A Critique of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb

Good news! It took me a few months, but I’ve started a booktube channel! That’s why I’ve been so tardy with reviews around here, I’ve been making a backlog of videos to post for you guys.

This is a link to my booktube/Youtube review of Assassin’s Apprentice.

And This is a link to my booktube/YouTube Chapter-By-Chapter editorial breakdown of Assassin’s Apprentice, where I give my thoughts on every single chapter in the book.

Sorry that these vids kinda suck, I’m still getting used to the filming/editing thing. They’ll improve with time.

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

This is my second time reading this book. As a result, I remembered all the twists. From that first read-through I remembered enjoying the author’s prose, but ultimately I felt that the book was overall of average in quality. My memories of the book were about this book’s plot being very listless.

I’ve not read further in this series than this book, so bear that in mind as well.

I enjoy well-plotted books, as books with nuanced characters books.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

Reading this, I felt respect for the author’s talent. Each and every chapter was enjoyable to read on a textual level, meaning I enjoyed the prose for it’s beauty.

HOWEVER I got bored. I enjoy well plotted books, and I personally found the plot in this book to be too episodic for my taste. The lack of a consistent rising action in this novel hampered my enjoyment. I’ll talk more about this later. I’m not sure if the author’s intension was to write a slow, episodic book or not. If that was the author’s intension, more power to her. I still didn’t love this aspect of the book.

This is not a ‘fun’ book, however I did find Fitz to be an emotionally compelling protagonist. Watching him grow was enjoyable.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B-)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is ‘the early life a sad-sack assassin boy, who’s struggling to survive in a royal court which is out to get him, during an ongoing war in his nation. As this is going on, he’s struggling with his girlfriend, and his adoptive father figure Burrich.’

In this case, passing judgement on the execution really depends on whether or not you enjoy the episodic nature of this book. If you enjoy the episodic nature, you’ll probably find that this is a well-executed book. If you do not enjoy the episodic nature, you’ll probably think this is not a well-executed book.

Personally, I don’t enjoy episodic stories like this one. HOWEVER, that is my personal bias leaking through. I’m not going punish this book for my personal taste.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

HOLY S###, the characters in this book were aggravating. Many of the characters in this book occupy the space of being ‘realistically recalcitrant.’ They make obvious mistakes which will make their lives obviously worse, but they’re so well characterized as flawed human beings that they make the mistakes anyway and it doesn’t feel artificial. You might of heard of the ‘idiot ball‘ trope, where a character acts uncharacteristically stupid to propel the plot forward. This is the opposite, because they act characteristically stupid to propel the plot forward. My compliments to the author for making me love/hate characters so well.

Now that said, I did have problems with some of the characters. You’ve probably heard of the plot hole common to horror and romance movies where if the characters simply pick up a phone and talk to one another the plot of the movie will be solved. Several times in this book the plot could have been solved if Fitz stood up for himself, or if Chade/Verity/Burrich/Patience stood up for him. As a result of no one standing up for Fitz, Fitz came off looking like a doormat and his protectors seemed neglectful.

Now I’ll talk about the villains.

Let’s start with Galen. He’s boring. His characterization begins with being queer coded evil. Galen wears tight clothing, and he hits people with a riding crop (can you say S&M?). He’s cruel… just because. It’s suggested that he hates himself because he hates bastard children and he’s a bastard.

Regal’s also queer-coded evil. He likes wearing nice clothing, and the story’s narrator presents a man wearing nice clothes as a nefarious thing. He uses drugs, just like his evil mother before him, coding that being a drug addict makes you evil. And that’s it. He doesn’t even have as much characterization as his brother.

Am I reading too much into these villains? Probably. For the record, I don’t think Hobb set out to say that drug addicts or S&M is is evil. However these antagonists are so one-dimensional that if I want to talk about them at all I have to read into them to have anything to say. Galen and Regal are so shallow that we have ‘unfortunate implications’ pop up as a result.

Compare these two to Burrich. Burrich is loyal to Chivalry, even after his death. Burrich hates the Witted, even though Burrich is Witted. Sometimes Burrich provides emotional comfort and aid to Fitz, and at other times Burrich holds Fitz at arm’s length. When Burrich ‘kills’ Nosy early on, making Fitz fear him. It’s revealed later that Nosy still lives, reframing Burrich as a character and dramatically shifting Fitz and Burrich’s relationship in an instant. Burrich is one of the best characters I’ve ever read, and I’ve only read one book in this series. I don’t know if he gets better in later books.

