Monthly Spotlight: Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels

28 Apr

Eventually there will be posts aside from these, I swear. As ever, life gets in the way. Neither of us are dead though.

This month’s post was going to be a different author that we both will have a lot to say about, but being the clever person I am, I left it so late in the month that I decided it’s better to postpone that and make sure it’s a decent post. So instead we’re going to talk about the three Farseer trilogies by Robin Hobb. (For once I’m breaking one of my rules for this series; I haven’t actually finished the final trilogy yet.)

[Mitchell here. Unfortunately I’m going to have to be quiet this month (please try to hide your sighs of relief), as I haven’t read these. They sound like something I’d enjoy and I want to get to them at some point, but I have no idea when that will be.]

The books are as follows:

The Farseer Trilogy: Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest

This is followed by the Liveship trilogy (Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny), set in the same world and providing some extra background but mostly unconnected with the main plot. I enjoyed them but I don’t have as much to say about them as I do about the ‘main’ trilogies; however it is really nice to see the world fleshed out and see what other characters aside from the protagonist are doing in other parts of the world.

The Tawny Man trilogy: Fool’s Errand, The Golden Fool, Fool’s Fate

This is followed by the Rain Wild Chronicles (Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven, City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons). As with the Liveship books, they’re set in the same world and loosely related to but unconnected with the main plot. Again, they were good but in my personal opinion not as good. I get too attached to the main cast sometimes.

And finally the Fitz and the Fool trilogy: Fool’s Assassin, Fool’s Quest, Assassin’s Fate.

A brief disclaimer – these trilogies are written in first-person present. This style isn’t for everyone. It’s not my favourite either but it works well enough in this case and you should try it anyway.

At first glance these seem like your standard sword-and-sorcery novels, with kings and dragons and magic and prophecies and so on, but each trope is handled in a surprisingly original way that’s very rare in fantasy. Let’s start with the magic system.

There are two major types of magic accessible to humans in this (unnamed) world, the Wit, more properly known as Old Blood magic, and the Skill. The Skill is a rare magic found mainly among the nobility and is mainly based around telepathy, with a lot of creative uses; those with it are expected to serve the king and the general populace don’t know much about it. The Wit is known as beast magic and allows people to talk to animals and to share minds with them to some extent; it is also believed to allow shapeshifting, control of animals and a tendency towards perversity that make it feared and loathed – historically practitioners are hung over water and burned.

Some characters have other abilities – alchemy and witchcraft both exist in this universe, and much of the worldbuilding revolves around prophecy and foretelling.

Our protagonist has both the Wit and the Skill and is fairly powerful in both, as well as being the subject of numerous prophecies and also an illegitimate royal. I know, but bear with me, he’s not what you think.

Despite sounding like a complete Mary Sue, Fitz is probably one of the best protagonists I’ve ever encountered. For a start, his role in the prophecies is unique. He doesn’t save the world; it’s his existence and his position that allow things to happen around him so that other people can save the world with his help. The in-universe term is Catalyst. His magical abilities don’t do him much good, you won’t find him duelling with wizards or anything like that – he is believably flawed in both disciplines and kept from being too overpowered – but they keep him alive to fulfil his role. His birth and status help to shape who he is and help ensure he’s in the right place at the right time to keep things moving, but don’t play much of a part in his life – there’s no throne in this boy’s future.

Fitz’s personality also helps set him apart from your standard generic fantasy protagonist. This is no noble innocent paragon of virtue or a brooding depressed hero. He’s temperamental, impulsive, stubborn, a little arrogant, at times incredibly stupid… and there are consequences to this. He screws up most of the important relationships in his life and the books don’t bend over backwards to erase it. He makes mistakes and then has to pay for them. You’ll want to slap him, frequently – he can be very stroppy and often feels childishly sorry for himself – but it’s not insufferable because of the way he’s written and the way other characters deal with it. And his animal companions aren’t twittering fairytale servants, either.

For every Catalyst there is a White Prophet, someone with the blood of an elder race who has the gift of prophecy and whose task is to find the Catalyst and keep them alive at all costs, so that the world can progress normally. In this particular case, Fitz’s prophet is the court jester, known for most of the series only as ‘the Fool’; but for the lack of point-of-view chapters he’s near enough a co-protagonist thanks to his importance to the plot.

The Fool also provides a superb example of inclusivity, particularly considering that the first book was published in 1995. While he uses male pronouns and is referred to as male by most characters, his gender is in truth unknown and he presents as female more than once for various reasons. His gender and sexuality are questioned quite often – particularly where Fitz is concerned – and each time he either laughs it off or points out that it doesn’t matter.

Women are less represented, at least amongst the primary cast, but those that are present are all very well written. Fitz screws up here too, his attitude is… well, less than progressive a lot of the time (though not insultingly so, as such – he’s not a misogynist, just clueless), and again the consequences of this are shown and he doesn’t get to carry on making the same mistakes constantly. There’s very little chauvinism, no fridging, no constant rape or threats of rape, no endless tedious hate, and it’s a refreshing change. The final trilogy gains a female narrator along with Fitz, too. (The Liveship and Rain Wilds series mentioned above also have a better range of female main characters.)

No other media to talk about this time. No audiobooks, no weird music or games, no comics, no nothing. These books are very underrated, and it’s a shame.

If you like fantasy novels in general, you’ll enjoy these. It’s all your favourite tropes handled in interesting ways by well-developed characters in a well-built world. They’re not too heavy, there’s no flowery language and no chapters-long detailed descriptions of long battles. They’re just good reads.


Posted by on April 28, 2018 in loten


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2 responses to “Monthly Spotlight: Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels

  1. Sue

    May 6, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    I haven’t read them, but I feel like I should.

  2. Jean Lamb

    May 7, 2018 at 12:56 am

    They’re good, well worth reading, and yes, you do want to smack the hero at frequent intervals, but he’s worth the trouble.


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