What is a life for? This is the question that Fitz is asking again and again, in one form or another, as he tries to find his place in the world and wonders whether it’s all worth it. It’s easy to despair in a cynical world of court intrigue, treachery, and division in the kingdom. By the middle of the book, Fitz sees the situation as so hopeless it is almost funny. So the question becomes an urgent one: what to do with the life you have, despite the fact that success is so far from assured?
Royal Assassin is the second book of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and so it deals with all the trouble set up in the first book – the ambitions of the treacherous Prince Regal, the destruction wrought on the coastal towns by the Red Ship Raiders, Fitz’s struggle to contain his forbidden “Wit” or “beast magic” – with some more problems thrown in on top of that. By the end of the book we’ll be expecting to find some of these issues resolved, with plenty left unresolved to take us into the final book of the trilogy.
In many ways this is a classic tale of a hero struggling against impossible odds. The whole story is told from Fitz’s point of view, and we’re with him through every trial. So much so that the question of What should I do? becomes really what the book is about, its main theme. So we find Fitz being lectured by the King’s Fool:
“‘This, more than anything else, is what I have never understood about your people. You can roll dice, and understand that the whole game may hinge on one turn of a die … But a man’s whole life, you sniff at, and say, what, this nought of a human, this fisherman, this carpenter, this thief, this cook, why, what can they do in the great wide world? And so you putter and sputter your lives away, like candles burning in a draught.’
“‘Not all men are destined for greatness,’ I reminded him.
“‘Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure?’”
The answer to the question What is a life for? is: to change the world. To bring hope and joy to others. To make a difference. In other words: to be a hero. The Fool’s speech comes at about the midpoint of the book, when things are looking bleak. And throughout the rest the reader can only hope that Fitz will remember the Fool’s words, remember that it’s down to him, just as it’s down to everyone else, not to give up in the face of evil.
Something I like very much about Hobb’s approach to storytelling in this book is her decision to focus on Fitz, and tell everything from his point of view. In other novels of this kind, tales of cynicism and treachery, it can all become quite tiring, as character after character is introduced and then sacrificed to the ambition of the villain. It’s difficult not to get detached from the story when you don’t have a single character to follow all the way through to the end. Of course there is plenty of treachery and murder in this book, but Fitz at the centre gives the whole thing a beating heart, a point of view and even a certain idealism by which we can evaluate the horror of what is going on around him. And by which we can measure him when his courage slips and we find ourselves, as readers, urging him on to find his best self again.
The best thing about Royal Assassin is it’s a fantasy story that’s about something, which has a meaning and a moral you can take away from it. Perhaps that’s true of any story that you enjoy – it resonates and that’s why it sticks to you. It’s more than just entertainment, however easy and enjoyable it is to read. Either way, this is what makes Robin Hobb, for me, one of the best and most interesting fantasy writers.