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Fantasy Challenge 2: Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice was not unknown to me when I picked it as one of my dozen fantasy novels for this year’s reading challenge. I knew that it was popular – the first book in a best-selling fantasy trilogy, in fact. I knew that Robin Hobb was a pen-name, used by Megan Lindholm (whose real name is actually Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden). I’d also heard that Lindholm, after ten fantasy novels, found it difficult to sell her next project as her sales had been declining. So she used the pen-name Robin Hobb instead. And Assassin’s Apprentice, her first book under that name, went on to become a best-seller. (A more cynical person than myself might have suggested that the perceived gender of Robin Hobb played a part…)

I’ve no idea how true how that is. Certainly some authors are deemed “category killers”, and subsequently find publication easier under a pseudonym. It seems more likely that Lindholm used the pseudonym simply to distinguish Assassin’s Apprentice and its sequels from her earlier work as it was a very different type of fantasy. Nonetheless, it did feed into my perception of the book…

Which was that Assassin’s Apprentice was a stereotypical secondary-world fantasy.

Except. The book is written in the first person – which is not typical of secondary-world fantasies. But it has a map – which is typical of secondary-world fantasies. I am, I admit, not a big fan of maps in books. I think they’re unnecessary… although I confess there’s a childish amusement to be gained looking up on them the places mentioned in the story. Also, the map in Assassin’s Apprentice did not bode well. I complained last month about Edding’s use of names in Pawn of Prophecy (see here). But at least he made an effort. Hobb instead chose to give the various parts of her fantasyland the most boring names ever – Near Isles, Mountain Kingdom, Neat Bay, South Cove, Cold River, Blue Lake… The characters’ names are no better: King Shrewd, Prince Chivalry, Prince Verity, Lady Patience… (It doesn’t help that Verity is a female name.)

But, the story: Fitz is the apprentice of the title. He’s the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, dumped on the royal family at the age of six. They acknowledge him as an illegitimate son, and he’s left in the charge of Burrich, the Stablemaster. Fitz grows up in the royal castle, Buckkeep Castle, learns how to look after animals, how to scribe, and becomes secretly apprenticed to the king’s assassin, Chade. Much of Assassin’s Apprentice covers Fitz’s childhood and early teen years – his various minor adventures, escapades and learning experiences during that time.

But it is only when he reaches the age of fourteen that the plot of the novel actually begins… Prince Verity is busy using his telepathic Skill to keep the evil Red Ship Raiders from the shores of the Six Duchies (which is the name of the kingdom). But his father, King Shrewd, has decreed he must marry. So Verity’s younger brother, Prince Regal, a nasty piece of work from the first chapter, finds him a bride, Princess Kettricken of the Mountain Kingdom. As part of a powerplay, Regal lies about Kettricken’s brother, the heir to the throne of the Mountain Kingdom, and so persuades King Shrewd to send Fitz with the wedding party to off the Mountain Kingdom prince.

It’s all a heinous plot, of course. And the nasty villains get their comeuppance. And you know they’re villains because they’ve been nasty since they first appeared. Although Hobb makes a decent fist of characterising her cast, she does signpost a bit too blatantly where the reader’s sympathies should lie.

As a secondary-world fantasy, Assassin’s Apprentice fails the immersion test. The world Hobb has created is, frankly, a bit dull. The convention of giving everything prosaic names evokes nothing, and suggests only a lack of imagination. The world itself is pretty much your bog-standard cod mediaeval world – although unlike the real Middle Ages, the royal family are just an ordinary bunch of folks with a bit more responsibility than most. Which seems a bit… egalitarian – a fault of many fantasies by US authors. There’s very little actual fantastic content – a mention of dragons, the Skill (telepathy), the Wit (empathy with animals), and the world itself. It seems odd that the world should feel as though it were painted in washed-out colours, given that over half of the book is essentially world-building.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying Assassin’s Apprentice. It was an easy read, and Hobb has an engaging voice. I wasn’t convinced by Fitz, the narrator – the action starts when he’s fourteen, but he came across as somewhat older. It was certainly a better book than Pawn of Prophecy, but even so I’ve no plans to continue with the trilogy. Or indeed any other books by Hobb. There are some hints in Assassin’s Apprentice of a bigger story-arc and more interesting revelations. But. While the book is fairly typical of the genre, it also felt a lot like a fantasy with training wheels. It’s too much like a mediaeval boy’s adventure, sort of King Arthur meets Tom Sawyer, with very little actual secondary-world fantasy content.

A step up from last month’s read then, but still disappointing.

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