Fool’s Assassin is the first book of The Fitz and the Fool trilogy by American author Robin Hobb, and the fourteenth novel of hers set in the Realm of the Elderlings setting. In it we find retired and thought-dead assassin and magic user FitzChivalry Farseer living a peaceful retired life with his wife Molly under a pseudonym trying to live out his days as untouched as possible by crown politics. But as one imagines when we find somebody of FitzChivalry’s background and skills having thought he got out, he is pulled back into the world he tried to leave behind. Intrigue, mystery, danger and one of my favourite characters I’ve read in a long time combine to make this an excellent novel.
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.
Looking around at other reviews for this novel, one of the things I’ve seen most often is that the reviewer has come to it after a full and enthusiastic investment in the entire preceding canon leading up to it. Whether they loved it, found it middling or disliked it, most of their criticism came in comparison to how they felt about the other books. I, though I’m very sure to remedy this in short order, had never read another book in this series until this one. And to be quite honest, I’ve half a mind to -not- read the previous books dealing directly with Fitz, because his presentation in this novel, without my having any of the background, was fantastic.
It isn’t about his having a mysterious past, because elements of his past are spelled out quite explicitly throughout the novel. I think it’s about the focus. If you watched Star Wars for the first time between 1999 and 2015, it probably felt like the series was about Anakin. If you’d already watched the original trilogy previous to the prequels, it probably felt like the series was about Luke. I think that is what makes me wonder if I ought to read the previous Fitz novels. Coming in now, where he’s in retirement, trying to stay out of his previous life and look to his family, he feels more like the Obi-Wan to his daughter Bee’s Luke, and Bee was just instantly one of my favourite characters I’ve ever read. I -am- more than likely going to read the previous novels just because I know I will like them, but I’m definitely finishing this trilogy first just to maximize my time with Bee feeling like the main character.
It actually wasn’t until Bee’s first POV chapter that I felt really hooked into this book, but once I was, I was there throughout. I don’t know what it is about her that I like so much. There’s just a fierceness about her that dodges feeling like it is about compensating for her small size. She could be a really tropey character that makes up for being small with being loud, or somebody we’re supposed to pity, and Hobb just throws that right out the window. Bee knows more of what’s going on than she lets on, is perfectly willing to take matters into her own hands, and stays mostly quiet and unobtrusive entirely of her own volition and not out of fear or shame. She’s a really excellent character, and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to follow her journey further.
I’ve seen a few reviews criticize Fool’s Assassin for being slow-moving, or at least taking a long time to get going before it moves at a pace that I gather is maybe more indicative of the previous installments. Coming from my lack of experience with the others, I found the pacing great. This didn’t feel like it was trying or wanting to be an action novel, though it certainly has action in it. The pacing felt very deliberate. We’re given all of this time to watch Bee grow up, and watch Fitz gradually chip away at the outer edges of the slowly developing mystery, and watch life at the estate of Withywoods specifically -so- the sudden forward shift of pacing feels jarring and alarming. Bee was more than capable of carrying a slow-moving story while keeping it engaging, and these little glimpses of impending action interspersed throughout really created a lot of great tension when the shit finally hit the fan and things started moving very fast.
I’m fond of parsing intentional series as one long book only split up for our convenience and then scaling the arc of the plot over the whole range of the books before evaluating it. This book might have felt slow-moving to some, but taken as the first third of one large book, there was plenty going on, and we’re coming to the meat of the story at exactly the right time. If you have enough patience to read a nearly 700-page book in the first place, let alone commit to a 16 book series, you should cut some slack for a slower paced plot in the name of amazing characterizations and setup.
This book, taken as a first book, is entirely worth the read, and once I finish this trilogy (which continues as Fool’s Quest and Assassin’s Fate) I’ll definitely be adding the previous volumes to my to-read list. Interested folks who’d like to start at the very beginning can look for Assassin’s Apprentice available from Random House.