Quests seem as integral to the fantasy genre as eggs are to cake. But while I know at least one person who bakes without eggs, Robin Hobb didn’t break with tradition with her Farseer trilogy. But not only did she save the quest for the last book of the trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a stereotypical fantasy quest at all. That’s just one of the reasons it’s one of my top fantasy novels.
I healed. Not completely. A scar is never the same as good flesh, but it stops the bleeding.
So here’s the premise of this quest: Red Ships are raiding the Six Duchies and King Verity has disappeared trying to find help. Our hero, Fitz and the titular assassin, sets out on a quest to find his king.
So far so humdrum, right? But this is Robin Hobb. It’s never so emotionally straightforward.
You see, Fitz went through a truly traumatic ordeal in the second book. He was abandoned, betrayed and broken. And, by the time Assassin’s Quest begins, he’s still pretty broken inside. He’s a mess of a man. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be a man anymore, let alone get involved in the affairs of the realm again. He’d be safer if he just stayed away.
But Fitz is too damn loyal. It’s like he can’t help himself. So, despite how scared and broken he is, he has to find his king. He doesn’t want to defeat a great evil or save the realm. He very much wants to go home. But he goes all the same. It’s fascinating and admirable and even moving in places.
You are confusing plumbing and love again.
That loyalty is one of the reasons Fitz works so well as a character, because a lot of the time he’s being grumpy and mopey. The other reason is his interactions with the others characters; Hobb has a marvellous ability for drawing complicated relationships. For example, Fitz and the Fool are closer than brothers and yet they fight and they argue. Fitz doesn’t always understand the Fool and sometimes he’s even put off and repelled by his friend’s odd behaviour. But that doesn’t stop their relationship being one of the sweetest and strongest I’ve ever read.
Those relationships are the core to the book and the series as a whole. Whilst there is a grand plot this book, perhaps more than the others, is driven by Fitz. His unstinting and self-flagellating loyalty to his king, his queen and his friends. His faltering friendship with the minstrel Starling. His bond with his wolf Nighteyes. The physical and mental scars he bears, his terrors and his fears. Everything he does is motivated by these relationships and makes this a very personal and emotional book.
It is only cold stone, carved so well as to appear alive.
This extends to the dragons of Assassin’s Quest. Dragons and fantasy novels go hand-in-hand but Hobb’s take on them in this novel is unlike any I’ve come across before. Hers are made a stone, a strange mix between art, weaponry and self-sacrifice. They’re carved using magic and animated with memories, emotions and eventually life-essence of the carver. It’s a fantastic idea on its own but what takes it from fantastic to sublime is how well it fits with Fitz’s story of sacrifice. It’s a clear example of the plot being driven by the characters and I just love it.
Truth is often much larger than facts.
So, yes, there’s a quest but, no, it’s not like the quests you’ve seen in other fantasy novels. And while you’ll have to read the first two books to get the most out of this one, when you do you’ll understand why Assassin’s Quest is one of my top fantasy books. And I suspect it will be one of yours too.
Or will it? Let me know what you think of Assassin’s Quest or which novels you think should be one of my top fantasy books!