Burrich changes throughout the novel. Sometimes he’s happy, other times he’s sad. Overall, he’s very moody, but the type of ‘moody’ changes depending upon the events of the story. Burrich is a dynamic character. Galen is cruel, and nothing which happens causes him to be cruel in different ways. Regal hates Fitz, and nothing which Fitz does can change Regal’s opinion of him. Galen and Regal are not dynamic. They are static. Static=boring.

Hobb is good at writing characters. Faulkner once wrote “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart at war with itself.” Regal and Galen are not good characters by that definition. Now this book is told in an epistolary, first person format. This book is Fitz’s perspective, and perhaps he’s an unreliable narrator. Maybe Fitz hates Regal and Galen so much that he has a blind spot to their good sides, and thus when he wrote this novel he left out their good sides. HOWEVER, even if that’s the case Robin Hobb still made the choice of using the trope of the unreliable narrator without (in my opinion) doing enough to hint that maybe Regal and Galen are good people whom Fitz hates.

And finally, the book’s primary antagonist: King Shrewd.

Now you’re probably saying ‘King Shrewd isn’t an antagonist!’ To which I say, yes he is.

  • In Chapter 3, Shrewd uses the Skill to mind control Fitz into loyalty. Fitz says, ‘It was my first experience of the Skill at the hands of a master.’
  • Shrewd forced Fitz, his grandson, to become an assassin. Being an assassin is an innately dangerous and morally repugnant activity, something a grandfather should seek to prevent a grandson from becoming.
  • In Chapter 5, Shrewd psychologically tortures Fitz to test his loyalty.
  • Shrewd’s enabling parenting style resulted in Regal becoming a selfish monster, and he elevated Galen to his position as Skillmaster.
  • Shrewd did nothing to prevent Chivalry’s death, even though he should be shrewd enough to realized that Chivalry was in danger.
  • At the story’s climax, Shrewd sends Fitz to the mountain kingdom instead of Chade.
    • This is presented as a suicide mission. It is unethical for a grandfather to send a grandson on a suicide mission.
    • Fitz is nearly killed by Regal. Fitz wonders, “I never found out if Shrewd had given me over to Regal. I never asked him, nor even mentioned my suspicions to Chade. I suppose I didn’t want to know. I tried not to let it affect my loyalties. But in my heart, when I said “my king,” I meant Verity.”

As an antagonist, I would have enjoyed it if Shrewd had more page-time. I wanted the author to further explore what makes Shrewd tick, why he’s willing to sacrifice Chivalry and Fitz when he’s in the middle of a war. I wanted to know if his antagonism is simply because he is a weak king, or if he is an actively nefarious one.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This book was slowly paced. I’ll talk more about the pacing in the next section, about the plot and tension.

I am fond of narratives with a beginning, middle and end. I like to use the 3 act format, or 5 act format, or another format to analyze how the story is being told. As an example, let’s look to Jim Butcher’s ‘Storm Front’. That book is a murder mystery. It begins with a dead body, and ends with catching the killer. Another example is JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone.‘ That book is a classic YA Hero’s Journey/Bildungsroman. It starts with Harry dispossessed, and ends with him with friends, having defeated a great evil.

This book’s structure was episodic, consisting of multiple mini-arcs. The episodes, when put together, can’t be analyzed in that way. This book didn’t have one, single plot. A mini-plot arc would happen, with a beginning, middle and end. After that arc ended, another one would follow it. This happened again and again, never building up to anything. Reading this book was like watching a season of a TV show.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing a book in this way. It’s just that my personal preference is for novels with one, extended structure and not episodic TV structures. I had a similar problem with ‘Daughter of Empire.’ (A book I enjoyed and recommend.)

I’ll judge this book like an episodic a TV show instead of a novel. Given that perspective, does this book hold up? I don’t think so. This season of Fitz’s life didn’t build-up to anything. For example, Season 1 of ‘A Game of Thrones’ climaxed with Ned Starke’s execution. There was no similar slow build-up to a dramatic moment at the middle or end of this book.

