Monday, March 11, 2013

DNF: “Assassin’s Apprentice” by Robin Hobb (Voyager)

Hobb-1-AssasinsApprenticeUKA genre classic. A very disappointed first-time reader.

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill – and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

I bought Assassin’s Apprentice for my Kindle quite a while ago. But, whenever I’ve thought about reading the first book in Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, I have been distracted by some newer, shinier book. After reading the first chapter at work last year (I was allowed! It was for work!), I finally got on with it, and started reading it properly. What I found left me cold and unimpressed. In the end, after a particularly bad chapter, I had to quit. In the end, I only managed to read the first 20% of the novel.

If I didn’t finish the book, how can I justify reviewing it? Well, think of this more as a disappointed grumble, or a sad lament, rather than a scathing review. While Hobb’s prose is really good to begin with – I thought the first chapter was sometimes quite lyrical, actually, and really grabbed my attention – things just got rapidly worse the more I read. I never found myself gripped or enthralled by the story, and the only character that elicited even a modicum of emotion was a puppy. Whose part in the novel is not lengthy…

Perhaps because I have read so many novels by authors who cite Hobb as an inspiration, Assassin’s Apprentice felt derivative and slightly boring: A bastard son, delivered to the royal seat. Nobody knows what to do with him. He grows up with the “common folk”. He’s a little odd, with some strange and forbidden talents. He goes through a training montage. Then the King takes notice of him. He gets better rooms. He’s to be trained as a member of the slightly-less-common-folk. Truncated training/settling in montage. Oh, but then, he is to become an assassin! How exciting. Then there’s some Drama. And then I stopped reading.

Perhaps the early mention of a “Lord and Lady of Withywoods” should have been my first indication that this may not exactly be my cup of tea. It was rather twee, I thought, but decided to press on nevertheless. But the whole novel is on the twee side. Yes, Hobb’s prose is precise and well-crafted throughout, but this may be one of the first novels that could not be saved by being well-written. The naming convention is simplistic and just grated. There is a slightly archaic detachment to the style, as well as the language (though, nothing compared to the silliness I found in a Katherine Kerr novel I dipped in to last year). It made it difficult to really get stuck into the story.

Moving on. We are treated (after a whole raft of waffle) to this rather excellent explanation of what Fitz is going to learn from Chade, the King’s current master assassin:

“It’s murder, more or less. Killing people. The fine art of diplomatic assassination. Or blinding, or deafening. Or a weakening of the limbs, or a paralysis or a debilitating cough or impotency. Or early senility, or insanity or… but it doesn’t matter. It’s all been my trade. And it will be yours, if you agree. Just know, from the beginning, that I’m going to be teaching you how to kill people. For your king. Not in the showy way Hod is teaching you, not on the battlefield where others see and cheer you on. No. I’ll be teaching you the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people. You’ll either develop a taste for it, or not. That isn’t something I’m in charge of. But I’ll make sure you know how. And I’ll make sure of one other thing, for that was the stipulation I made with King Shrewd: that you know what you are learning, as I never did when I was your age. So. I’m to teach you to be an assassin. Is that all right with you, boy?”

This is followed shortly thereafter by perhaps the most irritating “montage” paragraph of Fitz’s training:

“In spring of that year, I treated the wine cups of a visiting delegation from the Bingtown traders so that they became much more intoxicated than they had intended. Later that same month, I concealed one puppet from a visiting puppeteer’s troupe, so that he had to present the Incidence of the Matching Cups, a light-hearted little folk tale instead of the lengthy historical drama he had planned for the evening. At the High-Summer Feast, I added a certain herb to a serving-girl’s afternoon pot of tea, so that she and three of her friends were stricken with loose bowels and could not wait the tables that night. In the autumn I tied a thread around the fetlock of a visiting noble’s horse, to give the animal a temporary limp that convinced the noble to remain at Buckkeep two days longer than he had planned.”

What delightful whimsy…! It doesn’t take a genius to see that they are all tests, but apparently Fitz was unclear about this.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I then came upon the Melodrama people had mentioned. Some people on Twitter told me that they accepted that “the melodrama doesn’t work for everyone”… When is melodrama ever accepted in a novel that isn’t farce? Anyway, irrespective of that, Fitz’s mood veers from a prim-and-proper detachment (“I grew to look forward to my dark-time encounters with Chade”) to Melodrama.

