Rip the tapestry off the wall, curl up with it in the big leather wingback next to the stone fireplace and send your valet out off to fetch some spiced wine, Robin Hobb’s “The Farseer: Assassin’s Apprentice” is epic fantasy that demands reading, and you won’t be putting this book down until you finish. A young lad of six is dropped off at a distant keep where the king’s two sons are in residence on a diplomatic mission. The boy’s maternal grandfather tells the gate guard the boy is Prince Chivalry’s get, and Prince Chivalry can feed and care for him from now on. The lad is passed off to Burrich, Chivalry’s man and royal stable master, and FitzChivalry Farseer’s story begins.
Published in 1995, Robin Hobb’s book is one of the new-style epic fantasies I missed during my hiatus from genre fiction. Like most, I started with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis when I was but a wee lad. But fantasy is not respected fiction in most corners of this world, so I left my lush realms of dragons and hobbits and elves and orcs for “drier” literary climes. After years of slogging through modern literary fiction, I gave up. It was largely depressing, overly serious, no fun! What Robin Hobb has crafted here is fun, and hopeful, and beautifully lush and well crafted. I am sad I missed out on this series when it came out, but I am thrilled there is now a back catalog of books in this world I can roll through without waiting for the next to be published.
The story centers on young Fitz. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t, Fitz is an old term referring to someone’s offspring, especially the illegitimate offspring of royalty. Our young Fitz is born the wrong side of the sheets to Prince Chivalry, King in waiting. The Farseer’s have a history of bestowing names which reflect the trait of the person. In days gone by, the child was tied to the name with magic, but now it is more likely the power of suggestion which forms the trait in the person. Chivalry is absolutely chivalrous. When confronted with Fitz’s existence, he abdicates his claim to his father’s throne and retires to a quiet country life with his wife, the lady Patience. Fitz is left at Buckkeep, royal home of the Farseer’s, in the care of Burrich.
To nearly everyone at the Keep, Fitz is an outcast. Only King Shrewd sees some use for the boy and arranges for his training with the mysterious Chade. Fitz is to learn the skills of Diplomacy of the Knife. A series of adventures and misadventures set off from there leading the reader deeper into Hobb’s wonderfully crafted world. The reader is introduced to the Skill and the Wit, this realm’s magical abilities, along with Fitz. We follow along as he explores the Keep town’s docks and taverns. We watch as political intrigues are plotted and played out. And we wonder at the enigmatic Fool and his cryptic messages. There is nary a misstep along the way to an exciting and suspense-filled climax that leaves the reader begging for more.
Hobb’s world of the six duchies is filled with battles large and small, soulless wanderers and Red Ship Raiders, and cruelties and kindnesses when you least expect them. She manages to bring to life this realm in a very tactile way, leaving the reader with the smells of the sea and the stable lingering in the living room. The characters practically jump off the page and demand your attention. In short, this is the best fantasy I have read since Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. No tweeny vampires, no boy who lived, this is grown up fantasy of the very best sort.