Choosing a Robin Hobb book to start with isn’t just choosing a series—it’s choosing a doorway into a huge, interconnected world. All but one of Hobb’s trilogies make up a giant tale told in many pieces (the oddball is the Soldier Son series). They span continents and decades, damaging leadership and ecological damage, traumatic childhood and challenging coming-of-age.
And you can start in several places. If you’re a completist, you’ll probably start at the beginning, but if you’re not, you can choose based on character, or location, or focus. Would you like a young man with royal blood, or a headstrong young woman fighting to lead the family business? Prefer your dragon-centric tales set in a strange, deadly landscape? Would you like to explore a bustling port town in a series where family drama involves magical ships? Or do you like your fantasy set in castles and keeps, fully engaged with the foibles and flaws of royalty?
Where not to start is with Hobb’s completed series, Fitz and the Fool, which picks up with her most-beloved characters decades after they were introduced. The Fitz and the Fool books are differently paced and focused, a culmination of years spent with these two characters and their complex relationship. But if you’ve read the books leading up to this trilogy, the emotional payoff is considerable. So let’s get started.
If you want to start at the beginning: Assassin’s Apprentice, The Farseer Trilogy
At six years old, the boy who will come to be called FitzChivalry Farseer finds out he has royal blood. But this is no simple, happy story of secret prince; it’s the tangled, difficult story of a prince’s bastard who is too dangerous to be left alone, and too valuable to be killed.
Assassin’s Apprentice is a compelling read, but not an easy one. From Fitz’s broken magical bond with the young dog Nosy to the constant and horrible presence of Prince Regal, Fitz’s nasty half-uncle, things are not easy for our hero. He’s lonely and isolated, often insulted, if not outright threatened, and even his assassin mentor, Chade, is a mystery. (Chade is a delight: imagine a cantankerous Squib version of Dumbledore crossed with A Song of Ice and Fire’s Varys, but more willing to get his own hands dirty.) And I haven’t even mentioned the Forged, the semi-zombies ravaging the land in the wake of the attacking Red Ship Raiders.
Apprentice is very much the beginning of a story, and not a novel that really stands on its own; it leaves Fitz in a neighboring kingdom, recovering from another horrible attack, and with little to nothing resolved. But if you grow fond of Fitz—and I suspect you will, if you’re still reading—you will find him hard to leave behind. He’s deeply flawed, endlessly noble, full of doubt and prone to trouble. You will probably want to throw the book across the room at some of his eventual choices. But I can think of few characters I’ve followed so long—all the way into the middle age of Fool’s Assassin.
I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice when it came out because I grew up on epic fantasy and always wanted more—but also because Hobb is my college best friend’s mother, and curiosity had the best of me. But if curiosity started me on this series, the books themselves kept me going. Apprentice was the first book to ever made me miss my subway stop; more recently, Fool’s Quest made me cry on a plane. Be careful where you read these.
If you want to start with pirates and ships: Ship of Magic, The Liveship Traders Trilogy
Far down the rugged coast from Fitz’s home in Buckkeep is the city of Bingtown, home to the Liveship Traders. Liveships are literally named: after three generations of sailors die on their decks, they “quicken,” becoming sentient beings with all the memories of their deceased family. Althea Vestrit was certain that her father would leave their ship, Vivacia, to her—but he doesn’t, passing it on to his elder daughter, Keffria, for her Chalcedean husband Kyle to command.
Chalded is not a nice place, but the slave trade has made it wealthy, and Kyle opts to use Viviacia as a slaver. He won’t let Althea sail on the ship until she proves herself as a sailor, so off she goes to work on the sea, where she encounters the delightfully named Brashen Trell, who used to sail on the Vivacia. With a name like that, you know there are romantic hijinks afoot—but that’s not what keeps Ship of Magic moving. Hobb builds a bigger world than just that of the relatively privileged Traders. A pirate named Kennit comes up with a plan to free slaves, turning them into freed crews for his fleet of pirate ships; Althea’s nephew, Wintrow, struggles with being forced to sail when he wants to be a priest; and, in a storyline that starts small but becomes huge in Hobb’s connected worlds, young, bratty Malta Vestrit deals with the fact that her life is not necessarily going to turn out exactly how she imagined it.
I adore Malta, eventually, but she’s unbearable at first. Her growth is one of Hobb’s most effective character transformations. Ship of Magic, like Assassin’s Apprentice, is very much part of a longer story, and like the Farseer Trilogy, its world just keeps growing, eventually encompassing the secrets of the sea serpents whose story is woven into that of the human characters. The ecology of Hobb’s world is thoughtfully built out, and all connected, sometimes in unexpectedly heartbreaking ways. In later books, you meet Paragon, a mad Liveship, and visit an island beach whose inhabitant I will never forget. There’s a little bit of overlap with the Farseer books—but more with the Rain Wild Chronicles, as only Liveships can sail up the magically polluted Rain Wild River.
If you’re in it for the dragons: Dragon Keeper / Dragon Haven, The Rain Wild Chronicles
If you are impatient for your dragon-related books to get to the dragons already, start here; the Rain Wild series will spoil you for a few things about the Liveship Traders, but on the other hand, if you then read the Traders books, you’ll have a new perspective on the history of dragons (and on Malta Vestrit). The Rain Wild River spills into the sea near Bingtown, forming a natural barrier between it and Chalced that affects the region and its people. Rain Wilders come to Bingtown to trade, and they figure heavily in the Traders books, but the unstable landscape itself is a character here—and a constant threat.
The Rain Wild series follows a group of young people who are chosen to be dragon keepers, to accompany their charges on the (very likely one-way) journey to a lost city at the source of the Rain Wild River. One of them is Thymara, a young Rain Wilder girl altered, like so many of her people, by the toxic landscape. The keepers are accompanied by Alise, who enters a marriage of convenience in order to access the funds that will let her study dragons, and Leftrin, a barge captain who uses a piece of wizardwood (the material used in Liveships) to enable his vessel to travel the Rain Wild River.
The heart of this series is built on the dragon-keepers’ developing connections with their dragons, and the dragons themselves, weak, poorly formed creatures that lack their ancestors’ majesty and have only some of their ancestral memories. It’s been a long time since dragons were in the world, and these need human help. Their relationships are prickly, taut, sharply unlike like human relationships. The Rain Wild series ties together a handful of threads from Hobb’s other books—some incredibly satisfyingly, and some less so. The first two books feel like one book, and it’s hard, looking back, to remember where the line between them is; the arduous journey up the river takes a long time, and Hobb never shies away from the exhausting reality of traveling, hunting, dealing with other people—and dealing with dragons. This series is the most slow-burn of the three I’ve discussed here, but if you’ve read the other two, it does a lot to fill in the universe Hobb’s created, and to create a fantasy world where change, rather than tradition, takes hold.
Originally published in May 2017.