Pastoral Family Drama: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb


Oh, FitzChivalry. You self-flagellating, depression-suffering, and kindly-narcissist, I’ve missed you. Also, you infuriate me. Seriously, do you have any idea how angry it makes me to watch your turtle into your cocoon and wallow in self-pity, dragging down everyone you love and who loves you while you do it? Hulk angry. You would think thirty years later you’d be over some of your issues, but no… even into the silver years your wisdom is in short supply. If only you weren’t so damned interesting…

So begins my feelings on Robin Hobb’s most recent novel, Fool’s Assassin. Picking up many years after the end of the Tawny Man Trilogy, Fitz is living as Tom Badgerlock, the Holder of his daughter Nettle’s estate, with his wife, Molly. Her children and his are grown, leaving them with an empty nest and the duties of the estate to keep them busy. Of course, despite Fitz’s desire to isolate himself from the crown, Chade and King Dutiful seem to keep him on retainer as something of a consultant.

And then, when it came time for me to be the wise elder of my household, I was trapped in the body of a man of middle years, still subject to those passions and impulses, still relying on the strength of my right arm when I would have been wiser to stop and employ my powers of reason.

In truth, Fitz is waiting. While the Skill keeps him young, Molly ages. And ages. And ages…. and then keeps aging. In fact, the vast majority of the book is the quiet life of retirement for Fitz and Molly, with an unexpected surprise or two along the way. Things come to a head eventually, with a few hundred pages to go, and Hobb begins to pull back the curtain to the plot that the new series will circumscribe.

There’s little doubt that Fool’s Assassin will leave a wide variance of impressions on its readers. It is, without question, a slow novel. Comparing it to more pastoral family dramas would be more appropriate than the action packed epic fantasies the previous Farseer books are often compared. It’s also, unquestionably, beautifully written, with the kind of prose that not only compels you to keep reading, but manages to burrow beneath the skin and crawl around.

Such is the power of memory. It is fully as strong as the most feverish infection, and it lingers not just for a period of sickness but for all the days of a man’s life.

Fool’s Assassin returns to the inside of Fitz’s head, reliably unreliably interpreting the actions of those around him. The reader is privy to his every thought, including journal entries that he writes of days long past. These entries, which open every chapter, are a phenomenal way for Hobb to remind the reader of what’s come before. Whether it’s Fitz recalling an anecdote or a bit of translation he’s working on for Chade, these bits of information are like water in the desert, reminding us of the wider canvas Hobb will employ stuck as we are in the laconic countryside.

Fitz is joined this time around by a second point of view, also written in the first person that bounces back and forth without obvious delineation. This second point of view, challenging as it can be to separate the two, elevates the lugubrious pace to a more interesting place.

Written as a young adult novel, within an adult novel, these chapters provide an entirely new context to Fitz and the surrounding narrative. The character, who I won’t reveal for purposes of spoilers, is a classic fish out of water young person. She is different. Smaller than her peers, with a slight congenital disability, she struggles to adapt to the environment she finds herself in. Like Fitz, she’s often incapable of decoding the intent of those around her, assuming the worst in everyone (sometimes rightly), even her own family. She is put upon and misunderstood and far more capable than anyone expects, especially adults.

At times her chapters overlap with Fitz’s and we get a contrasting view of the same events through a different set of eyes. It’s sobering. I poke fun at the beginning of this review at Fitz’s depression, but it isn’t funny. It is (likely) an actual chemical problem. Fitz’s biochemistry disposes him toward the morose. He reflects on suicide. He’s often unable to consider the feelings of others, not because he’s inconsiderate, but because he’s too trapped inside his own head.

Oh, the things we discover and the things we learn, much too late. Worse are the secrets that are not secrets, the sorrows we live with but do not admit to one another.

Hobb’s alternate point of view suffers from some of the maladies, but in observing them in each other, the reader is given a much more comprehensive view of the issue. Our narrators are troubled individuals who are forced to not so much overcome their challenges, but succeed in spite of them.

Given the focus paid to gender discussion in recent years, I feel compelled to note that Hobb’s works have often muddied the waters going back twenty years. The Fool, one of the iconic characters of the Farseer series and eponymous in the title of this novel, has never had a clear gender assignment. Fitz calls him Beloved, but then refers to him as she at times. This non-binary idea of gender becomes central to the story in Fool’s Assassin, illuminating the fact that Hobb has been making these points all along. More subtly perhaps than Kameron Hurley or Joanna Russ, Hobb remarks that love and compassion and trust are not exclusive between a man and a woman, but universal to human experience.

Although Fool’s Assassin is not a tour de force, it succeeds on a massive scale. Her prose sparkles, her characters leap off the page, and even her staid milieu is perfectly textured. I wanted to be bored, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to be annoyed by Fitz’s kvetching, but she made it impossible. I wanted to be thrown out of the story by the shifting points of view, but she ensured every single one had a point. In other words, Robin Hobb is an absolute master of the craft and it’s on full display in her newest novel.

And Fitz… for God’s sake man, take care of yourself.

Fool’s Assassin is available now from Random House.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.


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