At one point, Fitz once again exhibits an utter lack of common sense of intelligence. He refuses to lift something from the King’s bedchamber, after ordered to by Chade explains:

“What are you saying, boy? That I’m asking you to betray your king? Don’t be an idiot. This is just a simple little test, my way of measuring you and showing Shrewd himself what you’ve learned, and you balk at it. And try to cover your cowardice by prattling about loyalty. Boy, you shame me. I thought you had more backbone than this, or I’d never have begun teaching you.”

A fine, if stiffly-written response from the teacher, and one that should be obvious to all intelligent would-be-assassins-in-training. Then Chade brusquely dismisses Fitz, and…

“Chade!” I began in horror. His words had left me reeling. He pulled away from me, and I felt my small world rocking around me as his voice went on coldly. … Never had Chade spoken to me so. I could not recall that he had even raised his voice to me. I stared, almost without comprehension, at the thin pock-scarred arm that protruded from the sleeve of his robe, at the long finger that pointed so disdainfully toward the door and the stairs. As I rose, I felt physically sick. I reeled, and had to catch hold of a chair as I passed. But I went, doing as he told me, unable to think of anything else to do. Chade, who had become the central pillar of my world, who had made me believe I was something of value, was taking it all away. Not just his approval, but our time together, my sense that I was going to be something in my lifetime.

True, this is not the most melodramatic moment I’ve ever read, but it did not bode well, and when added to everything else, I just couldn’t go on.

From what I read, and I recognise that it was only the first fifth of the novel (more than 100 pages), I sadly found nothing to make this book stand out, and certainly nothing to explain why it is so beloved of so very many fantasy fans and authors. I’ve read much, much better novels, especially from contemporary fantasy authors – and I’m not talking about the “grimdark” authors, either (which I think I can safely say write more to my tastes): Kate Elliott, Patrick Rothfuss, Helen Lowe, Scott Lynch, Amanda Downum, and even Elspeth Cooper (whose debut was a tad shaky at points)* have all done this sort of fantasy better. And the sub-genre of Fantasy Assassins? Brent Weeks’s superb Night Angel Trilogy and Jon Sprunk’s Shadow trilogy (which I really need to finish) do this so much better. Because, you know, they didn’t feel like they were written in the tone of The Famous Five Muck About In A CastleWith Swords. Hell, I think I’ve read better fantasy from some of Black Library’s lesser writers.

So, tell me: What did I miss with Assassin’s Apprentice? It’s rare that a book that is loved by the fan-base at large falls utterly flat for me. Is it just a nostalgia thing? Should I try to read this again?

* Don’t get me started on Gair’s sudden, miraculous magical proficiency…

41 comments:

  1. No. It's one of those books that you will either love or hate. If you don't get it, chances are you will not.

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    1. Pity. I'd heard so many great things, and then it just failed to meet expectations.

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  2. Honestly Stefan, its the same way for me. I had heard so much that I read the entire trilogy thinking that I'll "get it" soon but after finishing the 3 books I'm just meh.

    For me even with the prose, the character was totally boring and especially when he becomes morose or when things don't go his way. I've since then avoided RH's books as they aren't to my taste. Steven Erikson is another writer whose books left me with a meh feeling.

    Mihir

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    1. Never read Erikson, either, actually. I'm starting to wonder if the "older" titles are often beloved because, well, there wasn't much of anything else. Sounds really horrible to say/write that, but... Well, without the nostalgia element, I don't see how even some of the people I know could like this.

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  3. My biggest problem with it (and the whole series) is it just seemed unbearably slow. In this first one, for instance, we end up spend nearly the whole book doing Fitz's training and set-up, and only start the "main plot" in the last hundred pages or so. Overall the trilogy as a whole had maybe one book's worth of plot to go between them. I finished them, but I couldn't recommend them.

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    1. Interesting. I wonder what it would have been like, truncated... As I mentioned, I only got 100-or-so pages in, but damn... Dull. Joe Abercrombie's "Before They Are Hanged" (twice as long), I read much quicker. Peter Brett's "The Daylight War" I read at lightspeed, compared to how long it took me to read as much of this as I did. But, beyond that, I never felt myself wanting to drop everything else to read it. Really worried about trying other classics, now...

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  4. I didn't finished The Farseer Trilogy but I did like The Tawny Man Trilogy. As a character, The Fool is burning, incandescent, and he carries the books to the end.

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    1. Interesting. I have the first book in that series, too, so maybe I'll give that a try, in the hopes that not all is lost...

