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“But There’s No Action!”: Robin Hobb and Breaking the Fantasy Mold

I read a lot of books these days; usually at least one Big Fat Fantasy Novel a week, sometimes more. But of all I’ve read in the last two months, only one book grabbed me so hard that I couldn’t do anything else until I’d finished it. That was Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice.

The book introduces us to FitzChivalry Farseer, a prince’s bastard son who’s brought to his father’s family as a small child, raised by the stablemaster, and trained to be (surprise!) an assassin in the service of his grandfather the king. Without a doubt, there are a few elements of this world and its story that make it likely to appeal to me in particular. The main character has animal empathy magic, which has always been one of my favorite magical abilities. The royal family in Hobb’s Six Duchies, the Farseers, have a unique naming tradition, where children’s names are expected to reflect their dominant personality quality (Fitz’s father really is named Chivalry; others in the royal family are Shrewd, Regal and Verity); any book that demonstrates that its author has thought about names and naming already has points in its favor for me. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I have a soft spot for rogues, particularly the hapless sort who still make mistakes. In this book, Fitz does that in spades, ending up on the wrong side of some powerful people who don’t like the steps he’s taking to try to preserve the honor of his home kingdom.

I enjoyed every part of this book: the worldbuilding around how assassins are trained, the contradictory cultural views of different kinds of magic (while human-to-human telepathy is viewed as a mark of royal blood, Fitz’s animal empathy skills are a curse), the distinctive and disturbing way that the Six Duchies’ enemies have of raiding seaside villages. I thought the characters were well-drawn and sympathetic. In general, the book left me with a feeling of having been well-entertained by a skillful storyteller; so when I finished it, as I’ve taken to doing with all the books I’ve liked in the last year, I went on Amazon.com and read some 1-star reviews. (I find it’s a good way to remind myself that no book is going to please all its readers).

One of the most common complaints I found about this book was that its protagonist spent the majority of his time feeling sorry for himself (a point which I can get behind); the complaint that surprised me, though, was that “nothing happened” in the first book. People who didn’t like it said that the book was “boring” or that “the pacing… is positively glacial.” I couldn’t disagree more. I liked the level of detail Hobb went into about Fitz’s life in the castle, his training, and his relationships with his teachers and the family he’s trying to figure out his relationship with, and I never felt like the plot dragged.

A few weeks later, when I read my second Hobb book (The Dragon Keeper), I remembered the review and took more notice of Hobb’s distinctive storytelling style.  Basing my impressions on the back cover copy (admittedly always a dangerous first step), I expected the book would be about a group of humans and dragons making their way up the river in search of an old dragon settlement, but the expedition doesn’t leave until more than two-thirds of the way through the book. Dragon Keeper isn’t about the adventure to find the hidden city; it’s about introducing us to the viewpoint characters (of which there are about half a dozen), their world, and their struggles. There’s the girl who comes from a society marked by traces of magic, who’s viewed as deformed and second-class because the magic manifested itself more overtly in/on her body than it does in “normal” people. There’s the dragon who doesn’t live up to her own ideals and race-memories of what a dragon should be. There’s the human scholar who studies dragons, thinking about fleeing her emotionally abusive, loveless marriage. Before putting these characters together, Hobb takes the time and space to let us get to know them as individuals — and small moments, like showing us how a riverboat captain uses his ship’s cat to check for vermin in the cargo, are the things I liked best about this book.

While I haven’t read nearly enough Hobb to speak about whether this leisurely style holds true for all her books, I will say that after having it brought to my attention, I found it refreshing. I feel like modern genre fiction too often falls into the trap of drawing its inspiration from the most cliche devices of big-budget movies, video games and tabletop RPGs, where there’s an expectation that the intrepid heroes will encounter an opportunity to fight at least once every few chapters. As someone who has a hard time with visualization when she reads, I often end up skimming action scenes, and get frustrated when the climax of a book is entirely wrapped around a clash of swords and fireballs. I’ve set aside more than one series for having “too much fighting”; not because I was bothered by the violence, but simply because I’d gotten bored.

In my position as an as-yet-unpublished author, I’m maybe more sensitive than many to the expectations around what fantasy books are “supposed” to look like — and when I outline my own books, looking for thematically-appropriate mini-arcs in the big story I’m telling, I find myself looking for places that’d “make a good final fight scene.” It’s reassuring for me to find an author like Hobb, well-respected and well-read, who bends an expectation that I’d begun to think of as one of the most strongly embedded. I have a friend who’s interested in reading more genre fiction, but hesitates because she’s not interested in reading fight scenes. After reading these two books, I’ve got a new author to recommend.

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  1. I’ve read the first two books and part of the third of the assassin trilogy and two of the Live Ship Traders trilogy. I couldn’t get through the third Fitz book, mainly because he gets even more whiny and self pitying. It probably would have turned around by the end, but I just couldn’t stand spending any more time with Fitz.

    Live Ship Traders is my favorite of the two trilogies. I think it helps that there are multiple POV characters, so I don’t get bogged down in one perspective I find annoying.


    • I am definitely planning to read more Hobb; I’ve heard from other people as well that Fitz gets whinier and more pathetic as the series goes on, but I think I’ll make an effort to get through the rest of his first trilogy if nothing else. The animal empathy stuff is pretty much a sure bet for me. 🙂


  2. One of my favourite fantasy series, and I’ve read a lot of them .( 3-5 books a week since early childhood – I have a 1st Class English Degree and I’m 41 :).

    Lots happens, but mostly on a personal scale, though there are stirrings of bigger things to come. I found the first person narrative intensely involving – there are times in Book 2 it was actually hard to read – I’ve never been more involved in a fantasy book series. I liked the shades of grey in the morality – there’s no evil Dark Lord, just people, capable of great evil or great good, and sometimes the difference between them is just perspective.

    Liveship Traders was also excellent, and the Tawny Man trilogy was also very good tying the previous two series together.

    I would highly recommend reading Farseer, then Liveships, then Tawny Man, Then, Rain Wild Chronicles. There are crossover characters and references that make much more sense read in this order.


    • Thanks for the tips, Paul! I have so far read only this one and the first Rainwild book, but I think there will be more Robin Hobb in my future. I like first-person narratives for the same reason, and that’s a lot of my rationale for using that perspective in my own book.


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