of The Rainwilds Chronicles and a lot of the last two.  Which is I'm sure why most people don't care for it.  I still enjoyed it when I read them last month, but having all of them available and only paying $1.99 each made me more receptive (had I read them as they were released and paid full price I would have been pissed!).

 

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17 minutes ago, RedEyedGhost said:

That is the entirety of the first two books of The Rainwilds Chronicles and a lot of the last two.  Which is I'm sure why most people don't care for it.  I still enjoyed it when I read them last month, but having all of them available and only paying $1.99 each made me more receptive (had I read them as they were released and paid full price I would have been pissed!).

 

I do enjoy her writing and the world she's created, and I'm determined to read those before Fitz & The Fool.... but that's a bit disappointing.

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I do not think the travelogue is what is most wrong with The Rain Wild Chronicles, what bothered me more was that none of the character relationships were deep and interesting enough. One of the storylines started very promisingly, I wanted to read a lot more about those characters, but then they separate and their conflict plays an ever reducing role. The other main charcater started out as unlikeable to me and then it just all dissolves in a teenagey knot of crisscrossing love interests, which were not new and not developed as Hobb can develop her characters.

Liveships are the best trilogy, IMO. So even if somebody does not want to continue reading Farseer, I would still recommend Liveships to them.

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I think she is one of the three best writers in the business when she is writing Fitz & the Fool novels.

The inconsistency lies in the fact that when she moves away from those truly excellent works ( as good as ASOIAF), it's not as good anymore. Liveship decidedly less succesful a read than Farseer/Tawny Man. The Soldier Son series had a mixed reception. And the Rain Wilds series also felt overlong for the story it had to tell. The new series is a return to form.

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It always astonishes me to read someone saying that The Liveship Traders isn't as good as the Farseer (or worse, The Tawny Man, what a horribly boring trilogy). But oh well... to each their own.

Edited by Pliskin

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The characters in Liveship are just so dull, it never comes alive in anywhere near the same manner as the Fitz books.

It's a huge difference in characterisation quality actually. Althea and her husband, Malta, Brashen, not one thing appealed to me about that group. I did like Liveship Paragon.

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Malta is one of my favorite characters. She reminds me of Sansa - spoiled, selfish brat who evolves into someone you are rooting for. That's hard to do. Kennit is one of my favorite villains. The juxtaposition of his own motivations and how others perceive him is also something that sticks with me. Althea was never a favorite, but overall I think the whole ensemble is stronger in Liveships. Fitz and the Fool dominate in the Farseer books and while there are very good supporting characters, they don't (in my opinion) get as much room to shine as the Liveship characters do.

I prefer the Farseer story, but it's not a matter of writing or characterization, I just prefer that story (by a small margin).

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1 hour ago, Calibandar said:

The characters in Liveship are just so dull, it never comes alive in anywhere near the same manner as the Fitz books.

It's a huge difference in characterisation quality actually. Althea and her husband, Malta, Brashen, not one thing appealed to me about that group. I did like Liveship Paragon.

I have no idea what you are talking about.

Althea is much more likable than Fitzy, at least to me.

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2 hours ago, Calibandar said:

The characters in Liveship are just so dull, it never comes alive in anywhere near the same manner as the Fitz books.

It's a huge difference in characterisation quality actually. Althea and her husband, Malta, Brashen, not one thing appealed to me about that group. I did like Liveship Paragon.

I find the characterisation in Liveships to be extremely good. 

 

1 hour ago, Gertrude said:

Malta is one of my favorite characters. She reminds me of Sansa - spoiled, selfish brat who evolves into someone you are rooting for. That's hard to do. Kennit is one of my favorite villains. The juxtaposition of his own motivations and how others perceive him is also something that sticks with me. Althea was never a favorite, but overall I think the whole ensemble is stronger in Liveships. Fitz and the Fool dominate in the Farseer books and while there are very good supporting characters, they don't (in my opinion) get as much room to shine as the Liveship characters do.

I prefer the Farseer story, but it's not a matter of writing or characterization, I just prefer that story (by a small margin).

Malta is truly obnoxious for about 40% of the story.  Kennit is one of the best-written villains I've encountered (partly because it's not clear, for much of the story, whether he really is a villain).  I really enjoyed the story of the sea-serpents as well.

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