Top positive review
Great Story, Great Characters...Could Do With Less Molly
Reviewed in the United States on January 15, 2019
Robin Hobb’s “Assassin Apprentice” was one of the best books I’ve ever read – seriously, I can’t think of a single novel that hit on so many of the themes and tropes that I personally enjoy and favour…and I read a decent amount. So, after giving myself a little time to digest and appreciate the first book, I eagerly started the second, hoping for the same satisfying experience as the first. “Royal Assassin” is a good second book, probably one of the most successful I’ve encountered in this role, but I’d be lying if I said that I liked it as much as the first novel. Spoilers follow.
He may have survived the attempt on his (and Prince Verity’s) life in the Mountain Kingdom, but Fitz isn’t out of the fire yet. Now back in Buckkeep, he’s finding that much has changed, and most of it isn’t for the better. Regal has received little more than a slap on the wrist for attempted fratricide, and that’s only fueled his desire for power even further. King Shrewd is unwell, stricken down by an unknown ailment that leaves him weak and in pain, comforted only by medicine and smoke, leaving him unable to rule as he once did. Within the Keep, there’s trouble brewing…and if that wasn’t enough, the Red Ship Raiders continue to harry the kingdom’s shores, leaving Forged civilians in their wake. With no other choice, Prince Verity embarks on a dangerous quest to the mountains to seek the aid of the Elderlings, a mythical people that helped the Farseers once in the past. There’s faint hope for the kingdom, but with the heir to the throne gone, Buckkeep and everyone within it is left at Regal’s mercy, and with Regal dreaming of sitting on the throne, no one is safe, least of all Fitz.
The role of “middle book” in a trilogy is a difficult one, and I’ve seen plenty of second installments fall flat on their faces trying to achieve what it takes to be a good middle book. “Royal Assassin” isn’t one of those novels. This is the sort of the book that perfectly blends the ongoing conflict that we learned of in the first book (the Red Ship Raiders) and new conflicts (deadly deception within Buckkeep) into a smooth story that keeps you turning pages. While the first book took time to establish the external threat facing the Six Duchies, more time is spent in Buckkeep in this installation, introducing us to new, possibly more deadly developments at home. The plot is intriguing, pulling on threads introduced in the first book to create a potentially disastrous series of developments for Fitz and his friends, and the questions are never ending. The Farseer family and, indeed, the world that Robin Hobb has created is further developed in these danger-at-home sort of conflicts, giving us more insight into Fitz’s life and the larger implications of what he’s involved in and his struggles with what it means to be a King’s Man. In short, this is the perfect second book: it deftly calls on the ideas from the first novel while also introducing plenty of new ones to keep us interested and reading, making us invested in this as its own story and not just the space that needs to be occupied between books one and three (as so many middle books end up being).
Much like “Assassin’s Apprentice,” this novel is a slow burn in the absolute best way. Hobb takes a lot of time to properly flesh out her characters, their relationships, and the intrigue that’s simmering away in the Keep. There’s a lot of excitement to be had, but much of it tends to be of the more low-key variety…at least until Hobb is ready to spring what she’s been concocting, then things get downright heart racing. Again, much of this novel takes place at Buckkeep, so the focus is more on plans coming to fruition for the various factions that call the Keep home. It takes a little work to get there, but I promise that the payoff is worth it. This is a setting that is rich in development, and that sort of development takes time. If you want a novel that’s nonstop action, this isn’t your series, but if you want carefully crafted characters in a setting that comes alive and plots that are slowly brewed throughout hundreds of pages, then settle in and get ready for a good ride.
I especially love that Hobb doesn’t rely on “gotcha!” moments. You know, those twists that authors seem to pull out of nowhere just so they can snicker at their readers’ confusion and insist they pulled one over on them…yeah, Hobb doesn’t do that. There are some amazing turns and reveals – what’s really wrong with King Shrewd, what is Regal’s plan, how much does he know and how does he get his information, who is on his side, the discontent amongst the coastal barons, just to give a few examples – and while they’re certainly shocking, they’re all wonderfully foreshadowed, the pieces carefully laid into place long before their reveal. If you’re paying attention (because Fitz makes note of things even if he doesn’t always recognize their significance), you might pick up on what’s going on…and even if you don’t immediately put the pieces together, when the big moment comes, everything falls into place. This is a story crafted with care and detail, rife with twists and turns of the most rewarding variety. I’m eager to see what in this novel will end up playing a bigger part in something in the next.
