Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Assassin's Apprentice

I read each day on the bus.  Each morning after frantically getting ready for work and doing the 250-yard-dash to the bus stop to catch the 825 downtown, I’m able to spend a solid 23 minutes reading.  Then after work I get the same (if slightly less frantically-prepared) block of time to read and unwind.  One of my favorite experiences is finishing my book on the morning trip.  I’m able to spend the remainder of my time that day re-reading the beginning of the novel.

Assassin's Apprentice Book Cover Beginnings of novels are strange places.  Readers are helpless, drowning in page after page of uncertainty.  Often nothing makes sense: you don’t know who the narrator is, characters are just names and especially fantasy books are stuffed full of words that sound like gibberish when you first see them.  After completing the novel the beginning is a totally different place: I can go back and find all sorts of extra depth that was invisible to me during the first read-through.  That was my experience after having completed Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice.  Especially after re-reading the beginning, I was struck by Hobb’s characters.  They are deep and complex, like real people.  There are no stock characters, and the ones that hint at less complexity also happen to be the ones that we don’t yet know well.  Each has a history that is gradually revealed over the course of the book which informs his or her choices and reactions.

Beloved’s Fool’s comment really resonates with me when I re-read it after completing the first book, especially the third paragraph:
I found the characters to be beautifully shaped and very human, very flawed in believable ways. I was so caught up in the characterizations, in fact, that it wasn't until I finished book one that I realized what Hobb had accomplished. She had slowly and subtly built this world around me as I read. Because I was learning about it along with Fitz, I didn't realize how much I was learning.
In particular, I like the description of the characters as “flawed in believable ways.”  To this I would add that the characters are also scarred by their experiences in very convincing ways. For example, the main character of The Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz Farseer, lacks self-confidence, but in a way that makes him seem real, rather than in a way that beats you over the head with his potential for character development.

[Mild Spoilers to follow]

Fitz is the bastard son of the king-in-waiting, Prince Chivalry.  At the beginning of the book, six-year-old Fitz is sent to a military outpost by his maternal grandfather, but soon moves to the city of Buckkeep, where he is schooled in all sorts of skills--scribing, hand-to-hand combat, music, and poetry, to name a few.  As he grows older, he is trained in “The Skill,” which is basically the ability to implant thoughts into others.  And as the title of the book suggests, Fitz also trains with the king’s assassin, learning how to use poisons and sneak around and stuff.  But of course, this novel isn’t just the story of Fitz.  It’s also the story of the kingdom of the Six Duchies and the struggle for the kingdom’s throne.  Of course, since Fitz is the bastard son of the king-in-waiting (albeit one who abdicates and then dies), he is right in the middle of things, and toward the end of the novel, gets caught up in a plot to assassinate the brother of the current king-in-waiting’s new wife.  With me so far?  Good!  It’s an engaging balance between the story of an individual and the story of a kingdom, with intrigue and excitement that keeps you going until the very end.

Upon finishing the novel, though, I was left with a vague sense of discomfort.  I felt like I got through the novel without knowing much about Fitz’s abilities, and I wasn’t sure that the novel stood very well on its own.  With regards to Fitz, we know that he has something called ‘The Wit,’ which allows him to telepathically communicate with animals, and we know that he has been trained in ‘The Skill’ , but it’s not clear whether or not he can actually use it.  So far he’s been trained in poisons, hand-to-hand combat, and as a scribe, and we also have seen several instances in which he has used some mental power to exert force on things, but never intentionally, and very rarely.   He seems to be being groomed for something--but what?  Since he’s on the short list for ascension to the throne, that seems like a pretty good bet, but I was still left wondering.

Additionally, when I first finished the The Assassin’s Apprentice, I wasn’t sure how well it stood on its own.  This primarily had to do with the climax of the book, in which Fitz is supposed to assassinate the brother of the new queen-in-waiting.  As Fitz learns more about his intended victim, however, he questions his mission--leading to a climax in which things are messy, complicated, and not clearly victorious.  Some people die, some are saved but then die, and others live, but with grave injuries.  It’s an ending that while exciting, is not thoroughly satisfying.  Just like the questions regarding Fitz’s characterization, it’s an ending that leaves you wanting more.

Which, of course, is exactly the point.  Tomorrow morning at 7 am, you will find me on the bus, reading the sequel--Royal Assassin .