Not long ago Nic wrote about Robin Hobb here, and pointed out the over-arching characteristics of her work: "intricate plotting, knife-edge tension, a sense of place so real you can smell it, and emotional engagement in spades with characters well worth caring about." What more can I say about Royal Assassin, the second book in her Farseer Trilogy? It's certainly all the above...and yet something less, and something more.
It's a fact universally acknowledged that middle volumes can be tricky, mirred as they are in the set-up for the great climactic finale of Vol. 3, loosing their way amidst all the inevitable crisis and anxiety of high fantasy. It can kill the *feel* of things, this liminal volume, if it looses sight of the story's beginning or its ending. Happily, Royal Assassin, doesn't really suffer from the mid-way syndrome, thanks mostly to its strong emotional thrust. It also has somewhat of a narrative integrity of its own, beginning as it does with FitzChivalry's return to Buckkeep (having foiled a plot against King-in-Waiting Verity and his new bride Kettricken at the end of the last volume) and ending with...well...a resolution of sorts. And despite fulfilling the functions of a middle volume (which include: ladling on the sense of impeding doom with a spade and oozing nefarious mystery), it has a definite, if unusual, momentum.
At the centre of it stands our first person narrator, Fitz the Bastard, son of Prince Chivalry, a man whose birth disordered, and continues to disorder, the make-up of the Farseers, the ruling family of the Six Duchies. Tenaciously loyal to his uncle, King-in-Waiting Verity and to his grandfather, King Shrewd, he struggles to serve both as his kingdom comes under attacks from within (in the form of Prince Regal) and from without (the Red Ship raiders). Meanwhile his enigmatic friend, the Fool, taunts him with riddles and codes, calling him "catalyst" and "changer", and he finally allows himself to use his animal-sense - the socially unacceptable Wit - to bond to a wolf called Nighteyes.
A sense of emotional immediacy threads through the whole of Hobb's novel; the first person narration gives us access to Fitz's interiority, while the Skill and the Wit - both forms of telepathy - open up hitherto unseen bonds to the reader's eye. She uses these to carry the saving grace of the novel's plot: its strong arch of emotional development. We left Fitz as an adolescent at the end of Assassin's Apprentice but leave him a man by the end of Royal Assassin, having witnessed him suffer through first love, rejection and bereavement and seeing him come to terms with his anomalous position as an illegimate child of Kings. Then there is his acceptance and use of the Wit, and his incremental exposure to complex networks of loyalty, honour and duty. More than once he is forced to divorce himself from the wisdom of his teachers, Burrich and Chade, and make independent choices, some of them with far-reaching consequences. All of which confirms what most Hobb readers already know: she runs a masterful line in interpersonal relationships. No disputes there.
There is, of course, the matter of the plot which is characteristically, some would say glacially, slow. The actual action could be summarised thus: Prince Regal pursues the throne with murderous ruthlessness, the Red Ship Raiders get meaner and Fitz, Verity and the Fool et al race to foil both. Fitz is stranded at Buckkeep for the first 500 pages of the novel, making the wide sweep of distress and politicking in the Six Duchies feel distant. When he does get to go about his business, either as the assassin of the title or in the battles against the Red Ships, the narrative unaccountably speeds up to sweep over the scenes. It's almost as if Hobb prefers to write in confines, using Buckkeep as a kind of safe zone to worry out everything of psychological import. The great quest of the novel - Verity's journey to find the mythical Elderlings - usually so central to high fantasy, occurs off-screen (and by destroying Fitz's ability to Skill in the first novel, Hobb cut off any real hopes of following the quest through her narrator's eyes.) Still, despite this Hobb manages to hold everything together, diverting the tension into character interiority with ease.
And finally, a thought I've been toying with: I think Hobb understands something vitally important about how the fantasy genre works, something that often gets forgotten in the rush of questing and romancing and the destruction of evil: the dichotomy of chaos and order. The world of the Farseers has both in spades, but in essential balance. Political upheaval is countered by a strong social stability and order; everyone knows their place in the Six Duchies, everyone knows when something is against the nature of things...and Hobb's characters know that their duty is to reestablish this natural state. It is a world in which order and honour, chaos and evil are directly opposed, and every reader knows it is the quashing of the latter and the victory of the former that matters. Whether this involves the usual tropes, or whether it involves skulking around a castle for 700 pages it still works in the hands of an accomplished fantasist. Such is Hobb.
In other news:
- By some wonderous miracle I found the receipt for the O'Keefe book on children's fantasy and returned it to Borders with narry a qualm. Having gotten back my £10 I ploughed it straight back into the industry (as always!) by picking up two of the Orange longlisters that particularly interested me: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (which is in a lovely hardback at the moment) and Harbor by Lorraine Adams. This is all part of my campaign to read more of the novels nominated for prizes...then I can have Opinions on who wins and write lucidly about them. The Award Ceremony is June 6th and the shortlist is announced April 26th.