July 5, 2007

Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 5, 2007 11:00 PM

Will I be able to post one long-form review per week? Almost certainly not, but it's a good target to aim for.
The choice of subject for this installment reveals how far behind the times I am; the last volume in the trilogy was published ten years ago. However, I now have only four more books to go before I catch up to the ones that my friend helpfully lent to me (numbers 8 and 9 in the overall continuity).

Robin Hobb: The Farseer Trilogy
(Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin's Quest)

Judging from the titles I had expected some hardboiled story of an amoral antihero, some high fantasy equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie. This was a misconception; Robin Hobb instead performs the more delicate task of writing an assassin who is nevertheless a sympathetic, conflicted, and often heroic character. The series is thus less Kill Bill and more Die Hard: protagonist FitzChivalry finds himself caught up in some larger plot, fights it primarily for his own survival, and after undergoing an astonishing amount of physical injury manages a victory, or at least an escape. (He then spends sizable chunks of the second and third books recuperating from his previous ordeals.)

The trilogy follows a very standard pattern: book one introduces all the major characters and conflicts, and traces the overall plot arc on a smaller scale; book two builds up to a very dark ending in which all seems lost; and in book three the heroes come back to save the day. Each book is also written in a slightly different mode, as the titles suggest: Apprentice is the origin story, describing FitzChivalry's childhood and training; Royal Assassin is a book of court intrigue; and Quest is, well, the quest, traveling through unmapped forests and magical cities in search of a way to Save the Kingdom.

So far this all sounds very generic; what makes this more than boilerplate fantasy are the characters. It's a distressingly common trend in epic fantasy to introduce a vast cast of characters, most of which the reader can't keep track of and the author doesn't have time to develop. Hobb takes the opposite approach and focuses tightly on a small number of characters personally connected to the protagonist, giving them three-dimensional personalities and interesting story arcs of their own. (She has a slightly annoying tendency of making nearly all female characters smarter and more perceptive than the males, but maybe this should be excused since the reverse is regrettably often true in this historically male-dominated genre.)

One structural choice that undoubtedly contributed to this focus is to use first-person narration from FitzChivalry's perspective throughout the series. FitzChivalry is frequently an unreliable narrator, and this is sometimes employed in an interesting way, such as when the reader can infer a (magical or chemical) change in his state of mind from changes in the narrative quality. Other times it's simply frustrating: it took me a long time to get started in the first book, largely due to the fact that 6-year-old Fitz has no idea what's going on. And the reader can generally look forward to figuring out any plot development at least a paragraph and sometimes whole chapters before Fitz does, as he is the most clueless of the Clueless Males in the story. If you're the type of person who yells advice at the screen when watching horror movies, consider yourself warned.

Overall I thought it was a strong entry into the genre, despite a few annoying quirks. I found it enjoyable enough to move on to the next trilogy in the same setting, which appears to replace the ninjas with pirates. (Ok, the assassins of the first trilogy were nothing like ninjas. But still, pirates!)

Assassin's Apprentice: Amazon
Royal Assassin: Amazon
Assassin's Quest: Amazon

Further discussion will require spoilers, so I've put it below the fold. If you're reading this on RSS you might not see the break, so be warned: spoilers ahead.

One of the more interesting and complex threads in the story was the dichotomy between the two types of magic, Skill and Wit. While at the simplest level both are just modes of telepathy, they are opposites in other respects, and Hobb seems to have given some thought as to why they would be treated differently by society. The primary difference is one of social class: talent with the Skill is both hereditary and strongly associated with the royal bloodline, so that it becomes a marker of noble birth. In contrast, the Wit, while inborn, seems to be much more randomly distributed. (It's unclear, at least in the first three books, whether or not the Wit is hereditary; I would speculate that the gene for Skill is dominant and the gene for Wit is recessive if discussions of genetics were not grossly irrelevant to this context.) It naturally follows that the feudal society of the Six Duchies will value Skilled individuals and not necessarily Witted ones.

