Robin Hobb is a well-respected fantasy author and one that my girlfriend has often recommended to me. Her reputation must rest on later works because this trilogy far from impressed me especially in light of the many excellent debuts I have recently read from other fantasy authors.
The first book in this trilogy I do not recall well due to having read it some years ago. It is telling that unlike a properly wrought first book I was not grasped with an unyielding thirst for the sequel. From what I recall it was an entertaining yarn about a boy learning to become an assassin for his king and ending with an exciting bit of intrigue and heroism. I am a sucker for a good Bildungsroman and this was a decent one.
It is the latter two books that are truly disappointing. As a general critique, both of them are far too long for their willowy plots and the last book still has the audacity to feel rushed and shortchange a proper ending. I am always leery of so-called “fat fantasy”, but a good entry will have characters that are plain enjoyable to spend time amongst.
Fitz, the main character, is completely incompetent aside from one engaging assassination that is a mere side note in book 2. Otherwise, despite the title, very little assassination occurs and most attempts are fumbled spectacularly by Fitz. He suffers heavily from “Harry Potter” syndrome; he is an assassin and has both forms of magic in this world and yet literally does nothing with them. After spending a whole book on his training, it feels wasted on him. He shows no ambition and is content to let others drive his fate throughout the entire trilogy. The second book sees him ping-ponging around the castle doing nothing of import for hundreds of pages. At one point he seemingly realizes the complete tool he has become and you think for a moment that he will be spurred to action. But no, he goes back to his feckless ways with other more important characters ordering him about.
Speaking of the second book. You spend the entire book waiting for the king to die and everyone acting stupid in the meantime. Everyone knows the evil prince is evil and yet they do nothing, not even after it is revealed that he killed his own father. Where is the good prince? He leaves despite intimate knowledge of the evil prince’s ambitions. The end of the book is invigorating after the interminable “intrigue” of the rest, but it rests on Fitz doing something completely stupid (admittedly, that is in character).
Alas, it gets still worse in the third book. Here we have Fitz wandering after his beloved Prince Verity and wander this book does. It takes the entirety of this book for him to find his Prince which is full of quickly discarded characters and a butchering of the old ones. There was a quick break where Fitz fails to kill the evil prince, but other than that it is a dreary tale of travelling that would make Lord of the Rings proud. Along his journey he meets up with many girls who take offense that he does not wish to couple with them. This is strange because the other two books betray no sentiments like this, yet it happens at least three times in this book. One of them is with an extremely annoying minstrel that ends up serving no purpose, even her betrayal is stunted because other people already knew everything she betrayed. Then there is the old lady that appears to be mysterious just so Hobb can continue to keep Fitz and the readers ignorant. Again, the author seems aware of this because at one point Fitz yells at this woman for simultaneously withholding information and then chiding others for acting foolishly.
As for recurring characters, Kettricken becomes rather pathetic in this novel; her apparent strength gone after her prince is presumed dead. Chade and Burrick, two of my favorite characters, have almost no role after Fitz excises them from his life like a spoiled a child at the beginning.
Now let me comment on the last couple hundred pages. Regal and the Red Ships are barely in the novel at all and thus no true antagonist exists which saps much of the urgency these chapters should contain. Instead we find the good prince carving a statue to create a dragon. He eventually kills himself to do it, but then we find that Fitz can awaken an army of dragons with his Wit and it cheapens the sacrifice. This is the only instance of Fitz applying his skills to save his kingdom despite the many pages calling him the Catalyst and even then a bunch of dragons do all the fighting for him. The Fool’s moniker of the White Prophet is similarly a misnomer as he never prophecies anything worth mentioning. The ultimate fate of the Red Ships and Regal is left to the epilogue and not even carried out in the main story. In previous books there was talk of white ships and a leader of the Outislanders, but the former is worthy of but one line and the latter never makes a formal appearance.
Finally, we also see how truly awful Fitz is as a character. The entire book he longs to be with Molly his lover from his childhood and their bastard child. But in one scene he gives that dream up and rationalizes that it would be better for everyone involved. The final chapter sees him living his life as a recluse despite his favored prince once saying that “he loved life too much.” A pathetic ending for a pathetic character.