I remember seeing these books for the first time – way back in 90’s. The covers were in typical American style, informative but rather ugly (which is why they are not shown here at all 😉 – check this entry if you want a taste). What drew my attention to them was the name – Robin smacked of Sherwood and outlaws and all things Medieval. Yay! 😉 But those were the times when I still chose books based on their cover, so the Farseer Trilogy had to wait for its turn to be read for another decade.
When I’ve finally started reading Assassin’s Apprentice I couldn’t stop. I devoured the next two books and went looking for more. Fitz and Fool quickly found their place among my favorite characters. And they’re still there.
Hobb already wrote two trilogies about them, and now is in the middle of writing another. The second installment of the third trilogy, called Fool’s Quest, had been published a month ago. But the world she created is much bigger than the kingdom of Six Duches, where Fitz and Fool (mostly) reside, and its different corners have been depicted in a slew of other books. I quickly found out that none of the other books set in the realm of Elderlings can measure up to Fitz’s and Fool’s story – but I’ve read them at time when Hobb adamantly denied even thinking of writing any kind of a follow-up to the second Fitz and Fool trilogy. I’m really glad she did change her mind.
What makes the story of Fitz and Fool so special? It’s an epic fantasy in a classic, even slightly old-fashioned form: medieval kingdoms full of politics and war (sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between the two), lethal court games, intrigues and vicious ploys, bloody duels, ruthless assassins, and magic. A lot of magic, actually – even if at first we don’t see it all that much. There’re two main forms of magic in Hobb’s world: the Skill – a “noble” type of magic, used and nurtured by the members of the royal family, and the Wit – a form of animal magic, allowing the user to telepathically bond with animals, which is perceived as abominable by the Six Duches society.
It’s also a very poignant coming-of-age story. All events are shown through Fitz’s eyes and recounted by him in a form of memoir. Even though the narrator is a mature man, his tale exposes the readers in full to the keenness of a young boy’s feelings. And his story is not a happy one. A royal bastard, fathered by the King in Waiting, is thrown in the middle of a brutal court fights at a tender age of six. His sole existence disrupts the fate of Six Duches – because of him, the Prince Regent abdicates and removes himself from the public life, only to die a little later in what most probably was a successful assassination attempt. Fitz is taken under the wing of several father figures – the first and foremost of them is Burrich, the former right hand of Fitz’s father and now the stable master of Buckkeep Castle. There’s also Chade – a skilled, ruthless assassin who becomes Fitz’s teacher, friend and another ersatz father. As absurd as this may seem, the pair of Burrich and Chade reminds me in some ways of Settembrini and Naptha fighting for Hans Castorp’s soul in Mann’s Magic Mountain. The divisions between Burrich and Chade may lie a bit differently than between Mann’s characters, but believe me, the familiar tension is there. Hobb’s dilemma is a much simpler one, to be sure – but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. A hard life with simple choices, or a relatively comfortable one – with a hell lot of a hard, hard decisions to make. All the traditional tropes are here – addiction to power, a choice between love and duty, questions of loyalty and honor.
It’s also a story about an unlikely friendship. Or, to be more precise, friendships. But one of them is of utmost importance – and it’s a very complicated relationship between Fitz, a royal assassin, and Fool, a royal… fool. Who is not at all what he seems. In fear of unnecessary spoilers let me only say that their relation is multidimensional: it’s not only a camaraderie between two lonesome boys, but also a bond between an artist and his tool. In some fantastical ways we see a queer replay of the Pygmalion myth, where both the creator and the creation change and evolve through their relationship.
It’s also a brutal story, full of blood, death, grief and rage. After all, the first trilogy recounts the adolescent period of Fitz’s life – and, as with almost all teenagers, it’s drama, drama, drama. In his life, however, this drama seems painfully real: and Hobb doesn’t spare her protagonist not even the most terrible fate, be it loss of the loved ones, torture, or even death. There are no simple happy ends, all decisions have their consequences, which are played to their logical end – most of the time, to the detriment of the people involved.
And yet, Hobb writes in such a way that hope is never entirely lost. She writes with a masterful blend of emotion and precision. Her books are full of action, battles, assassination attempts and duels, both mundane and magical. There’s the inevitable road trip plot, used more than once, and to an applaudable effect. There’s also a lot about emotion. And I mean a lot. The climate of the whole trilogy is very introspective and Fitz spends a lot of time trying to explain his feelings. On one hand, it’s praiseworthy in a genre where emotions are usually shunned or seriously underplayed. On the other hand, this may become cumbersome at times. I’m happy to say that in the second trilogy Hobb reaches a good equilibrium between the emotion and the action.
I admire Hobb’s subtlety in creating moods, in depicting events, people, and even animals, in insinuating rather than saying everything straight. Showing, not telling. She is a master in creating believable, psychologically true characters which readers find easy to relate to – be them two or four-legged creatures. This review would be incomplete without at least a mention of the last of the three main protagonists – namely Nighteyes. He’s as rounded and real character as are Fitz and Fool.
Hobb’s Realm of Elderlings is a fully fledged world, with history, mythology, complicated system of magic and politics, with different peoples, languages, kingdoms and races. And even games! 😉 She is also a master storyteller – and her tale of Fitz and Fool is one of the best classic epic fantasy stories I have read.