In my late twenties, I gave up reading fantasy. I thought I’d exhausted the genre, or it had exhausted me. Like many of my generation, my childhood gateway was The Chronicles of Narnia. In my teens, a cousin introduced me to Tolkien and I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough fantasy: Michael Moorcock, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Raymond E Feist, Stephen R Donaldson, Terry Brooks, Terry Pratchett… the list went on and on. I gorged on this feast to the exclusion of all other reading matter, until one day, I realised I was full. Every new volume or author seemed derivative; there was nothing original to be found. So reluctantly, like someone leaving a lover, I turned my back on the companion that had accompanied me through my younger years and sought fulfilment in alternative genres.
I wandered the dominions of Other Fiction for many years, becoming increasingly fussy about the quality of the books I read. Then, as I turned forty, a friend waved a copy of a paperback in my face and insisted that I read it. Whilst I was attracted to the cover illustration by John Howe, the author, Robin Hobb, was unknown to me. Initially, I was put off by the title, Assassin’s Apprentice, imagining it signalled a sort of hundred-and-one-ways-to-kill-an-enemy gorefest. I relented, out of respect for my friend, and began my journey into The Realm of the Elderlings. This sweeping and epic fantasy series, consisting of four trilogies and a quadrilogy, kept me fascinated, engrossed and enthralled for nigh on twenty years.
Assassin’s Apprentice is the first book in The Farseer Trilogy, which submerges the reader in the early years of a prince’s illegitimate son, FitzChivalry Farseer, who is indentured into the service of the king’s assassin. Related as recollections in first person by the older Fitz, the excitement is slow to build, which thrill-seekers, or those with a short attention span, may find frustrating. For me, however, the credibility added by the quality of the writing, the depth of characterisation and the building of relationships is as captivating as any of the action scenes that appear later in the book.
Some of the concepts, the world-building, and elements of intrigue are truly original, and Hobb creates a complex narrative of interweaving themes that I found completely immersed me in Fitz’s world. His life and adventures continue to be chronicled through two more compelling trilogies: The Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool, all set in and around the Six Duchies.
The magical elements are at first understated, yet they are vital to both the characterisation and the plot. Of the two psychic powers, ‘The Skill’ is used by the ruling dynasty to help protect The Six Duchies, so it is valued and accepted by society. The Wit, however, a telepathic bond with animals possessed by Fitz, must be kept secret as it is abhorred as a lower, ‘dirty’ mental faculty. The persecution of those born with the wit could be seen as representative of prejudice in the real world, and the conflict arising from it between Fitz and other characters adds dramatic tension to many of his experiences.
Within the character-driven plot, Fitz’s relationships are paramount. Burrich, the surly stable master; Chade, the reclusive royal assassin; the wolf, Nighteyes; the ruling Farseers, and his love, Molly, form the framework of his associations, but of the greatest significance is his connection with the androgynous and gender-fluid Fool. With their destinies inextricably entwined with each other and the fate of the world, their friendship is at the core of the whole series.
Set in the same world at the same time, The Liveship Traders Trilogy and the four Rain Wild Chronicles, amaze and delight as manifestations of Hobb’s masterful writing and unique imagination. Ships built from Wizardwood are not ‘quickened’ until three people from consecutive generations of the same family have died on board. These are the only vessels that can withstand the toxic and corrosive waters of the Rain Wilds, so the Bingtown traders have a monopoly on the precious commodities found there.
The links between the Liveships, the giant sea serpents, and dragons are drip-fed within yet more astonishing adventures peopled by intriguing and beguiling characters. With a strong female line-up, who defy prescribed expectations of their gender, Hobb has created a complex society with family feuds, political crises, clashes of culture and pirates. Interweaving intricate narratives with mighty themes such as honour, greed, gender, slavery, and sexual violence (which she handles adroitly), the works have relevance to contemporary issues, even though set in a Medieval world.
Throughout the five sets are tantalising glimpses of the lost civilisation of the legendary and mysterious Elderlings, and hints at their relationship to dragons. The jigsaw of clues finally assembles into a satisfying resolusion and the main characters complete their narrative arcs.
And yet… I still found myself wanting more.
Do not be deterred by the prospect of reading sixteen volumes. You can pace yourself. If you are as captivated as I was by this multi-layered phenomenon you will be rewarded for your investment. Epic in scope, totally immersive and superbly written, I can’t recommend these books highly enough, so I will add George RR Martin’s voice to mine. He described her books as ‘diamonds in a sea of zircons’, but due to the nourishment they provided my fantasy-starved soul, I would laud them as nectar in an expanse of tripe.
The Realm of the Elderlings:
The Farseer Trilogy
Assassin’s Apprentice (1995)
Royal Assassin (1996)
Assassin’s Quest (1997)
Liveship Traders Trilogy
Ship of Magic (1998)
The Mad Ship (1999)
Ship of Destiny (2000)
The Tawny Man Trilogy
Fool’s Errand (2001)
The Golden Fool (2002)
Fool’s Fate (2003)
The Rain Wild Chronicles
Dragon Keeper (2009)
Dragon Haven (2010)
City of Dragons (2011)
Blood of Dragons (2013)
The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
Fool’s Assassin (2014)
Fool’s Quest (2015)
Assassin’s Fate (2017)
Bock, P. (2018) ‘Robin Hobb on Changing Cultures, Writing About Violence, and the Anonymity of Living on a Farm’. The New Statesman [online] 27 July 2018. Available from <https://www.newstatesman.com/uncategorized/2018/07/robin-hobb-changing-cultures-writing-about-violence-and-anonymity-living-farm> [28 February 2022]
Hobb, R. (2019) The Complete Works of Robin Hobb [online]. Available from <http://www.robinhobb.com/works.htm> [28 February 2022]
Paolini, C. (2016) Christopher Paolini Interviews Robin Hobb [online]. Available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGIkKgDuPCs> [28 February 2022]
Wikipedia (2021) Liveship Traders Trilogy [online]. Available from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liveship_Traders_Trilogy> [1 March 2022]
—. (2022) The Farseer Trilogy [online]. Available from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Farseer_Trilogy> [1 March 2022]