I also can’t move on from plot without touching on the ending. It’s, well, probably the most difficult 50 pages or so that I’ve read. Fitz, through a series of poor choices and unfortunate events, ends up getting himself imprisoned by Prince Regal. Now, to be honest, I sort of foresaw that something like this would happen – there’s the vague sense that everything happening throughout the novel is spiraling down in a way that can’t spell good things for Fitz. And since Regal is Regal and has never had any love for his bastard nephew, he has no qualms with putting Fitz through the wringer to get the confession out of him that he wants (Fitz’s use of the Wit) so he can condemn Fitz to a gruesome death. It’s a profoundly hopeless situation that’s so well written that I found myself wanting to shed frustrated, angry tears at Fitz’s predicament. And worse? There’s no eleventh-hour miracle that rescues Fitz, no cavalry of friends to burst in and save the day…he just dies (sort of). It’s so counter to what we expect from fantasy novels that it’s pretty painful to endure. Fitz doesn’t meet his end in battle or in an impressive mental skirmish via the Skill, he’s just tortured to death. It’s…wow. I finished this book over a month ago now, and it’s still stuck with me. There’s a great twist at the end that makes it a little better, but it’s a rough ride even with that. So, hats off to Robin Hobb for actually leaving me feeling unsettled, a feat that few authors (or, indeed, people in my real life) have accomplished.
Now, my praise of the story and ending aside, I must confess that there was a point where I was sure that this would be a three or even a two-star read. Remember when I said that “Royal Assassin” is a little slow? This works very well in terms of character and intrigue development, but in this book at least, it creates a pacing problem that didn’t exist in the previous installment. The first 10% of the novel is great, picking up where the first left off and setting up the conflicts that will define the story; the last 30% is amazing, Fitz’s frustrating predicament and all, an impactful coming together of everything that’s been brewing in the back and foreground; the middle 60%, however, is a bit of a slog. There’s still just enough happening to keep you reading, but it’s padded out by a lot of fluff, mostly Fitz running around doing day to day sorts of things for months. I’m ok with a slow burn story, but I can only deal with droning routine for so long before I want to put the book down. And a lot of the problems in this bloated middle portion boiled down to one thing…
The romance. It’s bad. Like, really bad, and had the rest of the story and characters not been so well done, it would have easily ruined the book. When Fitz returns to Buckkeep from the mountains, he soon learns that Molly is now in the employ of Lady Patience, which puts her in the Keep. It isn’t long before they’re romantically involved, complete with uncountable late-night liaisons and promises from Fitz to marry her. I don’t like romance in general, but in my review for the previous novel, I’d expressed optimism that Molly would be an interesting love interest because she didn’t seem to fit into any of the normal “tropes” for female characters. My God, was I wrong. Molly is the whiniest, most demanding love interest with the least personality I’ve ever seen beyond complaining and has no chemistry with Fitz. And I read Young Adult fiction when I’m not reading fantasy, so that’s saying a lot. Despite Fitz having been up front with her about what it means for him to be a King’s Man, every time she appears, she’s reaming him for not spending enough time with her, for compartmentalizing her in his life, for not putting her first, for not giving her a life outside of being a servant…it gets old fast. It got to the point that I started skimming each new page for Molly’s name (she’s in far too many of them) so I’d know if I was in for more of her whining, and that’s just not a very enjoyable way to read.
Additionally, I couldn’t quite figure out why Fitz sees Molly as the be all end all relationship. Like I said earlier, they have zero chemistry. In fact, the only thing they have in common is their childhood friendship, which simply isn’t enough to create the strong bond that they seem to want from one another. In this book, all they do is make love and fight about Fitz’s obligations to King Shrewd…and yet Fitz holds firm that she’s the one for him. At first, I was willing to chalk this up to their young ages, but Fitz is so insistent that Molly is his one and only that I don’t think this is simple teenage puppy love – I think Hobb genuinely wants us to believe that this is a pure, perfect relationship. It’s odd, really: Hobb is so skilled in writing characters and relationships between characters, yet this romance is one of the absolute worst that I’ve read (surpassed possibly only by Kylar and Elene of “The Night Angel Trilogy”). At least Molly had the decency to leave before the book ended, but I can’t shake the sinking suspicion that she only left because she was pregnant.
It also took entirely too long for Fitz to realize that he was at risk of producing an illegitimate child of his own. As he’s facing the undesirable struggle of that position himself, I found it difficult to believe that it didn’t cross his mind until someone else pointed it out to him.
