Any fan of high fantasy who has yet to read Robin Hobb is missing out. Fool's Assassin, which comes out today, returns readers to the world of the Farseers, where royal bastards may be trained to become assassins for the throne. And while the latest book isn't epic in scope, it's a reminder that there is room for emotionally rich, human stories in fantasy worlds.
A word of warning: there are spoilers below for Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies. You can read our preview of Fool's Assassin here.
I remember when I first came across Robin Hobb's books. I was falling a bit out of love with swords and sorcery, but pulled a copy of Assassin's Apprentice off a friend's shelf. Inside, I found a startling coming-of-age story, one where the characters felt so instantly real that it read like autobiography. The narrator was FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of a prince who has abdicated his claim to the throne. Sent to live in the castle where his grandfather, King Shrewd, reigns, Fitz isn't just drawn into the intrigue of the court; he is also trained by a mysterious man named Chade to become an assassin so that the throne will view Fitz as an asset to the Farseers rather than a liability.
Hobb's name is often linked to George R.R. Martin's, and with good reason. Like Martin, she has built a world with a rich history and she uses a light—but often terrifying—touch with magic. But where Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling narrative spread across numerous characters, Hobb prefers intimacy, spending an entire book with just one or two characters' voices in our heads. Fitz is so often stumbling for his place in a world that has little use for bastards, but a grave need for heroes.
After the events of the Farseer trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy, Fool's Assassin finds Fitz enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Most of the world believes he is dead, and Fitz is content to live out his days not as FitzChivalry Farseer, but in relative anonymity as Holder Tom Badgerlock. He resides in the pastoral Withywoods manor, at last married to his childhood sweetheart Molly and in the company of his beloved stepmother Patience. And while we know that Fitz's life can't possibly remain peaceful forever, it's a delight to sink into the comforts of Withywoods.
It takes a deft hand to ensure that parties and daily tasks and talk of distant politics aren't boring, and Hobb manages to make this world rich and inviting, even while the shadow of future tragedies looms overhead. Much like Buckkeep Castle served as a significant character in the Farseer trilogy, so too is Withywoods manor an important character, one filled with its own secrets—a surprisingly appropriate home for a former assassin.
For even in Withywoods, Fitz can't escape the man he once was. And when the outside world intrudes upon his haven, Fitz once again has to decide who he wants to be and where his loyalties lie—something complicated by the changing shape of his immediate family.
Hobb is an incredibly vivid writer who pays close attention to the interior lives of her characters. She can make you weep over a character's death, sure, but she can also make you sigh over a conversation between a husband and wife who have finally found comfort in each other, or between a father and daughter struggling to understand one another. Her characters are alive, and a pleasure to spend time with even at their most frustrating. Fitz is a character we've watched grow from boyhood, but he's still evolving, still learning the lessons that come with being a husband and father. While Fool's Assassin may lack the epic questing of the Tawny Man books, that very human journey is still thrilling to watch and makes Hobb's works, even with their fantastical setting, as emotionally satisfying as anything you'll hear reviewed on NPR.
Fool's Assassin is a slow burn of a book, building to a cliffhanger that will clearly lead us into a more action-packed series. But its deep focus on character ensures that the story never drags. As I approached the last hundred pages of the novel, I found myself getting wistful, realizing I'd only get to spend a few more hours with these characters at this point in their lives—at least until the next book comes around. Fool's Assassin feels like a visit with an old friend, one you haven't seen in years but who still holds very special a place in your heart. Fitz may have grown older, but he's still exciting company.