The Skill's aristocratic status is further cemented by the intense training and academic knowledge required to become even minimally proficient with it, whereas more than one character is able to use various aspects of the Wit at very young ages with no assistance. And in their respective uses the Skill is more refined, permitting verbal telepathy between humans, while the Wit is primarily emotive and sensory, and allows communication with animals. The Skill allows extremely subtle mind control for which the Wit has no equivalent.

So the Wit is a commoner's magic, requiring no special status to acquire or learn, and thus is unsurprisingly reviled much as witchcraft was in historical Europe. (This may even be a deliberate pun—although in Assassin's Apprentice, the treatment of the Wit is much more like homosexuality: a loving relationship that must be kept secret because society considers it a shameful perversion. Only in the latter two books does the witchcraft angle become prominent. This is not the only change between the first book and the latter two, and I suspect several things were retconned when the story expanded from a single book to a trilogy.)

However, at the end of the book these societally-constructed differences between the two magics are stripped away to reveal their true, inherent properties. What's really going on is this: the Skill is a magic of civilization, cities, and craftsmanship, while the Wit is associated with nature, the wilderness, and life (both human and animal). The Skill is omnipresent in the ancient city visited by Verity, Fitz, and the coterie, and was the basis for their technology. Here it is much more egalitarian, apparently available to all citizens. So the class division between the two magics falls away, and the true form of their opposition is visible in the way nature stops at the boundary of the Skill-road. And in the finale, it turns out both are necessary for the salvation of the Six Duchies: the Skill to bring form to the formless, and the Wit to bring life to the lifeless.

Next week: I explain how the new Transformers movie depicts the Hegelian struggle of the proletarian Autobots against the Decepticon bourgeoisie. (Just kidding. I think.)

Tags: Books

I enjoyed the first two Assassin books (I read them while at 'Tech), but the third book just didn't do much for me; I found it long, unsatisfactory, and very dark. It was bad enough that I've stopped picking up books by Robin Hobb (modulo _Wizard of the Pigeons_, written under her real name, Megan Lindholm, which is a fascinating book). Maybe I should give them another shot.

Posted by: Jonathan Adams | July 6, 2007 9:52 AM

This is one of those series that a lot of people with seemingly similar taste liked a lot, while I found it deeply uninteresting (other examples: Tigana by G. G. Kay, and the entire Game of Thrones series by Martin). The Skill/Wit stuff you discuss doesn't sound familiar, so I may have junked the series before the subject arose - I know I finished the first book, not sure I bothered starting the second. Anyway, as with Martin my main problem was the characters; there was nobody I found sufficiently appealing to care about what happened to them.

Regarding your Hegelian Transformers analysis, don't forget to work in Whole Foods too!

Posted by: Justin | July 6, 2007 1:51 PM

Jonathan: Actually, I was somewhat disappointed that, for books about an assassin, they didn't seem to be dark enough, although they did get closer towards the end.

Justin: The Skill and especially the Wit are treated somewhat differently in the first book than in the other two, and it doesn't really explore the issue nearly as much.

I didn't find the characters unappealing in the Farseer series but I am having that problem a bit with the Liveship series (having read about halfway through the first one). However, the pirate villain is pretty awesome.

And yes, my Transformers analysis from Hegel to Whole Foods will be a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 8, 2007 7:17 PM

I cannot remember whether it was the secon or third volume (Jonathan's copy) which I found so depressing and horrible and unappealing that I left it under my bed for *most of sophomore year* rather than read it. Blech.

I find the Martin characters unappealing (additonally, the ones I like inevitably die) but the plot is sufficiently gripping that I continue to read them.

Posted by: Wren | July 9, 2007 11:41 AM

Both Hobb and Martin appear to hate their characters, given how much torment they put them through. (I read somewhere writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut; this kind of protagonist torture was one of his recommendations.) The main difference seems to be that Hobb will let the nice guys live, whereas in Martin's books they usually die horribly. I can definitely see how this would turn people off. I do think it makes the antagonists more fearsome if they can do some real damage to the heroes, but this may not necessarily make for pleasant reading.

However, in the Liveship trilogy I'm basically rooting for the pirate, so bring it on.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 9, 2007 12:57 PM
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