Monday, July 28, 2014

The Subtle Skill of Royal Assassin

When I write reviews, I try very hard to keep a conciliatory tone. Often that means I don't name names or toss off combustible assertions. I'm afraid, though, that I may end up doing both with this one, dear readers, so I beg your patience. See, while I was reading Robin Hobb's Royal Assassin, the sequel to Assassin's Apprentice and second volume in The Farseer Trilogy, I kept thinking of Patrick Rothfuss. Rothfuss made a big splash in the fantasy world, and for good reason: The man knows how to write and isn't afraid to let his talent take center stage. You can tell an author likes a literary panache when he pens titles such as The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Robin Hobb, though, takes almost an entirely opposite tack. The two books I've read from her so far are plainly titled and simply written. Yet such simplicity proves deceptive, because behind it lurks compositional complexity, understated linguistic flourishes, and plots more immensely satisfying to me than anything I've read in years.

The boy who kills for King Shrewd of the Six Duchies has finally taken a name -- FitzChivalry, bastard of now-deceased Prince Chivalry. Court intrigues during his uncle Verity's wedding nearly killed him, and he returned to Buckkeep, the high court of the Six Duchies, broken in both body and spirit. The kingdom has fared little better than himself during his absence. Red-Ship Raiders still harry the coasts, capturing poor peasants and stripping them of all human emotion through a terrifying magic known as forging. Discontent brews amongst the inland duchies, who see no need for new taxes and levies to guard against a threat they've yet to face. King Shrewd has fallen desperately ill, and ambitious Prince Regal has quietly begun scheming to seize the throne. FitzChivalry knows numerous ways to kill a man, but how can he handle political schemes that may send him to his grave?

Like Assassin's Apprentice before it, Royal Assassin moves at a leisurely pace. Part of that is due to the constraints of verisimilitude. The last book ended with FitzChivalry poisoned, half-drowned, and battered by his uncontrolled use of the Skill (an honored magic only those with royal bloodlines can tap), and Hobb grants him an appropriately lengthy convalescence. That makes not only for a more convincing protagonist -- a deeply damaged yet still dangerous killer rather than the typical prophesied-farm-boy-who-saves-the-world -- but also allows subtle conspiracies to slowly unspool. Here is where Hobb really shines, tossing off a bit of dialogue here and a scrap of description here that later forms the fabric of major power shifts and treasonous betrayals. Though Royal Assassin is an easy enough read, it would be more than a little challenging to outline. So little feels wasted or extraneous and everything connects to something else. It's a triumph of composition made all the better by Hobb knowing the precise moment when it's best to impress. A page of pun-laden, ribald joking from the court jester. A moment of jaw-dropping horror during a battle. A sudden shift in perspective as she expands on the books' magic system. Such subtlety shines brighter than blatant skill.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Hani Amir)


Daniel said...

Agreed. This was an unexpectedly excellent trilogy. The pace is slow but it's worth the time it takes. I'll probably be launching into the subsequent trilogy soon.

Loren Eaton said...

Glad you liked it, Daniel. I'm amazed it gets so little acclaim. It's beautifully done throughout.