Analysis: Assassin's Apprentice
September 25th, 2021 3:18 PM
Book: Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy One) by Robin Hobb
Medium: Audiobook (read by Paul Boehmer)
Recommendation: Read this if you enjoy first-person stories, epic fantasy, and excellent prose, character development, and worldbuilding.
As a writer myself, I find that I spend a good deal of energy on not only reading/listening to other authors’ stories but also on analyzing them. Commonly offered writing advice tells aspiring writers to read as much as possible, and the reasons should be obvious (though it's staggering how many people often believe they can write a novel without ever having read a few of them). I’ve learned so much of formatting and grammar merely from watching other professional writers wield these tools to form their prose into desirable shapes.
Ages ago, when I first wondered how to format my dialogue, I didn’t use Google or ask an online writing community; I consulted a swath of fiction books, and I read them until I felt confident that I understood the mechanics. When I found myself wondering about how to formulate an enticing plot, I paid special attention to the mechanics of plot that were on full display in the novels I was enjoying: the way the author set up his chapters and, perhaps, the way the author played with time, perspective, narrative, and the reader’s assumptions. When I have questions about character or setting or plot or theme or grammar, I can find the answers most easily in books that I enjoy. Whether I’m looking for the most granular mechanics or the most expansive concepts, I can find my answers within other authors’ stories.
To that end, I’ve decided to include in my blog a series of book analyses. I’ll be writing about other authors’ writing, and I’ll be doing it with the intention of reflecting on prose, character, and plot, mostly. I’ll be taking a hard look at the many pieces of a story that make it enjoyable (or not) and trying to come up with actionable advice I can employ in my own writing. My hope, in sharing this with the readers of my blog, is that my readers will find some useful insights that might translate into better choices in their own writing.
When a friend suggested I could link my library card to an app called Hoopla and get most of the audiobooks for Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series for free, I knew I’d finally be able dive in (it isn’t easy to find spare money for books when you’ve got four kids). This review should be spoiler free. I’ll give a summary of the novel's premise and then dive into my analysis.
The story is the first-person account of Fitz Chivalry, in which he describes his childhood and upbringing (which includes training to become an assassin) in Buckkeep Castle. He is the bastard of King Chivalry. In the beginning, Fitz is six, and he is taken to Moonseye, where, after a series of encounters, Burrich, King Chivalry’s stableman and right-hand man, eventually comes to care for him. Burrich and Fitz leave Moonseye and go to Buckkeep, where much of the remainder of the story takes place (though there is travel later).
The story was excellent. If I had to critique it, I might point out that some of the plot seemed a bit meandering. There were times where I wondered what the major, over-arching drive was for Fitz, though I suppose this “issue” might have been a great asset to the story overall, as Fitz, himself, seems to wonder often about his own purpose and place in the kingdom.
Fortunately, there are so many exterior forces that create mystery for the reader, and these forces drove me forward through any sort of slog I might've been in. Certain characters present ominous messages and hold secrets, and then there is the mystery of the happenings outside of Buckkeep. Beyond the mystery, there is an earnest, wholesome sort of bond between many characters (and animals) that warms the heart. I’d hardly call this book heartwarming overall, but I think Hobb does an incredible job with creating truthful bonds between her characters.
The elements that made this story truly enjoyable had to be the prose and the characters.
The prose struck that wonderful balance between being functional and being musical. I've read excessively indulgent prose many times. I'm talking about the kind of stuff that's almost saccharine, and you come away from it feeling like you know a whole lot about the author's intellectual views and a lot less about the story you tuned in for; you also usually have a tummy-ache. I've also read prose that's so practical that the author's rare, fleeting break from convention is like the one sunflower bobbing among thousands of leaves of grass. It catches your attention, but then you go back to another mile of grass. Hobb doesn't over-indulge in her prose, but she doesn't leave the reader waiting for flights of fancy, whimsical word choices, and poetic phrases. The prose is right where it should be.
Talking about the characters, I think Hobb has created a stellar cast. Where they really shine is not so much on their own but when and how they interact with each other. I also love the way Hobb translated her love of animals so seamlessly into the story, making the canine companions that appear live and glow just as well as any humans might. If Hobb doesn't love animals, I'd be absolutely flabbergasted to hear; her portrayal of them and the bond they have with their human companions is that influential and endearing. I loved Burrich and Chade and the way they interacted with Fitz (well, in some ways; others were reprehensible but always in character and in service to the story). Shrouded in mystery, the Fool was another fantastic character. Hobb also did an excellent job with her portrayal of Molly.
Overall, I'd highly recommend this novel. I had apprehension when I first started it because I typically don't love first-person stories, but Hobb dispelled those fears and drew me in all the same.
As for actionable writing advice, I think I'd say that I learned to give both the plot and characters time to breathe. I think that might be some portion of Hobb's secret; she doesn't always get right down to business. Mostly every scene served the plot, but she knew her characters well and let them indulge in their own eccentricities, and it made all of them much better for it. Further, she gave similar leniency to the plot, allowing events to develop organically and not urgently. I think this natural, unfolding, unfurling approach breathed a ton of life into the story, and it certainly made it one I will always remember and love.