Completed 2/23/2020, Reviewed 2/23/2020
I was bowled over by how much I loved this book. It’s my first Robin Hobb, a book club read. I didn’t think I’d like it because I’m not a big fan of court politics, but it was very entertaining and highly readable. I wasn’t overwhelmed by a multitude of characters with convoluted motivations for doing what they do. Instead, it was relatively straight forward with good and bad characters as well as ambiguous situations. Of course, being about the training of an assassin, the situations are morally suspect at best. But I had empathy for the main character, Fitz and wanted him to find his place in the world.
We are first introduced to Fitz only as Boy. He’s the illegitimate son of the crown Prince. At age six, he’s torn from his mother and sent to the royal castle to be raised. There, he draws the scorn of almost everyone, being referred to only as Boy, or the bastard. He’s put in the keeping of the stablemaster, Burrich, until the royal family can figure out what to do with him. His father, an excellent negotiator and apparently a perfect successor to the throne, abdicates and leaves the castle with his barren wife to live in disgrace in the countryside. The Boy never meets his father and is named Fitz by the Burrich. There, he learns to tend horses and dogs, discovering he has the Wit, that is, the ability to communicate with animals. He bonds with one of the dogs, Nosey. Burrich discovers Fitz has this gift and takes Nosey away, warning him that this is an unnatural gift and leads to becoming so bonded with animals that he’ll become wild himself. This causes him to hate and distrust Burrich, making his youth a difficult and frustrating experience.
After a time, Fitz is visited by strange man known as Chade. Chade informs him that he has been chosen by the King to become an assassin and wants him trained as such. He trains at night with Chade while attending the stable and his other schooling during the day. Whenever he can, he runs out into the town and hangs out with street urchins, becoming close with a girl who makes candles and has an abusive, alcoholic father. But as his studies increase, he gets to spend less and less time with her. Eventually, he is assigned his first major assassination, to kill the brother of the Princess who is going to marry the new heir to the throne.
Upon the opening of the book, you can’t help but have empathy for Fitz. He’s put in a terrible situation at an early age. I found myself having empathy for him in the first chapter. Burrich, despite taking Nosey away from him, is also mostly likeable. He does the best he can with Fitz even though that is not enough. And he can’t protect him from the disdain of being a bastard in the royal court. Because he is of royal blood, Fitz also has the gift called the Skill, a psychic ability with people. At one point, he is assigned to develop his skill under Galen, a cruel abusive instructor who wants Fitz to fail. This training makes Fitz more enemies and haters than friends, leaving him mostly only Chade and Burrich for support.
The book doesn’t really have a lot of action until the end. Mostly, it is about a boy growing up in a deplorable situation. But it is well written and very engaging. I found myself having a hard time putting it down. At the end, despite passing out after about two hundred pages during the day, I woke up after a few hours and found myself being driven to read the last seventy pages late into the night. Fitz is just so darned likeable, I couldn’t help but plow through to the end to see what was going to happen to him. This speaks a lot to the characterization. Even though the bad guys are more or less cookie cutter evil, I found them engaging and deliciously monstrous.
I give the book five stars out of five. It’s the most engaging book I’ve read in a while. It’s also the first series in a while that I wanted to continue reading after the first book, despite the height of my TBR pile. So I don’t know when I’ll get to the rest of the books, but I will definitely read them. I tend to write off authors who mostly only have one long series, especially in fantasy. I don’t know why I have this prejudice, but I realize now that it has kept me from discovering a wonderful book and writer. I know that not every author is consistent throughout a series, but I’ll give Hobb the benefit of the doubt here and at least read the rest of this first trilogy.