Instead, events transpired in Fitz’s life as he slowly grew older and a little wiser, events which had little to do with one another. I’d compare this more to a season of Star Trek or the like, which does not have a seasonal story to tell, from beginning to tell. Each episode is it’s own contained story. I personally do not find this multiple, contained episode format to be as engaging, and it didn’t really leverage the advantages of the novel format. That’s just my opinion, and my word isn’t law.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C-)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

Here is my largest (personal) problem with this book. This book contained mini-plot arc after mini-plot arc. Each plot arc worked in and of itself, providing a compelling episode in Fitz’s life. HOWEVER, I found that the episodic nature of stitching together many mini-plot arcs together to create a narrative really hampered the story’s rising action. Each mini-plot arc would ramp up the tension… but when each mini-plot completed the tension would plummet back to the status quo. The rising action never rose, like a under-leavened cake.

Now I suspect it was not the author’s goal to write a tight and gripping story. That’s fine. Not all books have to be thrillers. I would have personally enjoyed the book more if the author wrote this book in such a way that there was a buildup in tension throughout, however, what I personally like and what is empirically true are two different things. Slow, low tension books can be good books.

The author kept the scope of the book laser-focused on Fitz, and the stakes of the book as a result felt small, almost cozy. If Fitz made a mistake, the world wouldn’t be destroyed; instead, a mistake meant Fitz would lose his girlfriend, or his dog would die. And Fitz made mistakes, meaning he lost his girlfriend and his dog died, so we knew this was a book with consequences. By keeping the scope small, and by enforcing consequences, when the stakes were increased to be life-threatening, that increase felt earned and scary. The reader could easily believe that Fitz might have died when Galen sent him to Forge, or Regal might have killed him at the climax, because the author was unafraid to have Nosy die in chapter 2. No plot armor here.

Too often Fantasy books devolved to ‘If we fail the world is doomed!!!1!!!1!’- aka stakes so high as to be meaningless. The author kept this story small and emotionally investing. By putting Fitz’s life on the line, and only Fitz’s life, we knew exactly what was at stake and what survival would cost.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I enjoyed the author’s prose. The author threaded the needle between olde schoole fantasy prose (aka using semi-archaic language and formal prose) and a modern style, to beautiful results. I was occasionally envious of the author’s talent. The language wasn’t obsessed with itself, going out of it’s way to be beautiful; instead it simply was beautiful and otherwise got out of the way of the story.

This book had the tone of a fairly dark bildungsroman, told from Fitz’s perspective reminiscing about his childhood. But because the scope of the story is focused ONLY on Fitz, the setting consequently feels lived in and cozy. Yes, the Six Duchies is a sad place where travesties happen, but just because war crimes are going on doesn’t mean children stop growing up. Fitz grew up at an awful time, but nonetheless Fitz’s narration makes the impression that he is nonetheless fond of that dark time.

Reading this book feels like you’re coming home; the author has captured nostalgia for 1980’s/1990’s fantasy. She’s even weaponized that nostalgia, so as to better emotionally captivate and crush the reader when beloved side characters die.

I loved the authorial voice, except…

FOR THE LOVE OF EDA, SHOW DON’T TELL!

As I just said, this book is narrated from Fitz’s perspective. It has long stretches where Fitz goes on tangents, where describes events, landscapes, flavors or anything which strikes his fancy. When an author writes, there’s a common creed that an author should show narrative beats through actions as opposed to flat out saying something is the case. (Note that from what I’ve heard ‘show, don’t tell’ is a feature of modern Western literature, so it’s not holy writ.)

  • As an example of ‘telling,’ in this book the narrator at multiple points flat out says Fitz is lonely. If the author wanted to ‘show’ Fitz being lonely instead, the narrator could show Fitz actively seeking contact from other people, being rebuffed, and then sulking afterwards.

When an author writes, a certain amount of ‘Telling’ is acceptable. If an author stopped to ‘show’ everything, the narrative would glue up and fail. However, in the case of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice,’ I felt that there was too much of it. There were a lot of lore notes which could have been said through dialog instead of narrative.

This book had a theme of family and abuse therein. I thought it was well implemented.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A-)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

When talking about worldbuilding originality, in older books, I feel that it ‘s important to view the book in the context it was originally published. This book was first published in the mid 1990’s, so I think it’s unfair to compare this book’s use of tropes to modern stories.

