Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Published in 1997
Awards: Locus Fantasy Nominated
Challenges: Pick and Mix
Rating 9/10

This review has spoilers for all three books.

I just finished Assassin's Quest (the 3rd book in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb) and the overwhelming feeling I have is happiness. I can nitpick things about all three of the books (one of which I will expound upon in a moment), but in all, the story of FitzChivalry Farseer was deeply satisfying.

As often happens when the protagonist is a Chosen One, the stories of his companions were even more fulfilling. I think this happens because the Chosen One is bound by destiny to do certain things. They can fight against it, they can attempt to forge their own path, but if the author decides that fate exists, the Chosen One must bend to it. Their companions may have fates of their own, but these are looser and for some reason they complain about them less.

For example, Ketricken, the Queen, is from the Mountain Kingdom where the royal family are not called King, Queen, Princess, etc, but are all Sacrifice. They exist to give everything of themselves to their people. She sacrifices her home, her child, and her pride to a man that she didn't love at first, but grew to love fiercely. I don't know how I feel about how Hobb handled the stillbirth of the baby. Babies are close to my heart right now (I have a 3 month-old daughter) and her being stillborn was a fear that I lived with every day. Everyone blames the stillbirth on the stress that was put on Ketricken during her pregnancy (ultimately attributable to the villain who caused the stress) and Ketricken takes it as a personal failure. These aren't unreasonable feelings on the part of anyone, especially Ketricken, but I missed there being someone in there to say it was no one's fault. It's easy to blame the villain, but having read a lot about stillbirth it probably wasn't his fault. Looking past that, the moment where Ketricken revealed the fact of his son's death to Verity and when they were able to grieve together over it were two of the most heartrending moments of the book. I actually cried when she told Verity their child's name. I'm tearing up now a little writing about it.

One more nitpicky thing while I'm at it. One of the first things that struck me when starting Assassin's Apprentice was that character's names felt lazy. The Farseers name their children after virtues, hoping that the child will one day embody that virtue. In the real world hoping is useless and people aren't bound by their names. This isn't the real world though, it's fantasy; Characters turn out like their names and whether they had a choice about it or not is up for debate. Like cutie-marks in My Little Pony*, Regal will end up being pretty and vain, Verity will end up truthful but sometimes lack diplomatic finesse, and Chivalry will be all diplomatic finesse to the detriment of practicality. I can't think of a time that Hobb subverts this pattern by making someone not fit their name. It's clear from the rest of the books where fate is a heavy theme (after all, Fitz is a Chosen One) that naming a Farseer infant gives them a destiny that strongly shapes their personality. Whether this is lazy or not, it certainly acts as a shorthand for characterization that allows the reader to be lazy about remembering which character is which.

Enough nitpicking, let's talk about dragons. I knew they were coming; Hobb is not a subtle with foreshadowing. But the moment they showed up, even deep in sleep and scattered through a forest, was the moment I stopped being about to put the book down. Here they were, the thing that Verity had been seeking all along. I can see why people felt like the ending, from the point we discover Verity carving his own dragon onward, made the rest of Fitz's journey feel unimportant, but to me it just felt right. Fitz needed to do it this way because he needed Nighteyes, the Fool, Starling, Ketricken, and Kettle. Fitz also needed to have a child to fight for. Without any one of those Verity would have failed and Fitz would have failed. The stories of how those elements came together are not less interesting because they build slowly.

I'm giving this one a rating of 9 out of 10. I can point out its failings, and those may impact other readers more than they impacted me, but I came out of the trilogy feeling so satisfied and happy that I can't help but say that for me this trilogy is almost perfect. I am excited to read more of this author's work, though it may be a while before I get there.

*Cutie-marks are the pictures that appear on a pony's flank when they have discovered "their true talent". They always match the character's name (given at birth) bringing up disturbing questions of free will. It also doesn't explain the number of ponies names things like "Granny Smith". She's an old pony, a grandmother actually, but also a master baker. Did her parents name her after the apple variety? Did they know that her significance to the plot wouldn't happen until after she was a grandmother? Do pony parents have some sort of psychic tap into destiny? Did little Granny Smith worry about what her cutie mark would be and what that meant for her destiny?

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