Monday, August 22, 2011

Royal Assassin: a review

Robin Hobb's Royal AssassinAbout a month ago, I reviewed Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice.  I really enjoyed that book, in spite of a few misgivings.  I felt like the first book in the series didn’t stand quite well enough on its own and that the ending wasn’t quite climactic enough for me.  The character development on the other hand was stellar.  Each person in the story acted in realistic ways and I grew to feel like I knew many of them.

My initial impression of the second novel in the series, Royal Assassin, was less than ideal.  The cover of the copy I read displayed Fitz standing on top of a mountain, arms outstretched, holding a sword up above him.  His shirt is open, and he is standing beside a howling wolf.  In the background is the pink and purple of a sunrise or sunset.  Unfortunately, the predominantly pink and purple coloring combined with Fitz’s open shirt (apparently flapping in the winds of change?) is very reminiscent to me of some sort of a romance novel.  I try not to be judgemental about this sort of thing, but it’s not exactly the kind of novel that I was proud to whip out on the bus.

With all this in mind, I was interested to see what my actual reading experience was like--and I ended up finding Royal Assassin to be very similar to Assassin’s Apprentice, both in its shortfallings and its strengths.  When I began reading Royal Assassin, I hoped that my perceptions of the first book were a mistake -- maybe I had just glossed over some vital piece of the novel during my reading, for example, so some of the excitement of the finale didn’t get communicated.  Unfortunately, I had many of the same misgivings about Royal Assassin, in spite of the fact that the climax of Royal Assassin was much better than that of the Assassin’s Apprentice. 

That said, I continue to love Hobb’s ability to characterize people.  Burrich in particular, I think, is one of the most well-crafted characters in any book I can think of.  I’ve read complaints that Fitz becomes whiny, but I haven’t had that impression - I think that he’s a very believable character (with the exception of one flaw that I’ll mention later) who lives a very isolated and lonely life.  I feel like I’ve grown with Fitz and so I can understand some sulkiness, and when he’s down and goes to hang out with the guards, for example, it feels very natural.

Royal Assassin suffered from two additional problems, one of which was was Fitz’s romance with Molly.  I just didn’t buy it.  In spite of the fact that they have virtually nothing in common aside from once being childhood friends, each is willing to accept serious personal risk to maintain their relationship (which is a euphemism for sleeping together, as I understand it).  These trysts are very poorly described (I wasn’t even sure exactly what they were doing together for a significant portion of the book), and eventually these meetings degrade into arguing.  It’s not clear at all to me that these two are a couple worth watching.  The other concern about this relationship is Fitz’s bullheadedness.  He seems fixated upon his loyalty to the throne to the extent that he seems to ignore Molly for long periods of time.  Despite this fixation and the presence of another (exceedingly attractive and available) potential love interest, he’s apparently willing to disobey the crown this time and continue his illicit affair.

The other problem I saw in Royal Assassin was the classic second book problem, which perhaps can’t really be helped.  Much of this book was spent setting the stage for book three (I hope), which gave the entire novel the feeling of someone treading water, rather than moving forward.  But then again, the stage has been set well--Regal is poised to take over the Six Duchies, Verity is apparently in some distress on his quest, and Fitz has undergone some trouble regarding living. (It’s complicated.) All these unresolved plot threads make me look forward to beginning book three, Assassin's Quest, in the next day or two.