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  5. What did you miss? I guess 80% of the book :) I do know a number of people that struggled with the beginning of this, but loved it by the end (and one who did not). It is slow going in the beginning, but I think it pays off in the end (and subsequent books).

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    1. Rarely - if ever - have I found a book that doesn't click for me in 10% eventually working for me. Maybe I'll give it another try in the future, but it's sadly not near the top of my reading priorities anymore. A pity, as I really wanted to like this.

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  6. You might not like the novel, it might not be for you, everybody has their own tastes and that is normal. I happen to share your tastes and opinions and that's why I follow your blog (which I find very interesting and informative) but this "disappointed grumble" as you called it really struck a nerve. I really needed a day to cool myself down after reading your post. I didn't want to write a rant and be...rude I guess. And I must say I found your post to be kind of rude, although probably not intentionally so. It was not because I necessarily don't agree on some of the things or because I'm a rabid fan of Robin Hobb, I did enjoy the Farseer trilogy but I had some issues with her later novels and what you might be inclined to call "melodrama".

    [Digression: You complain about melodrama? And then invoke Patrick Rothfuss? I'm actually a really big fan of his novels but let's face it, Kvothe didn't meet a melodramatic moment he didn't like.]

    I was principally annoyed because you did write a scathing whatever-you-want-to-call-it of a book you didn't even read to the end. You took a very well known novel, didn't like it for your reasons, and channeled your disappointment into a post in which you then proceeded to trash that novel on some, in my opinion, pretty shaky grounds using a "nice" set of adjectives: boring, derivative (more on that later), simplistic, twee, and so on.

    The second thing that annoyed me a lot is that you call a novel published 17 years ago "derivative" and then compare it to novels by authors who have published their work at least a decade later(with the only exception being Kate Elliott). So derivative from what, whom? Is it derivative because it has tropes and motifs recognizable from myth and legend? And the rest of fantasy novels are completely original?!? Or it has elements that you have seen in newer works and you're now so familiar with them?

    And so on and so forth...I didn't want to rant, and it appears that I am doing exactly that, in a fit of pique no less :) So basically what I wanted to say is if you want to write proper scathing reviews or grumbles or whatever I would like to implore you to read the book to the end or if you cannot bring yourself to do that or don't want to do that due to constraints of time, I'm more than aware there are more good books out there then there is time in which to read them, please try not to be so judgmental when expressing your opinion.

    P.S. "Hell, I think I’ve read better fantasy from some of Black Library’s lesser writers." was an unnecessarily low blow especially if we're bandying about terms like simplistic and derivative. I have been an avid reader of Black Library books, both 40K and Warhammer fantasy, for years and while they are great fun, great literature they are not :P

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    1. Hi Vin,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I don't think I was particularly scathing, but I understand your response. There are many books I adore that others don't, which makes me grumble similarly.

      The thing is, though, that the book didn't work for me at all, for the reasons I mentioned (and backed up). I include mentions of some things I liked, too. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have written a review of an unfinished book, but given the novel's status among fantasy/genre fans, I felt moved to jot some thoughts down.

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    2. A couple more things: you're right about Rothfuss, but I think his prose is much, much better & more consistent (except when he's coming up with sex metaphors). I, too, am a fan of Black Library's books (as can clearly be seen by a great many of my reviews), and have read Warhammer/WH40k fiction since before Black Library formed. And, sorry, but some of it is terrible, and yet much of their not-so-great stuff is also better than this.

      To not write a negative review because it might hurt some fans' feelings is not a good enough reason to not do so. It is, after all, just one review among hundreds (if not thousands), and I do not believe for a second that my view is definitive. If I don't like a book, I will say so. End of story. I will always back it up with evidence from the text, as I have here.

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    3. One final thing: "twee" is absolutely the right word for the naming conventions in this novel. It is also not that scathing a word...

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    4. You did say "the whole novel is on the twee side" which is strange to me, since it deals with such dark topics as abandonment and self-loathing.

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    5. I got the abandonment, but not the self-loathing. I just wanted to give Fitz a shake and tell him to get over himself.

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    6. Fair point. For me, the prose style was twee.

      I guess the thing that really struck me after reading your comments was that the themes of abandonment and self-loathing didn't jump out at me. They were there, sure, but they always slipped from my mind. The "twee" feel and the issues I had with how Fitz was written and portrayed just buried all of this for me. These are themes that can create powerful, affecting novels, but what I read in "Assassin's Apprentice" just failed to generate this sort of strong feeling for me.

