Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb is the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool Trilogy (because that's a helpful name given it's the third trilogy about those two). It tells the next story about the characters first introduced in the Farseer Trilogy with Assassin's Apprentice and continued in the Tawny Man trilogy.
Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz's violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.
Robin Hobb remains an excellent writer but there are several caveats that I feel need to be issued to potential readers. First of all, this is not the book/series from which to pick up the story for the first time. Readers who haven't read the first two series will a) be spoiled for many key events and b) will not have the same investment in the characters. On the other hand, I read the Tawny Man trilogy when it first came out in 2001–2003, more than a decade ago, and, although my memory of some events was hazy coming into Fool's Assassin, I had no trouble picking the story up again. (Although I did spend a large portion of the start thinking "Fitz was how young then?!" in mild alarm. I haven't seen it with YA-ified marketing, though. I wonder why?)

Fool's Assassin begins similarly to Assassin's Apprentice in that events are conveyed chronologically and it is some time before we reach the "present" of the main story. Alternatively, you could just think of it as a story told with several jumps forward in time in the first third. It does mean that while the story is eventually told in alternating (first person) points of view, it takes a while for the second character to join Fitz in the narration.

It is very difficult for me to talk abou the plot at all without spoilers. The blurb above, for example, entirely fails to convey the actual thrust of the story and merely summarises the first chapter, which takes places something like fifteen years before the end of the book. There is a very crucial event that happens in the first third of the book which changes everything, including what the book is actually about. However, I think that talking about it in any detail is a spoiler so I will put my discussion under a spoiler tag (hover to read). Not talking about it at all would mean ignoring the main thrust of the story and also precluding a rant I really want to get out. But please don't read it if you want to enjoy the story as it was intended. Knowing a particular outcome would greatly reduce some of the tension surrounding it (more so than usual, I think).

<caution, here there be spoilers>
At the start of Fool's Assassin, Fitz is married to Molly and living in Withywoods, the manor house his father Chivalry and step-mother Patience had earlier retired to. The big spoiler is that, after her children by Burrich have grown and flown the coop and after she has gone through menopause, Molly and Fitz have another baby. And not just any baby; a strange, tiny, pale baby. When she's old enough, she becomes the second viewpoint character. Bee, as she is called, is a compelling character to read and, although she is smart for her years, it was interesting to get a child's view on something we already knew from Fitz's point of view.

On the other hand, it quickly becomes apparent why Bee is such an unusual child and yet no one else realises. Partly this is because no one else can see into her mind to know everything that happens to her like the audience does... But in large part it is because of mistranslated and possibly androgynous pronouns that are applied to a particular explanation. Even so, the child is biologically unusual and also very pale, HMM WHO DOES THAT REMIND US OF? I cannot believe how blind everyone was, including characters who should have known better or should have at least asked the right questions.

On that note, I also found the title a little deceptive. A certain character named in it did not actually appear until the very end. I felt lied to.
</the spoilers be ended>

If you read the spoilers you will have seen a bit of a (spoilerific) rant. Despite that, Fool's Assassin is an excellent read. Really, the above was the only thing that bothered me about it. On the other hand, I don't recommend Fool's Assassin as an entry point into the series. If you haven't read the earlier books, go start with Assassin's Apprentice (and make sure you read at least five chapters, because I remember being a little bored with the first four before the story picked up). I think the Tawny Man trilogy is also important reading for putting the story being told here into context. There was a horrible cliffhanger at the end, which I'm annoyed at, but I will definitely be reading the next book in the series when it's available. I have to know what happens to the cliff-hung characters!

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Del Rey (US which is the cover displayed, the UKANZ edition is Harper Voyager and prettier in real life than small online)
Series: Book 1 of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, which itself is the third trilogy featuring Fitz and the... fifth series set in the same world
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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