Monday, 26 September 2016

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Betrayed, tortured and left for dead, Fitz has survived the depredations of his mad uncle Regal and been taken to safety in the countryside of the Six Duchies. Plagued by nightmares and trauma, Fitz eventually recovers enough to swear himself to two tasks: the murder of Regal and the safe rescue of Verity, the long-missing true king.

Assassin's Quest concludes the Farseer Trilogy in a manner that I don't think anyone was quite expecting. The first two volumes of the Farseer series are traditional epic fantasies in many respects, but ones where more overt displays of magic and violence are rolled back in favour of a deeper emotional storyline and character development. Still, with their intrigue, battles, romance and betrayals (if separated by lots of long-winded introspection), there is much of the standard fantasy template within them.

Assassin's Quest is completely different. In fact, it's a very strange book. For most of the novel we are firmly in Fitz's head as he undergoes what can best be described as a PTSD-induced nervous and near-mental breakdown after the trauma he suffered at the end of Royal Assassin. Suffering severe depression and making awful judgement calls (as everyone calls him on but himself), Fitz has to first find himself and restore his confidence before he can embark on his long-delayed true quest, which is to find and rescue Verity. Eventually, after crossing (with agonising slowness and quite astonishing amounts of angst) the entire length of the Six Duchies, Fitz overcomes his demons and gets on with the story. The problem is that this happens some around page 500, meaning that the novel only then has 300 pages to wrap the entire trilogy up in.

You might imagine this means that those last 300 pages are full of incident and plot and character development as Hobb brings the story across the finish line? Not so much. Those 300 pages still meander, circling around major plot and character moments for dozens of pages before landing (and often exactly where the reader can see them going). Eventually, in the last few pages of the book, the author explains the background of the Elderlings, Forging, the Red Ship Raiders, the Skill and many other aspects of her world, but it comes so abruptly after almost 800 pages of slow-burning despair that it feels highly anti-climactic.

In some ways you have to respect Hobb for crafting such an utterly strange ending to a fantasy trilogy, one that shys away from convention and ignores every rule of plot structure and pacing. In many respects Hobb was writing a profoundly anti-epic fantasy, something similar to what Patrick Rothfuss appears to be doing with his trilogy (only with rather less humour), and in its sacrifice of plot and action and exposition for character and a realistic approach to how a real human mind might cope with the craziness of your average epic fantasy adventure, Hobb is clearly doing something different.

But different does not mean good and the thing about experiments is that they sometimes just don't work. Assassin's Quest has fine moments of characterisation (probably best exemplified in the relationship between Fitz and the Fool), some real moments of jaw-clenching terror and some very odd moments of real magical weirdness, but it is also a novel that unfolds with all the verve, pacing and tension of watching a lethargic snail travel thirty miles. The massive stakes and tensions raised over the course of almost 1,200 pages across the first two volumes are effectively handwaved away at the end of the novel: the Red Ship Raiders are defeated off-screen, the Fool remains resolutely unexplained and most of Fitz's friends and allies remain in complete ignorance that he is alive.

Obviously we know now there is more to come in the Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies, but on its own merits Assassin's Quest (**½) is an altogether unsatisfying conclusion to the first series, languid to the point of unconsciousness until the too-rushed ending. There are some wonderful atmosphere moments and some occasionally effective dialogue, but overall it is a disappointing novel. Still, it is followed up by the far superior Liveship Traders trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Anonymous said...

Interesting review. I didn't dislike it to this degree, but I can agree on it being a very different an unusual ending book. It did feel just a little too depressing and often seemed to be spinning its wheels just trying to take up space before the finale, but as you said, even that isn't done how you'd expect.

Overall, I still enjoyed the book, but I felt it presaged the problems that would come in the next trilogy, especially in its finale, similarly to this book. But I guess we'll get there later :)

Anonymous said...

The previous comment summed up my thoughts entirely and stated everything I was going to. Will you be reviewing The Liveship Traders trilogy?

Adam Whitehead said...


Anonymous said...

A very strange review. I had a quite different take on the book, as I thought the last book was note-perfect. I was crying by the end... "Assassin's Quest" is one of the very few books that has done that to me. (I also remember the distinct creeping feeling of dread while reading the last book - sensing that it couldn't possibly resolve happily, since there were less and less story left.) The final twist regarding the Forged felt also very satisfying, yet totally unexpected. (To me at least.) An emotional gut-punch.

Wastrel said...

I understand why many people feel the second half of the book doesn't work. It is slow, and it's more about the underlying mental and spiritual journey than about the normal external adventure elements of epic fantasy. The main plot is then wrapped up ridiculously quickly, although the final page is so great that it's often been considered one of fantasy's greatest endings (particularly before we knew there would be more). But yeah, the pacing is totally off.

What I don't understand, though, is why some people have the same problem with the first half. I've always found it gripping and action-packed! The protagonist has more close encounters with death in that half book than many protagonists go through in an entire series; there's a compelling emotional line, great set-pieces, genuinely intimidating villains, and really it doesn't even take that long. The big, 'red-herring' plot-diversion only lasts about 100 pages in total. I just don't see how this half of the book - which for me effectively plays as a thriller - is slow.
[It has many of the trope of a thriller. It's a pursuit thriller like, say, The Fugitive combined with a the-hunter-is-hunted thriller like The Day of the Jackel or In the Line of Fire. Nobody complains that The Fugitive is slow because Harrison Ford spends most of the time just running away with no real long-term plan while having angsty flashbacks!]

I also don't really understand, despite being generally of a sunny disposition myself, why people see Fitz's thoughts as "slow burning despair" and "agonising amounts of angst" (and again, it's certainly not just you) - sure, he gets a bit maudlin now and then, but he's rarely seriously depressed (things happen that pain and upset him, but he keeps moving forward and generally focuses on the future). I guess maybe a lot of people just have incredibly happy lives and find it disconcerting reading a character who isn't always witty quips and quaffing and joyous lust for life. Personally, while, as I say, I see myself as a happy person now, I may be in the minority (going by general attitudes toward Fitz's "whining") but as a teenage boy I did have some moody, discontented moments, with much less cause than Fitz, so I find Fitz's grumbling and worrying, and his introspection, very natural, and very comfortable. I think Hobb would have found it hard to really say anything meaningful or important about the human condition without allowing her characters a degree of introspective 'angst'.

Have you read all of Hobb's books before? Because if the first half of AQ is too slow and painful for your taste, her later work may really not be for you. Both the issues and the mental states in later books are much more serious than the teenager-being-beaten-to-death sulking of Farseer, and the pace is (mostly) much more careful and deliberate.
[Although I'm hoping you haven't read all of them yet, as it will make your reviews more interesting. Err... that's not meant as a slight on this review, I mean. Just that it's always interesting to see people's first opinions about things.]

David Millington said...

I'm with the previous poster. The angst of Fitz is one the reasons I really like the books and him as a protagonist and I find the trilogy packs a huge emotional punch. The traditional action does happen off screen a little but I didn't feel that I really missed it - the emotional journeys of the main characters and the sacrifices they made were at the heart of the book and story and so that action was not needed.

Alexander Cotter said...

These books get so much acclaim. It's good to hear that I'm not the only one with this reaction.

Brian Chesham said...

I disagree with this review. I found this to be my favourite book of the trilogy and maybe my favourite book written by Hobb. It was so emotional and I loved the impeding sense of dread and hopelessness it conveyed, especially in the 2nd half. It is perhaps the only fantasy novel which has ever hit that deep of an emotional cord with me while keeping me on the edge of my seat the entire time.