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    7. Elspeth, you're absolutely right (and put that more succinctly than I did). The example of "melodrama" that I included the review is just such an example: it's not abandonment, it's him failing to follow direction from the person he supposedly thinks of as some-sort-of father figure. Chade is clear with him (not to mention it being rather obvious to begin with), so the way Fitz reacts to this way was just too much for me.

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    8. Fitz is an unreliable narrator, since his view of events is skewed by his strong belief that nobody loves him and that he is not valuable. But I have read the whole book (:P) all three of them in fact, several times.

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    9. I'm surprised that something so formative as having been abandoned by his mother and grandfather and then essentially ignored by his father, who dies, is overlooked as a factor in the boy's emotional state and ability to view events objectively. I'm also a bit worried, wondering whether all heroes are expected to hit the ground running as emotionally sound, pro-active, clever people with trustworthy perceptions. I recommend you don't read any Kazuo Ishiguro.

      I also wonder whether people relate better to "revenge" or "abuse" backstories as opposed to ones in which the trauma is less obvious.

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  7. There are certain novels, and authors, whose work I have not managed to read. This is mainly because over the years the number of SFF books being published has increased massively and I can't keep up. Hobb is one of those authors who I have heard great things about, and many people cite as an influence, but I have not read anything by her yet. After reading this I am not in a rush to pick up one of her books. I realise this is just one review, and of only one book, but I think it is the style that will annoy and irritate me, as I seem to have similar tastes to Stefan. Are there any other series by Hobb that people can recommend?

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    1. Helene, above, says the Fool novels (start with "Fool's Errand", maybe? Have the first in that trilogy, but will probably not rush to read it) are better. And I think the dragon series are quite different?
      I'd be interested in your take on this one, though...

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  8. I couldn't engage with it either. I tried something like three times to get into it, but it just couldn't hold me - I only pushed through to the end because it was a book-club read. Well-written, yes, but as you say, slightly arch, somewhat detached even when it's a tad overwrought, and while I can see and appreciate many fine qualities in terms of the worldbuilding and the prose, it just didn't do enough for me to make me want to read the rest of the series.

    And thanks for the mention. If ever you do want to get started about Gair's proficiency, my email is always open ;o)

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    1. Haha. I mentioned Gair's proficiency in the review, I thought...? An unusual instance in which I really wanted more "training montage" - in direct opposition to my normal preferences. :)

      I'm starting to wonder who did actually like Assassin's Apprentice... A lot more people are telling me they're not really a fan...

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    2. You did, and for the record, I made a conscious choice not to dwell on Gair's lessons, because it's been done a bajillion times. I thought I'd given enough clues that he'd been practising in secret since he was 10 that I could get away with focusing more on his relationships than his studies. But no matter, everyone takes their own impressions from a story, and these comments are supposed to be about Robin Hobb's book, not mine, so I'm stopping there.

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    3. I know what you mean about the training montages being generally over-done, I absolutely agree.

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  9. In regards to the two sections you quoted - I can see you had difficulty understanding Fitz' reaction and found it overwrought and melodramatic. However it is the typical response of someone who has been abandoned by their parents and feels they do not belong and are unloved. He had begun to feel valuable and accepted in Chade's company, and over-reacted when he thought that was being taken away from him. I am acquainted with real-life examples of this type of trauma and it felt very real and understandable to me. Robin Hobb portrays trauma very well in Liveship also, and I would not be surprised to learn she actually knows someone who has suffered abandonment, abuse, or something along those lines.

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    1. I am intrigued by the Liveship books. I just tend to prefer things like the assassins/thieves genre, which is why I started with this one.

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    2. Personally I preferred Farseer, but Liveship might be more your thing.

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    3. Could be. Will give it a try - what do you think about the Fool trilogy? Others have suggested it's better...?

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  10. The only thing I got out of this review is "Robin Hobbe needs more puppies in her books." And 20% is hardly enough of a chance to judge an entire book. I've read many a book that has sucked up until 40% or so when the story really gets going.

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    1. That's a rather odd reading of the review, but ok...

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    2. It's funny too since there is an animal which figures prominently later on.

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  11. I know I probably read to much into your review but like I said earlier it really hit a nerve for some reason. I'm not that big a fan of Robin Hobb and haven't read anything of hers after the Fool trilogy (although I'm planning to...like I'm planning to read about a zillion other books :D ) but I still think that the Farseer trilogy is really good fantasy.