To that end, I did some googling. Here’s what I found. In short, the popular books from that decade (barring Assassin’s Apprentice itself) include ‘Wheel of Time,‘ ‘Wizard’s First Rule,’ ‘The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass,’ ‘Sabriel,’ ‘A Game of Thrones,’ ‘Neverwhere,’ ‘Ella Enchanted’ and ‘Harry Potter.’ Most, if not all of these are Bildungsromans or are the first book in a series which will wind up being bildungsromans by series end. What are bildungsromans? To quote Wikipedia…


In literary criticism, a Bildungsroman (German pronunciation: [ˈbɪldʊŋs.ʁoˌmaːn], plural BildungsromaneGerman pronunciation: [ˈbɪldʊŋs.ʁoˌmaːnə]) is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age),[1] in which character change is important.[2][3][4][a] The term comes from the German words Bildung (“development”) and Roman (“novel”).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bildungsroman


In Bildungsromans, the protagonists frequently becomes disconnected from their family/friends, goes on a journey, and then rejoins their old family or finds a new family at the end.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, Bildungsromans was the standard for the Fantasy genre. It still is common to this day. See Shannara, Malorean, Belgariad, Riyeria, Lord of the Rings, Stormlight, Uprooted, Wizard of Earthsea, Codex Alera, the World of the 5 Gods… I could go on, but you get the idea. Going back far in time, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Bildungsroman.

Now let’s bring this back around to ‘Assassin’s Apprentice.’ Written in the context of the ’90’s, ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ took the concept of the Bildungsroman and twisted it.

  • Instead of the protagonist being separated physically from his family and sent on a life-threatening adventure, Fitz is sent to his family where he’s under constant life-threatening danger from said family.
  • There is no great evil to be vanquished in ‘Assassin’s Apprentice,’ but instead Fitz is thrust into a morally ambiguous situation where (if anything) he’s forced to work for the bad guys.

This is an orphan farmboy story, but unlike in other bildungsromans this orphan doesn’t go on an adventure and return home afterwards. I like to think of Hobb as being proto-Grimdark. Grimdark is transgressive because it is transgressive against the bildungsroman standard which is/was the Fantasy genre. Hobb doesn’t linger and drown in gore or sorrow, like Grimdark can; instead ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ is Grimdark in the sense that the book takes a hard look at humanity and presents a realistic picture of human failings, and our inability to grow and succeed when put under pressure. Maybe Fitz wouldn’t be such a screw up if he grew up in a healthy environment, as opposed to being crushed by the weight of everyone’s expectations and threatened with death should he fail.

I give the Setting: (A-)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Grimdark is transgressive insofar as it transgresses against the bildungsroman standard. Grimdark’s transgressiveness becomes compelling only in as much as it plays straight the tropes of the bildungsroman… aka Grimdark’s unexpected twists carry weight so long as the author plays some of the other tropes straight.
  • Show, don’t tell. I do not personally enjoy long, long, long paragraphs of narration.
  • KEEP THE STAKES SMALL! AND HAVE CONSEQUENCES FOR FAILURE! If you do, when you raise the stakes, the threat of failure will feel real.
  • The characters in this are frustrating, but in a good way. Their flaws lead them to make mistakes, and the fact that they make those mistakes serves to enhance their characterization instead of making them seem foolish.
  • Dynamic characters (characters who change over the course of the story) are better than static characters (characters who remain static over the course of the story)

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • Anyone 14+, but especially adults.
  • Anyone in the mood for a SLOW, but emotionally compelling book.
  • People who don’t mind the dogs dying.
  • Anyone who want a shot of nostalgia injected straight into their veins. Something about this evokes childhood, echoes old school fantasy without seeming trite, and adds a pinch of modern dark to it.

SUMMARY

It’s good.


Literary Rating: A- (A= As good as or better than award winning books, B= Not as good as award winners, but still very good, C= Good, not great, D= Fun, but flawed, F= Not recommended)

Enjoyment Rating: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended) (Enjoyment means two things: how much fun did I have reading this book? And how much did this book make me think about real world issues?)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Adult, Adventure

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. When Jackals Storm The Walls
  2. Sharpe’s Tiger
  3. A Literary Study of ‘A Master of Djinn’ by P. Djeli Clark
  4. A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark
  5. Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
  6. A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir
  7. A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi
  8. A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight
  9. A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce
  10. A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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