Fitz still remains the tragic hero that you’ll either love or hate. I still like him quite a bit since I find his internal turmoil and insecurity to be refreshingly realistic, though I have to say that it’s a little harder to feel sorry for him in “Royal Assassin.” In the first novel, he was getting his footing as an illegitimate child and a King’s Man; now, he has a better idea of what is expected of him and what he needs to look out for, so his mistakes aren’t quite as forgivable. He tends to get himself into trouble, act on impulse, and overlook things due to narrowmindedness, but, honestly, that’s one of the things I like about him. Fitz is a very flawed, relatable character that has to rely on himself and work within the confines of his position to create the best life he can. His self-lamentations and second-guessing could get tiresome, I suppose, but I find it realistic given his situation. The noose is tightening around his neck and his survival is dependent on his wits and ability to adapt, and he certainly tries to varying success. I like the Hobb allows him to display selfishness and make mistakes with severe consequences; a flawed protagonist is simply more enjoyable than one who can do everything.
The real treat with Fitz in this book is his relationship with Nighteyes, a wolf pup that he rescues from an abusive merchant early in the novel and then nurtures into adulthood. This is where Fitz’s ability with the Wit really shines. We saw glimpses of it in the previous book, but now we get to witness what the Wit is really about. They’re a great pair, even with their misunderstandings (Nighteyes doesn’t worry about things that aren’t in the here and now and sees Fitz’s focus on obligation to be senseless), more like brothers than anything else. Their bond is nurtured with care and we get to see it grow from distrust to a close connection that pulls Fitz through his toughest trials.
Many of the characters from the first novel make an appearance here: Burrich, Chade, Lady Patience, Hands, Verity, and many of the other palace staff, though many are absent from long portions, either because they’re working on other business or are out of Buckkeep on the mission to the mountains. I personally enjoyed the growth of Kettricken, Verity’s new Queen. Her struggles to accept her role as ruler of a foreign land, her naivete and stubbornness to cling her peoples’ ways giving way (with some guidance from Fitz) to a more level, distinguished decorum (as much a she can, anyway, given how little support she has among the Farseer family) that pulls on her natural headstrong courage. It’s a fascinating transformation, one of the things that made that middle slog worth it. The Fool is still around, being his enigmatic self. If I’m going to be honest, I disliked him quite a bit in “Royal Assassin,” since he largely seemed to make Fitz’s life more difficult and humiliating. I have no doubt that he has his reasons (and they’ll hopefully be explained in the next novel), but there were definitely times where I wished he’d been a little less present. That might just be me, though, since he seems to be a fan favourite.
As with the first novel, the relationships between all of the characters (save Fitz and Molly…) are beautifully fleshed out and brought to life. Fitz has some strong friends in this group, whether he realises it or not, and his interactions with them are the true beacon of light in this tale. A good plot is one thing, and I can appreciate a solid story, but I read for characters and character interaction, and what I’ve read from Hobb so far says that her skill in writing these often-difficult dynamics is top notch. Again, I think it’s because she gives these things time to develop and doesn’t rush the relationships between characters (aside from the romance, which I’m going to mention again because it was just so bad). As someone who lives for amazing characters, this novel was almost everything I could ask for.
Some reviewers have expressed discontent with two characters: King Shrewd and Regal. It’s immediately obvious from the moment that Fitz returns to Buckkeep that Shrewd isn’t his normal self, so I give him a pass on not living up to his namesake because of what’s happening to him to leave him in this condition. As for Regal, the general complaint is that he’s too obvious as a villain…but I think that’s what makes him such a successful protagonist. Yeah, he’s over the top, boasts, and tends to flaunt himself to anyone who will listen, but that’s exactly what makes him so perfect. The feeling that I got from the other characters is that they’re so used to Regal being petty and elaborate that they just ignore him and write everything off as him just being himself. Fitz knows that Regal is more insidious than he lets on…but then, who listens to Fitz? Regal is one of those antagonists that hides in plain sight and he does it with practiced skill. He’s the guy we love to hate, and I think Hobb characterizes this snake well.
“Royal Assassin,” contains a good story even if some of the novel’s problems prevent it from being as good as the first novel. If the romance hadn’t been present to bog a huge portion of the middle section down, this would have been a five-star read. Everything to love about Hobb is present: carefully crafted story, amazing characters, a flawed protagonist, relationships that feel real, and a villain that’s too good at what he does. And because of that, despite my extreme hatred of the romance and what it did to the novel’s pacing, I still have to give this book four stars. There’s simply too much quality writing in here to give it anything less.