    Yes, the main character can be a bit whiny but then again that's not really uncommon. And like M.Williams mentioned he's a kid that's been abandoned living with not so nice people(could be also why he doesn't pick up on all assassin tests and such...kids generally don't know a lot of these things except in YA books where it's normal for 16 year olds to beat seasoned soldiers and assassins :P ).

    But really that's a part of the charm of the book, he's not all that capable or powerful or smart and yet he gets along. He gets the crap beaten out of him a lot and still goes on.

    As for the twee issue I apologize if I misunderstood. English is not my first language and I haven't encountered that word before. From what I could find it does have a derogative connotation but maybe I misjudged its severity.

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    1. You're not the only person who has thought "twee" was more derogatory than it is. Many people on Twitter seem to have thought it was an ultimate insult to a book, but it's really not that strong a word... It's a very British word, to be fair, but even some Brits have assumed it was meant more harshly.

      This is the wonderful thing about being a reader/fan of fantasy: opinions can vary so wildly, from book to book. Where some people see charm, others see twee. Where some people see "grim and gritty", others will see gratuitous violence. SFF is a very big camp, and nobody should be afraid of expressing their opinions. And I think SFF fans are, for the main, more open to discussing opposing views - as has happened here.

      And I agree with you and Maz about Fitz's emotional state being influenced by a sense of abandonment and self-loathing, but for me those themes just didn't come through, as they were buried by the things that were irritating me. C'est la vie. One day, maybe, when I too catch up with my ever-growing TBR mountain, I'll revisit the book. You never know...

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  12. New here. How can I click directly to more of your reviews?

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    1. Top bar, there's a "Reviews" tab. Has all of the links. Click out of the pop-up review/post first.
      (And welcome!)

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  13. Uhmmm your review has made me think about how I regard Hobb's books. I would not describe myself as a dedicated fan of her books, yet I've read all her books but the Liveship Traders (but own them)and plan on picking up her latest one just as soon as I can. Yet at the same time, I can't say I've never had qualms about her writing - or, like you, about the melodramatic tendencies of her characters.

    It's strange that you should consider Fitz highly melodramatic, though, since I tend to associate Hobb's other series, The Soldier Son Trilogy, with melodrama. And generally speaking, I think it's considered to be her most convoluted series. Yet despite any reservations about it, I read all three books. There was something about the world-building, and Hobb's ability to imbue her prose with a certain atmosphere which I feel inexplicably attracted to, that meant I could not stop before the end even if it was a bit tedious on the way.

    Strangely, I seem to recall I read Assassin's Apprentice and then went on to read the whole of the Soldier Son trilogy before coming back to Farseer. So maybe there's something into the fact that Farseer is better series of the two that made it more endearing (accounting also for my having acclimatized to Hobb's rather particular writing style). Once I got back to it though, I really began to get the books. They were slow, yes, but they definitely built once the over-arching plot really starting appearing. And I think I just came to accept that they would be more about the characters and their emotional-development than your average fantasy. The Tawny Man trilogy was even better, I thought.

    So if you really couldn't stand her writing that badly, then yeah, you probably made the right call stopping now. But I would still recommend giving it another go, with a more informed mindset, and sticking it through at least the first book.

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    1. The atmospheric writing was absolutely present in the first chapter, which is why I picked it up in the first place. And the quotation from Chade in the review is another great example of Hobb's prose at its best. But the rest just failed to live up to my expectations, sadly.

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  14. I read the Tawny Man Trilogy, and liked it. But what I got from the bits of the first trilogy that get referenced was that I *didn't* want to read it. Because it made fabulous backstory, but it sounded, as you say, a lot more derivative plot-wise -- and I really didn't feel like reading another "Young boy grows up to be special" story. Nothing I have read yet, including by great fans of the Farseer books, has changed my mind. Fitz worked as an older character, but I couldn't see what would have made him interesting when he was young.

    (I actually referred to this in the first draft of the guest post I'm supposed to be writing - it's close to finished! - before I decided I was going to talk about a completely different aspect of worldbuilding)

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    1. Ah, so the Tawny Man trilogy is set later, when Fitz is older? Does that mean it's more in the style of the first chapter of this novel? Because that's what made me start this in the first place - it was a great opening chapter. Interesting to know that it's not essential to read this trilogy to enjoy the next one, too. Considering I have book one in the next trilogy, maybe I'll just go straight to that one.

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