One of the difficulties of pledging allegiance to a sovereign monarch is that whole loss of individual volition. Most of the time you might hardly notice it—but when you fall in love with someone below your station, or when the monarch begins fading and his unscrupulous youngest son sets his eyes on the throne, suddenly this loss of volition is a big deal. FitzChivalry Farseer watches the Kingdom of the Six Duchies fall apart before his eyes—yet his field of possible actions is highly constrained. He yearns to take matters into his own hands, except that this would make him as bad as his enemies. So he waits, and bides his time, a strategy that seldom leads to good things.
Royal Assassin is very frustrating. The entire book is a chronicle of the decline of a kingdom under attack from both terrible external foes (the Redship Raiders) even as it is being consumed from within by an ambitious prince. Fitz really doesn’t have much going for him: his King-in-Waiting is becoming addicted to Skilling and then goes off on a mad quest for the mythical Elderlings, hoping they can help out against the Redships. He is hopelessly in love with Molly, once a chandler and now temporarily a maid in Buckkeep. Oh, and his King is feeble and bed-ridden, his mind a cloudy, fogged place and kept so by the drugs his manservant feeds him.
I am struggling, however, to find something to say that rises above such plot summary. If ever there were a book that actually suffered from that much-talked-about “middle book syndrome”, Royal Assassin would be a good candidate. Fitz spends very little time assassinating people. He gets into a few fights—particularly with Forged victims—but is dispatched on a mission by King Shrewd only once in the book. In general, Royal Assassin is a lot longer than it needs to be. Robin Hobb is reluctant to grant our protagonists many victories. We get no indication that the Elderlings might be any more than an ancient legend; we get very little information about the Redship Raiders or their shadowy leader. Indeed, most of the outcomes in this book are bad news for the good guys.
I could live with that. Unhappy endings and tragedy make for great story. Yet the opinion that I find myself forming centres mostly on a complaint about the characters—or lack thereof. This is your standard medieval fantasy set in a kingdom with a vast population—yet the cast list is scant. The same few characters continually reappear. And, while this partly a result of the book’s first-person narration, we get almost no exposure to any scenes with the book’s antagonists. Aside from the few battles that Fitz personally attends, we hear about raiding attacks after the fact. Likewise, we seldom get access to Regal’s plots or machinations, seeing only the effect as they unfold around Fitz and his allies. The result is a very one-sided story.
I’m not sure how to fix this. The obvious answer, to use an ensemble cast, would destroy the narration of FitzChivalry, and that’s one of the best parts of this book. Hobb succeeds in creating a character who is believably flawed without being all that unlikeable. (Your mileage might vary here, because I could see some convincing arguments about Fitz’ indolence or indecisiveness.) He’s a good person caught up in terrible things, and he lacks the education or resources to combat the forces aligned against him. I was livid when Verity decided to go off on his quest and leave Fitz around to look after Verity’s foreign queen, Kettricken. Because as much as Fitz is a nice guy, it’s not like he has a lot of experience with political intrigue. There was no way this would end well.
Verity’s departure, and his quest, merely serve to highlight the lack of action happening at Buckkeep. In the previous book, it was Fitz who set off on a journey west, while Verity stayed back at Buckkeep to mind the store. Now we are stuck in the castle while another character searches for the beings that might save the kingdom—and frankly, that sounds like an adventure. I’d like to read that book.
I wish I could sound more excited about Royal Assassin, because I did enjoy it. But you can’t fake that enthusiasm (at least I can’t). It might be my mood, and the fact that my current schedule and workload meant it took me nearly a week to finish this. Whatever the reason, though, this book was good but never does anything remarkable. It’s solid fantasy, and it goes a long way to restoring my opinion of Hobb after the fiasco that was the Soldier Son trilogy. I can only hope that Assassin’s Quest delivers something more intense to bookend this series and make Royal Assassin cool by association.