In many ways, one can consider Assassin's Apprentice a "standard epic medieval fantasy" and take it or leave it on those terms. The setting consists of six duchies united as a kingdom, which now faces a new threat from an old enemy: the Red Ship Raiders of the Outislands, who have the ability to "Forge" captives, removing any sense of humanity or even animal nature from them. There are soldiers, princes, lords and ladies, and not one but two flavours of magic: the praised Skill and the despised Wit. At the nexus of these social and magical layers is the main character, FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard son of Prince Chivalry.
It's precisely its status as a "standard fantasy" that makes Assassin's Apprentice a testament to Hobb's skill. With similar ingredients, Hobb manages to create a story that's enthralling and characters who are enduring. As Fitz slowly matures, we become interested in what will become of him. Yet he isn't perfect. He's fallible, and he's still too young to comprehend the significance of some of the events in which he's involved.
Through Fitz's eyes, Hobb shows us a world populated by interesting if not dynamic characters: Lady Patience, Burrich, Prince Verity, Chade, the Fool, etc. I didn't much care for Burrich. I realize he's supposed to be a father figure for Fitz, but his unwillingness to explain his disgust for the Wit only endangers Fitz more. On the other hand, I found Lady Patience quite entertaining. I suspect others have reversed opinions of these characters, for there's no one correct way to evaluate the cast of Assassin's Apprentice. Hobb's world is a complicated organism from which you can pick and choose your favourite parts.
The antagonists were considerably weaker in their characterization. It seems as though all villains are really just spoiled brats misled by people into wanting power. Both Regal and Galen share this attitude, and though Regal is delightfully slimy, he's never a serious threat. Likewise, Galen is a much darker figure with control over a vast reserve of power . . . but he's too sadistic to ever be threatening, and he gets beaten up by Burrich. The antagonists are defeated as much by their own childish plans and stupidity as they are by Fitz's skills and virtues.
In that respect, Assassin's Apprentice is one-sided in its richness. We get to watch the maturation of a wonderful protagonist, but he's never pitted against an antagonist of equal worth. The closest we get are Prince Rurisk and Princess Kettricken. Their brief relationship with Fitz is affable, hilarious, and tragic; my only wish is that there was more of it! I liked watching Fitz grow from uncertain boy into determined assassin, but I wanted more challenges for him along the way. Ultimately, like any good start to a trilogy, Assassin's Apprentice leaves me wanting to know more.