TL;DR: You don’t need to catch up to fall for Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin.
Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.
But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…
On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.
Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?
Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.
Normally I’m kind of like the most obsessive reader you know turned up to eleven. I read in publication order. I read all of the author’s work. If there’s short story cannon, I read it. If chapters get anthologized before the novel, they’re close by when I open the book.
I care how prose evolves, how authors develop, and what changes are made as the story comes into being.
It’s not a rule, but it’s typical. I don’t usually allow myself to just dip in any old where. There are drawbacks, of course. While I’m incredibly familiar with several authors, I also have some notable blind spots. Robin Hobb was one of them. One I’d been meaning to rectify for a couple years. She presented interesting challenges regarding where to begin, so I figured I’d try going in blind for once.
Technically, the learning curve for this book could be fourteen novels long. Like, you probably shouldn’t start here. You’ll miss so much. You won’t understand. You’ll spoil some of the best work in the genre.
Don’t believe it. The first paragraph is really the only one that matters, because Hobb takes it seriously. And the life after service might be the rarest gem in all of fantasyland, so precious that we only get glimpses of it on the margins.
We see Badgerlock as a man, a husband, a father, and a retiree. We get to know him and come to understand who he is. There’s never the sense that what we’re looking at it is merely the comfortable life he’ll be pulled out of for one last job. That’s how the ad copy reads.
But that’s not what I read. I read a heartrending book about what it means to be human, to love, to be loved and try to accept that love. To expect and exult and sulk and settle. To try to do your best and find that’s not always good enough.
Fitz was clearly a hero. He was clearly great. He deserved respite. But could he handle it? Was he prepared for a quotidian life after the tumult? Was the world?
There are questions that Fantasy doesn’t normally consider. What is it like to watch your children grow and become adults after you finish the epic? What are the consequences of the skills and power acquired on the quest for those around you? Is it possible to leave the struggle behind and enjoy the boon?
Hobb is wise. This is a mature work of fiction by a mature woman. She’s seen life, and love, and loss, and shared it with her protagonist who, in turn, shares it with us. Tom tries and thereby earns our trust. He fails and thereby engenders our love.
Fool’s Assassin is well plotted and securely anchored to the eventual seventeen novel narrative The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy contributes to. I’d say there aren’t many surprises, but that’s not entirely accurate. The major beats are anticipated early and create a sense of tension and anticipation when they arrive. What’s surprising is that they’re almost secondary to the lived experience of the characters. It’s not the event that’s portentous or momentous, it’s the repercussions within.
I want to read the earlier novels not because there are dragons and wars and ancient magics, but because the people I read about remember tender moments from them. I want to see what affected them so deeply. What moved them to tears.
I want to read the next novel, alas, to find out what happens. I can’t skip it. It’s unthinkable. She’s got me.
Recommended for readers who liked The Parish and the Hill, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Magician King.