Monday, 25 November 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This book caused me to get a little snippy with my husband. I was nearing the end, about 30 pages from the finish line, and he kept trying to talk to me. With most books, I could tear my attention away and not get cranky, but at that very moment, it was incredibly imperative that I continue reading and find out what happened without interruptions. Mostly calm, I told him he wasn't going to get any responses from me until I had finished, so just leave me alone for a couple of minutes!

So, thanks, Robin Hobb, for fomenting marital discontent? Luckily, my husband's a reader and a writer and gets that particular quirk.

This is all by way of saying that the last section of this book is incredibly tense! I was very worried about the mostly nameless narrator, and had no idea what was going to happen! (Well, I knew this was first in a series, so I was pretty sure he was going to survive, but beyond that, I was worried about secondary characters!) It was a pulse-pounding race to the finish, and it's been a while since a book did that to me.

This book combines a good meander with a sprint at the end. Since I enjoy both, when done well, I am enthused! I know this series has been around for a while, but it's new to me, and I sincerely hope they keep being this good.

The main character, mostly called Boy or Fitz, is left at a royal garrison when he's five or six. He is the bastard son of a Prince, and causes that Prince to abdicate his place in the succession and leave. Boy is brought up mostly by the head groom, who regards his abilities with animals with some fear. (There seem to be two magic skills in the setting, the Wit, and the Skill. I'm pretty sure they're actually the same thing, but people think they're different. The Wit works on sharing minds with animals, the Skill with humans. And when Fitz starts to Skill, he remarks offhand how similar they feel. But one is seen as anathema, the other as the sole domain of royalty.)

He is also trained by the present King's assassin, Chade. And in arms by the mistress-at-arms. And in scribing by the master scribe. There is a little bit of ALL THE SKILLS! here, but I'll let it pass. And trained badly in the Skill by the Skillmaster, who hates and fears Boy and tries to stymie his attempts at every turn, while pretending to teach him.

The kingdom is under siege. The coast towns are attacked frequently by raiders, but the raiders have started to carry out a terrible act on the villagers they leave behind, and those so affected, the Forged, are a truly frightening prospect, particularly when Boy can tell exactly what's been done to them and why. Gave me the shivers.

In the capital, things are scarcely more settled. The abdication of Prince Chivalry has left two other sons jockeying unofficially for the throne, and the marriage of one becomes the chance of the other. Not going to go into more details, but the meander through Boy's early life is entertaining if not urgent, and then when Hobb turns up the tension, she really turns it up.

Interestingly, this is also a fairly gender-neutral world, which is presented without overt comment. Succession goes through birth order, regardless of gender, and most jobs in this medieval setting are not gendered - as I said, the master-at-arms to the King is actually a mistress-at-arms. But while I appreciate that take on the world Hobb is creating, it would be nice if the female characters were given a bit more to do. The background has some interesting gender equality, but the vast majority of secondary characters, particularly the important ones, are male. It's still better than a lot of fantasy out there, but she's so close to doing something really interesting, it's just undercut by the general feeling of male homosociality, which in the world she's creating, seems at odds with the gender structure.

But that's a quibble. I thoroughly enjoyed Assassin's Apprentice, and it doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage to my marriage. But I'll make sure I get to the end of the next one someplace secluded.

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