Book One of The Farseer Trilogy
Harper Voyager 2015 (1995)
Special edition for World Book Night UK 2015
There are general expectations for an epic or high fantasy: it’s set in what Tolkien called a Secondary World; the protagonist is usually young and, following much fairytale tradition, often an orphan; they have hidden talents or gifts, frequently of a magical nature, which only reveal themselves gradually and after much tribulation; and there is a malevolent antagonist which the protagonist has to prevail against or even overthrow.
On the basis that Assassin’s Apprentice displays these features it qualifies as high fantasy, but it takes more than box-ticking to ensure that a novel like this succeeds — readability, convincing characterisation, vivid worldbuilding, plot twists, in fact everything that may encourage the reader to suspend disbelief and invest in the protagonist’s success, plus a certain je ne sais quoi which renders the premise distinctive and memorable.
I can report that Assassin’s Apprentice doesn’t fail in any of these departments and I’ll attempt to explain how.
This secondary world consists of Six Duchies, all ruled by a monarch based at Buckkeep in the duchy of Buck. In keeping with much traditional fantasy there is a medieval European feel to the names and ways of life, but it’s all transferred to a land form that’s shaped like Alaska rotated 180° on its axis. The peoples of this world vary: those in the mountains to the west resemble North Europeans in looks but have a culture reminiscent of the inhabitants of the Central Asian massif; meanwhile those residing in the duchies have a European ambience but, with their dark hair and features, may perhaps be more Asiatic. Over to the east live seafarers whom we never see but a significant number are Viking-like raiders representing a menace that has a lasting impact on the society of the duchies.
Into this society is born a boy who becomes known as Fitz. In our world the word, related to fils meaning ‘son’ in modern French, originally indicated an illegitimate noble male offspring, and that’s the import of the boy being given this name: for he’s the bastard of the heir-apparent to the throne. Who then suddenly is no longer the heir-apparent. And Fitz is thus persona non grata at court.
And yet he is somehow special. First of all he exhibits the ability to communicate telepathically with animals, called the Wit, but this is frowned upon by the stern man who becomes his guardian. Then he realises he has extra-sensory powers, uncontrolled at first, later identified — reluctantly — as the Skill. But despite these largely latent abilities, in his early teens he is clandestinely trained to be an assassin.
He will need his training, for court is a dangerous place for its intrigue, suspicion and murderous machinations. Fitz’s situation at Buckkeep is analogous to that of Hamlet at Elsinore, and not only his mental health but his life is in constant peril from relatives and their henchmen, as it may have been for the Prince after the Ghost appears:
“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?”
— Hamlet, Act I Scene 4
And then, after recovering from a suicidal depression, when he’s sent as part of a diplomatic mission to a distant mountain kingdom, will that life be again adjudged forfeit, as Hamlet’s was when travelling to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
So far, I’ve discussed structure and motifs, but in themselves such elements do not a good novel make. While I enjoy a good dose of fantasy what I really look out for in a decent read are miscellaneous characteristics, including readability, convincing characterisation, vivid worldbuilding (and this applies to fiction in the here and now as much as there and then), satisfying plotting, plus a certain indefinable something which distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill.
I’m pleased to say that Assassin’s Apprentice has all this in abundance. I was never tripped up by phrasing which felt that awkward that I had to reread it; the cast of named characters — townsfolk, servants, nobles, functionaries in high positions, whether they were in the duchy or the mountain kingdom — felt as individual and visually identifiable as anybody one meets in real life; and the world itself had a physicality to it that came from the time characters spent travelling it and reacting to it as much as geographical descriptions of the landscapes. Add to that the novel’s pace which, despite appearing static at times, actually moved along at quite a lick as actions, and thoughts, and extraneous events succeeded each other.
This is a novel to immerse oneself in, and other than a quick sketch amounting to not much more than an overlong blurb and a paean of praise I don’t intend to give a detailed synopsis or illustrative quotes. The novel speaks for itself; if you want any more — the cast list, Fitz’s career, even (heaven forfend) spoilers — then either read other reviews and online encyclopaedia entries or, better still, get your own copy to read. You won’t be disappointed.
A fantasy read for Wyrd and Wonder