Thursday, May 05, 2005

Wit happens

For my looong bus ride(s) the other day, I brought along two books. One was Christopher Hookway's book on Quine; but of course I read the other one instead, which was the second book in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, Royal Assassin. Actually, this trilogy is only the first of three related trilogies, making (gulp) nine books in all. I think the second three just take place in the same world, without any of the same characters, but judging from the titles, the third trilogy might pick up where book three leaves off (but who knows). Maybe I'll skip the second three and go right to book seven.

Like most science fiction fans, I used to think fantasy was for the birds, or at least for 12-year-old girls, and the cover of Royal Assassin, like that of Assassin's Apprentice, the first one, doesn't do much to suggest otherwise. But this is pretty good stuff, as genre fiction goes. It's carefully plotted, with good castle intrigue, rousing action, etc., but the coolest part is the magic. In science fiction, the convention is that you're supposed to at least try to make the futuristic (or reality-warping, or whatever) stuff plausible, but in fantasy it's easy just to make it up as you go along (it's magic!). Hobb does a good job here. There are two kinds of magical power, the Skill and the Wit. Both are more or less versions of telepathy. King Shrewd is Skilled, as is Prince Verity, as well as a half-dozen younger nobles trained in the Skill for military purposes (beats carrier pigeons). Our hero, Fitz, the bastard son of Verity's now dead older brother Chivalry, being of the Farseer line, has great native Skill abilities, but (oversimplifying a bit), being born on the wrong side of the sheets, hasn't been trained, so his Skill is erratic (this is potentially problematic, but actually well handled).

However, Fitz also has the Wit, which manifests itself as a psychic bond with animals. An interesting aspect of the Wit is that it's seen as shameful, so Fitz has to keep it secret -- also potentially problematic, also handled well: Fitz's wolf companion Nighteyes is a key player, and he's a good character too. (Not telling who else may or may not be Witted -- gack! I started to write Wittge....) Fitz's abilities take on an impressively wide range of tactical significance at various points, like when he's doing both at once (and trying to keep them separate), or when he sees his own surroundings with someone else's sensibility, or when the Wit turns out not to work under certain circumstances (d'oh!). It takes a while to get going, in the first one, but by the second one we're all set up and the plot hums along nicely. I do have a few gripes though. First, the romance angle, while minor, is a bit conventional (Molly's not much more than a cipher, but he loooves her anyway). Second, there are a few infelicities, like going to the well too often (okay, we get it), surprises which do not surprise (including one which has not yet been sprung, but who does she think she's kidding?), and the somewhat odd ending to RA (it looks like she painted herself into a corner; but on the other hand it's hard to judge the end of book 2 before reading book 3). The main problem is the villain, Prince Regal. Most of the main characters are well fleshed out, but Regal's not compellingly evil -- he's just a dipshit (he can't even Skill). Yes, you just want to toss him off a parapet, but so what?

Now I've gone and made it sound so-so. And compared (unfairly as may be) to the uniquely great Patricia McKillip, I guess it is. But I sure do want to know how it all turns out. On the other hand, the reviews of Assassin's Quest (gee, I wonder where he might be going?) at Amazon are mixed, and a few mention a weird and disappointing ending. I'll still read it though. By the way, I saw the title of this post in the convenience store, promoting the greeting cards (but they meant it differently).

1 comment:

Eric del Poot said...

Just finished Royal Assassin myself. A very good read. I have only two complaints, one of which is unfair. The fairer one is that all the careful plotting, characterization, etc. that makes the Farseer books come alive actually gets in the way a bit in the 1st half of RA. We're talking 100s of pages of Fitz stressing over girlfriend, dogfriend, Lady Patience, Kettricken, Burrich, Chade, etc etc etc with nothing much actually happening (except that Fitz is unhappy). This can get tiresome. The unfair complaint is that we were denied the satisfaction of seeing Regal get his comeuppance at the end. We see the threads of a happy ending forming, but then it just ends with a virtual (and temporary) death for Fitz before Wit-borne rebirth. This is not fair because there's a 3rd book yet to go in which all the baddies can be sacked. But I was not satisfied with Serene and Justin's death and Will's incapacity (nice though this was to read). Come on Verity, get back here! Help your Fitz! Oh, and I love the Fool character.

So, what's the non-surprise you've figured out?