Sequels are tricky things. They suffer from anticipations and expectations. They promise more of what you loved, but there’s always a secret fear that the writer will have lost “it”, “it” being that magical touch that made the prior installments so good. Everyone has been crushed by a sequel at some point. Once you’ve experienced your own personal Phantom Menace, the prospect of a sequel is never the same. So it’s fair to say that I approached epic fantasy Fool’s Assassin with a mixture of hope and dread.
Worst still was the fact that this was the second time Robin Hobb had done this to me. The story of royal bastard FitzChivalry (or Fitz) began in the Farseer Trilogy and had a downbeat but definite end. That ending was opened up in the Tawny Man trilogy but, while it was something of a retread of the first, Hobb pulled it off and gave Fitz a happier ending. Now Fool’s Assassin would be the beginning of a third trilogy, a third attempt to open up a closed book. Would the law of diminishing returns strike? Could Fool’s Assassin be the book where she lost “it”?
We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show, but never heal.
To enjoy the Fitz books, you have to love Fitz. Stubborn, headstrong, sometimes maudlin, not always wise, with a strong sense of morality and rarely a sense of how to employ it. You feel less that Hobb has create the hero of an epic fantasy and more a real, flawed man to hang her story on. Fitz is not the same character he was in the first trilogy, though. His experiences have battered him, strengthened him in some senses, weakened him in others. He’s older, more mature, but in some ways he’s the same old Fitz. He’s not a bad analogy for the novel as a whole.
Robert Zemeckis once said that people like a sequel because they want to revisit characters and places they loved the first time around. Hobb understands this, and so Fool’s Assassin respects, recalls and revisits the previous installments. Thus there are visits to Buckkeep, and characters like Chade and Kettricken and Dutiful make appearances. Even absent characters are present through recollection or, in a sense, resurrection. Fans of a particular relationship they might think ended will not, I feel, be disappointed. In some sense, Fool’s Assassin is the same old Fitz story.
But just as Fitz’s new maturity and responsibilities are the most interesting things about him, Fool’s Assassin works best where it leaves behind all the old intrigue and politics of prior stories. Instead of trying to preserve a royal family and its kingdom, the focus of this novel is closer, more immediate: Fitz’s family. This by necessity creates a smaller story; so small the first map is of Fitz’s house. But though it is smaller in scope it is deeper in feeling, which is where Hobb’s novels always do best. And it’s a perfect way to open up Fitz’s world to new narratives. Yes he’s had a happy ending, but happy endings very rarely lack their own complications.
Hobb also takes this opportunity to open up the story to new narrative techniques. Fans of these books might think it heresy, but trust me: you will love reading the chapters written from a viewpoint other than Fitz’s.
You might be surprised to find that facing life can be much harder than facing death.
But, just as Fitz can’t let go of some of his old, poorer habits, so Hobb couldn’t quite let go of old story elements. So Chade inserts new intrigues into Fitz’s life (without any explanation for Fitz or reader) and, perhaps worse, too many old characters remain. Consider how much time has passed since the beginning of the first trilogy; some characters just shouldn’t be breathing anymore. I’m not usually so bloodthirsty, but Hobb only highlighted this by teasing a number of character deaths only to snatch them back from the jaws of death mere pages later.
Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful.
Fool’s Assassin also made me realise something about Hobb’s books I’d never noticed before. Have you ever described a story in a single sentence? “Unassuming hobbit must destory a magic ring to defeat a dark lord”? “Young rebel must learn the powers of the mystical Jedi to topple an evil Galactic Empire”? “Royal bastard trains as an assassin to help save his kingdom”? Most stories make sure you can offer such a description early on. “Here’s the type of story you can expect”, they say, and either fulfill that expectation, subvert it, or disappoint it.
Fool’s Assassin doesn’t do that. And not just that, but all the Fitz books. Hobb writes a story that ambles its way through the plot. It’s certainly a pleasant amble, even an entrancing amble. But it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo. The reader doesn’t know what to anticipate, what to dread, what to attend to and what to be intrigued by. This is what makes Chade’s new intrigues frustrating. They seem so disconnected from the new world Fitz lives in and there is no explanation to them. So they stand out like a sore thumb and even seem like filler. Most readers of Fool’s Assassin won’t mind this, because they’ll have read prior trilogies and thus be happy to go where Hobb leads. But I suspect newer readers might not be willing to offer Hobb the trust she deserves.
Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now.
But here is why I love Fool’s Assassin, and all Hobb’s work, despite those grievances: you don’t worry about them whilst you’re reading. Hobb’s prose is beautiful in its description, searing in its truth, compelling in its narrative, and it forces you to forgive all sins. It puts character before lore and it lets character drive plot. Her worldbuilding is not overbearing; it intrudes on the page only rarely, when it needs to. There is still the magic, the grand locations and action scenes that epic fantasy demands. But it’s all focused on character. And those characters are so well-drawn, so deeply developed, that you’ll love them by the end. It isn’t the plot that keeps you turning the page; it’s wanting to see your beloved characters delivered through that plot, safe and sound.
If you’ve read the previous Fitz books but you’re worried about Phantom Menace syndrome, set aside your fears. Fool’s Assassin is a worthy sequel to the series. If you haven’t read any Fitz books, don’t start here. Yes, you might enjoy it and, no, you don’t need to have read the others. But you’ll miss out on the history, the nuances, and the clever callbacks, and I like you too much to let you do that to yourself. So go read Assassin’s Apprentice and worth your way up to Fool’s Assassin.
You’ll thank me for it.