Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb’s FARSEER series well earned its current classic status, and any serious reader of fantasy had to be thrilled to hear that Fitz, one of the genre’s most beloved characters, would be returning in a new series. I certainly was. But I was also curious, and, I confess, a bit nervous, about how her evolution in storytelling, especially as displayed in her SOLDIER’S SON and RAIN WILDS series, might play out in a long-delayed return to an old favorite. After all, in those works, I had to admit that said evolution — which I described as Hobb seemingly “exploring just how much plot she needs in her novels to actually have a ‘story,’ as if she’s feeling her way to as quiet and minimalist a style (in terms of action, not language) as possible” — had left me thinking she had carried the experiment (if such it was) a bit too far for my liking. So what would happen when aforementioned old and beloved character FitzChivalry Farseer met the newer and less beloved narrative style? Well, true to the new style, not much “happens.” And true to the original character, I absolutely loved it.
Fool’s Assassin picks up some years after we last saw Fitz, with him well into middle age by now. Removed from the politics and deadly intrigues of Buckkeep Castle, he is contentedly ensconced as Holder (think country squire) Tom Badgerlock on the estate of Withywoods, where he resides with Molly, the love of his life. It doesn’t take long, though, for cracks to begin to show in this idyllic picture.
The first disruption comes from without, as one winter’s eve, mysterious strangers arrive at Holder Tom’s door. One is a messenger whom Fitz unwisely delays meeting. The others are a strange group who may or may not be in pursuit of said messenger. Events that night cause Fitz to fear his old life may be intruding into his new one.
The second disruption comes from within, as Fitz struggles with how he and Molly age at a different pace thanks to a long-ago “skill healing” performed on him:
A familiar ache squeezed my heart. It was a fear I fought against every day. Molly was aging away from me, the years carrying her farther and farther from me in a slow and inexorable current… The undesired magic had kept me fit and youthful, a terrible blessing as. I watched Molly slowly stoop under the burden of the stacked years she bore… The remorseless current of time bore her steadily away from me.
These are the twin poles around which the story circles: Fitz’s past life threatening to catch up to him once more, bringing with it the accordant death and deception and fear and danger; and Fitz’s current life threatening to unravel before his very eyes. This duality is mirrored by the two settings: Buckkeep castle, with its familiar characters of old Spymaster Chade, Skillmistress (and daughter to Fitz) Nettle, Queen Ketticken, and others; and the Withywoods Estate, with a cast of entirely new characters, such as Revel, Fitz’s uber-competent and somewhat judgmental Steward (Fitz’s memories of the long-disappeared Fool bridge the two settings).
It would be inaccurate, however, to imply that these two storylines are equally balanced. The truth is that the vast majority of Fool’s Assassin is centered on the domestic relationship, with the other driving a tense opening scene and an even more tautly compelling final scene, but only occasionally rearing its head in the ninety percent of the book in between. Actually, there is a third storyline, but to say any more about the plot would be venturing into spoiler material, and I’m not going there.
Hobb’s focus on the of domestic side of things is what I’m referring to when I say not much happens, if one defines “happens” in the usual fantasy fashion of quests a-borning, mucky treks, swordplay, dark lords to be put down, battle scenes, spell-slinging, and the like. On the other hand, because the focus is domestic, what “happens” is life, and thus, everything happens, and does so all the time. And what, after all, is more important than day-to-day living? Of course, how much one subscribes to that idea will go a great way to determining how one responds to Fool’s Assassin in terms of its plot and its pace, which might charitably by called “leisurely.” At least for the most part, though one of my favorite aspects of the book is how gracefully and economically Hobb dispenses with years at a time, jumping ahead months or years in a phrase or two.
Thematically, the two plotlines are paralleled by dual themes, each falling under the single umbrella of change. One deals with change bringing loss, as when Fitz comments on a journey he undertakes to attend a funeral:
I had known that Buck had changed. Now I saw that the changes had happened all through the Six Duchies. The roads were wider than I recalled, and the lands more settled. Fields of grain grew where there had once been open pastureland. Towns sprawled along the road… The wild lands were being tamed, brought under the plow, and fenced for pasture. I wondered where the wolves hunted now.
That wolf of course is a reference to Fitz’s soul mate Nighteyes, one of the most memorable characters from the original series. One can sense the loss inherent in the above description, both of a world passed and loss of a more personal and grievous nature, the kind of inevitable loss that comes with living a decently long life, as Fitz reflects on:
I was losing my beloved Molly… I had lost the Fool, the best friend I ever had… I wished with all my heart to see a gray shape flitting through the trees… But of course I did not. My wolf was gone these many years… He lived only in me now.
Change, though, is not always loss. It is also growth, development, rebirths, and this theme counterbalances the more sorrowful focus on grief, though again, I won’t go into detail as to how this happens so as to avoid spoilers.
Plot and theme are all well and good, but what often makes or breaks a novel for me is character. And as one would expect based on prior experience with this particular character, as well as with Hobb’s other works, this element is one of the book’s major strengths. Fitz is simply a delight of a character, not because he is always right or good or charming but because of just the opposite: he is often wrong, he is bad at certain things (and not just minor things), and he can be oblivious, harsh, rude. In short, he is a real person, fully dimensional, complex and contradictory and multi-layered, one that comes alive so fully not simply through his first person point of view but thoroughly through a myriad of tiny accretions of details. The same can be said for the other characters, especially the other points of view, but also including smaller characters such as the Steward Revel or some of the other workers on the estate.
Really, I had only two small complaints. One is that Fitz seems a little too obtuse with regard to one can’t-be-mentioned plot point. And the other is that the book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. The latter is only a complaint in the sense that the book is so good, and that ending so provocative, that I want book two now. Seriously. Right now.
If Hobb’s increasingly minimalist approach with regard to action has been an experiment in creation, then in Fool’s Assassin she has found the perfect balance of ingredients: absolutely effortless prose that particularly shines in tiny details of everyday life; a structure that bookends a long stretch of “nothing happening” with taut, compelling action; a two-pronged approach to narrative time, where she sometimes lingers for some time in close focus on small domestic scenes, but at other times zooms suddenly out to let months or years fly by in a matter of a few words; and finally, deeply rich characters whose internal richness is furthered and deepened by the relationships among them. I’m adding Fool’s Apprentice to my list of best books of the year.