What if names were designed to be destiny, determining which traits people had and how they acted? And what if you didn’t have a name, and people just called you “Boy” and “Bastard?” Who would you become?
That’s the initial question posed by Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, an excellent epic fantasy. Commoners in her story don’t get directives for names. Royalty do, though, and strive to live up to them. King Taker was a conqueror, King Shrewd a clever ruler, and Prince Chivalry a noble servant of the realm. But no one’s wholly consistent, and one of Chivalry’s few out-of-character actions led to the birth of his bastard son, the book’s narrator.
Lacking direction, Fitz, as he’s often called (meaning “bastard of”), tries on all sorts of roles. He’s pressed into being a stable hand, scribe, warrior, and musician. He teaches himself how to use the Wit, a form of telepathy that works with animals. He’s taught how to use the Skill, a form of telepathy that works with humans. And most significantly, he becomes the book’s title, an assassin’s apprentice.
All this training makes for a slow burn in terms of tension and pacing. This isn’t uncommon for coming-of-age stories. It can be hard to give your protagonist a singular goal when they’re still a kid figuring out who they are and what they can do. The trick is making them someone the reader wants to root for. And I was definitely pulling for Fitz.
Hobb also introduced enough mystery to keep me intrigued. For starters, who’s Fitz’s mother? Why did Chivalry betray his name to sleep with her? And why did she give Fitz up? Later, when Red Ship Raiders began ravaging the coasts, I wanted to know what these pseudo-Vikings were doing to their victims that turned them into sophisticated zombies.
But the mystery Assassin’s Apprentice ultimately focuses on was something I didn’t see coming. And Fitz plays more of a supporting role than a starring one. It makes for a gripping, unexpected ending to a well-written fantasy. I look forward to reading Book 2 and seeing what else Fitz becomes.