Nearly twenty years ago, Robin Hobb burst upon the fantasy scene with the first of her acclaimed Farseer novels, Assassin’s Apprentice, which introduced the characters of FitzChivalry Farseer and his uncanny friend the Fool. A watershed moment in modern fantasy, this novel—and those that followed—broke exciting new ground in a beloved genre. Together with George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb helped pave the way for such talented new voices as Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, and Naomi Novik.
Over the years, Hobb’s imagination has soared throughout the mythic lands of the Six Duchies in such bestselling series as the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Rain Wilds Chronicles. But no matter how far she roamed, her heart always remained with Fitz. And now, at last, she has come home, with an astonishing new novel that opens a dark and gripping chapter in the Farseer saga.
FitzChivalry—royal bastard and former king’s assassin—has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire.
Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past . . . and his future.
Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one. . . .
Before I start this review, it is important to understand that the books that make up Robin Hobb's vast tapestry - from the original Assassin's Apprentice to the more recent Blood of Dragons - are some of my favourite fantasy novels. I adore Hobb's writing style and of everything she has written the adventures of Fitz and the Fool have a special place in my heart. I read the second Fitz trilogy at a very important time in my life (the few years while I was dating, getting engaged to and marrying my wife) and as such it is very difficult for me to be anywhere close to objective when it comes to writing down my thoughts about this return to Fitz.
You have been warned! :)
Fool's Assassin picks up a few years after the events of Fool's Fate. As with many other Robin Hobb's books, this is a slow burn as we settle back into Fitz' skin and see the life he has built for himself in his father's old estate. For once, we see Fitz enjoying his life - he has Molly, he is rebuilding his relationship with his daughter and he has found some kind of balance with the demands of the throne and his former mentor Chade. It was such a joy to see all of this, to rediscover these characters, to watch Fitz finally enjoy a moment of happiness with Molly, that the opening chapters, while extremely slow paced flew by. That is not to say that nothing happens in these early pages - almost from the get-go we are introduced to a mystery that has burst into Fitz' life: a pale-faced messenger who is murdered before she can tell Fitz why she is here. For anyone who is a fan, it is easy to guess at least a vague idea of the identity of the messenger and the message she is carrying.
The first book covers quite a large swath of time, allowing Hobb to deal with something that happened in a prior novel - Fitz was healed by an overwhelming use of the Skill and as such he is not aging at the normal rate. Hobb handles this very carefully as he watches his wife Molly grow older while he remains - physically, at least - in his early thirties. This also allows for one of the best fakeouts of the book as Molly seems to descend into senility, convinced that she is pregnant while showing no outward signs. As months and then years go past, it becomes tragically clear that the whole thing is in her mind... Until suddenly she gives birth!
And this is where Hobb lays to rest any fears those who are not rabid fans like me that she is not simply retelling the same story again. For the first time in the Fitz series, we are provided another voice - that of Bee, Fitz' strange, wonderful and miraculous baby girl. From the moment she is born, we are given alternating viewpoints of Fitz and his daughter, giving us extra insight into the character we know and love as another person describes him to us. Bee is a great new character, whose mysterious origin seemed obvious to me, but that was part of the charm, waiting for the other characters to wake up and realise who she had to be. I won't give away exactly who and what Bee really is, but the revelation right at the end is definitely worth it.
As usual, Hobb does a great job of dragging you behind Fitz' (and later Bee's) eyes and making you feel for them both. Their emotions are so real, so visceral, which is what has gained Robin Hobb so many fans over the years. We not only read about Fitz, we truly become him, because Hobb's writing is so immediate and yet so lush that it is almost impossible not to get swept up in it. As the book progresses, Fitz' simple happy life is slowly chipped away, notably through the arrival of two characters who I am sure we will all love to hate (FitzVigilant and Shun), so the emotional heft of the work really picks up as we reach the conclusion.
The conclusion... Heartbreaking, exciting, glorious and inevitable all at once, Hobb manages to bring a beloved character back and moments later tears Fitz' heart out. I dare any fan of these characters not to let slip an involuntary gasp when Fitz realises who exactly he has stabbed in town (I'll keep from spoiling who exactly that is!) As Fitz ominously explains in the epilogue: the darkest time of my life had begun.
A slow-moving, glorious exploration of a truly amazing character, Fool's Assassin is a triumphant return to the world of Fitz and the Fool, to the world of Buckkeep and the Mountain Kingdom, to the world of assassins, Skillmasters and dragons. Hobb does a great job of reintroducing her characters in such a way that even someone who has never read any of the other books would be able to pick it up and quickly understand what is happening. While it starts off slow, the book plays with expectations, introducing a new viewpoint for the first time and creating, in Bee Farseer, a wonderful new character. The ending, heartrending and hugely exciting, bodes badly for Fitz in the future, but based on the last two trilogies, that bodes well for all of us readers as this new trilogy progresses.
Without hesitation, I give Fool's Assassin 5 Witness Stones out of 5.