Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Assassin's Quest: a review

Well, I finally did it.  In between moving and relocating to a home office (thus missing the daily bus ride), I’ve finally finished Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Quest.  I found this third installment very engaging, and I continue to enjoy the originality of Hobb’s world.  I think the Wit is a fascinating flavor of magic as is the Skill.   But most of the threads in the story were wrapped up rather briefly in the final 100 pages or so with a kinda-sorta-deus-ex-machina ending.  While it was certainly exciting, it mostly left me with a sort of hollow feeling, like I'd been watching it on fast-forward.  Ultimately, I wasn’t left with the urge to move on to Hobb’s other two trilogies.

Let me step back a minute.

Before I even talk about the book itself, a word about the cover.  In my review of book 2 of the Farseer Trilogy, I expressed concern over the novel looking like a romance novel.  The good news is that I have no such concerns with this cover.  The bad news is that I still wasn't terribly impressed -- it's certainly not a book I would read based upon the cover.  Fitz's face appears to be made of putty, and is totally expressionless (in spite of the fact that he's holding onto the blade (!) of a sword).  At his side is a peculiarly pudgy howling wolf while a woman is riding a dragon overhead in the background.  Probably the strangest part of this cover is that a) it includes a dragon (which none of the prior books have mentioned) and b) that that incongruity didn't dawn on me until over halfway through the book.  It says a lot about my expectations for fantasy literature (it must have dragons in it!) that it took me hundreds of pages to realize this.  It also makes me wonder about the wisdom of putting a picture of a fairly major plot spoiler on the cover.

In addition to the problems with the cover, Assassin’s Quest got away from a lot of the parts of Fitz's world that made it compelling to me.  I loved Burrich and Chade, who were major characters in the first two books, but who were both reduced to bit parts in this final novel.  It took me out of the now-familiar environment of Buckkeep Castle and removed the majority of characters that I've grown to know, and replaced all that with a story about Fitz on an (eventually failed) mission to kill Regal.  Then on an arduously long trip to the Mountain Kingdom.  Then on an arduously long trip to find Verity.  It’s certainly a good story, but it throws away much of the investment I’ve made in learning about the world of Buckkeep and the people who live their lives there.

After completing this book, I realized another of my major frustrations has to do with Verity, the rightful king of the Six Duchies--he feels very one-dimensional to me.  His only trait is that he wants to serve the Six Duchies, no matter what.  I can certainly understand that motivation in his character, but when it is used this intensely, it feels like a substitute for a real personality.  It feels cheap when so many characters have rich backgrounds, but Verity is just a caricature of a person.  I'd really like to have seen some other facet of personality in him rather than merely that of duty. 

That all said, one of the traits of Hobb's work that I find very interesting is that Hobb allows her characters to fail in serious plot-changing ways.  Fitz starts out the book by tracking down Regal in order to assassinate him.  When he tries and fails, and then gives up in favor of a trip to find Verity, it feels a little unsettling.  I'm not aware of another book in which a main character is allowed to fail and that facet of the plot is basically abandoned.  I don't know for sure that I enjoyed that aspect, but it really kept me on my toes as a reader.

And while I definitely think the ending is rushed, I thought Hobb wrapped things up rather nicely.  My biggest concern lies in the way that Molly is dealt with.  Fitz has spent the entire book pining for her.  Bargaining with others for her safety.  Having visions and dreams about her.  He has plotted and planned and schemed about how and when he will be able to return to her and his new daughter.  I find it very very unlikely that he, with his bullheaded nature, could be convinced in a few sentences that he should give up on her.

In spite of the complaints, I found this novel to be a very fun read.  The Elderling/dragon twist was a big surprise (in spite of the dragon on the cover), and discovering the truth about Kettle's identity was a great experience.  I thought the close call between Regal’s forces and the group of protagonists was very tense and well-written.  But I wasn’t left with the feeling that I need to know more about these characters.  I enjoyed the trilogy, but didn’t love it. 

And so, like Roland Deschain, I must move on.