Friday, August 8, 2014

Uneven Quest Ultimately Satisfies

It's no secret to genre lovers that the final installment in any multi-part story tends to fall a little flat, and at first Robin Hobb's Assassin's Quest -- the last book in her The Farseer Trilogy -- seems to succumb to that very fault. Court assassin FitzChivalry has found himself quite literally pulled from his grave by old friends after being tortured by Prince Regal, who is bent on securing the throne at any cost. And secure it he has. King Shrewd perished in his bed, and King-in-Waiting Verity disappeared beyond the mountains in search of the Elderlings, mysterious mythical creatures whom he hopes can save the Six Duchies from the marauding Red-Ship Raiders. Now Regal reigns in their place. The foppish prince cares nothing for maintaining trade routes or wisely ruling his subjects. He yearns only for sensual delights and the elimination of any who oppose him. But FitzChivalry is going to do more than just oppose him. Regal's actions have stripped away everything precious to him, and he's going to see the youngest Farseer royal bleed no matter what it costs.

One of the great delights of Royal Assassin, the volume that preceded Assassin's Quest, was its subtlety. Hobb wove the fabric of its action with exceeding skill, plot threads twining about each with nary a gap between them. Assassin's Quest proves much more straightforward. FitzChivalry has set his mind on killing Regal and goes right for him. When the attempt fails (and you know it will since the confrontation occurs about a third of the way in), the goal then becomes to find Verity. So far, so standard, which was a letdown from the heights of the previous two titles. When mentions of dragons began to appear at around the two-thirds mark, I rolled my eyes at the cliché, but kept on reading. Boy, I'm glad I did, because soon after Hobb jumped off the well-trodden paths of fantasy and romped through the undergrowth.

To give it a fair shake, Assassin's Quest does invert some tropes early on, but they're less dramatic than what's to come. A novel that includes the word "assassin" in its title might conjure up images of uber-competent killers who know a dozen ways to murder with an unsharpened stick. That's not FitzChivalry. He fails at almost every assassination attempt, slaughtering people he doesn't intend to, never quite reaching those he most wants dead, and accidentally hurting those he loves in the process. Such clumsiness becomes a large part of his character's development, but Hobb wants to do more than examine the interior lives of her creations. She's interested in shaking up fantasy tropes (and not in that smug, self-aware way that the intelligentsia love). Rather, she infuses existing conventions with fresh ideas. I won't spoil anything, but let's just say that the aforementioned dragons owe as much to Jewish mysticism as to Saint George. What's more, the Red-Ship Raiders' senseless savagery seems a lot more rational by the final page -- indeed, almost understandable. Assassin's Quest may be a bit uneven, but it ultimately satisfies.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero)

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