Ruthless and reckless

Inverted Commas 16: Recklessness

Ruthlessness creates its own rules. So my mother taught me. People are intimidated by a man who acts with no apparent regard for consequences. Behave as if you cannot be touched and no one will dare to touch you.
Assassin’s Apprentice, chapter 23.

It feels as if the world is dominated by machismo at the moment — some might say this is how it has ever been — but the advent of universal suffrage and democratic conventions was supposed to put on a brake and a limit to it all. That people in too many countries have insanely acted like turkeys voting for Christmas is, I think, the greatest failure of modern democracy, allowing unbridled machismo to disregard those who need the most support.

Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (like any good literature, including much fantasy of course) presents us with a mirror to view our modern lives, and this quote drew me up short. One of the principal antagonists at an apparent moment of triumph crows about his ruthlessness. ‘Ruth’ of course means pity, and showing no pity or compassion is here held up as an effective means justifying its ends. It is a ‘virtue’ that should be exercised by a successful politician, many think, indeed it’s a stance recommended in Machiavelli’s The Prince.

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The dreadful summit

Robin Hobb:
Assassin’s Apprentice
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.

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