This is the story of...Fitz? Boy? A name is never really settled upon. Well, Fitz is the illegitimate child of Chivalrly, King-in-waiting. The story starts with Fitz being handed over to the royal household at the age of about six, and is all about Fitz' formative years until the age of about fourteen-fifteen. His father Chivalry goes into self-imposed exile almost from the very beginning, so Fitz is left nearly to himself to find his place in this world of courts, political maneuverings, and the rumbling storm of an oncoming war.
The concept is exciting, sure, and I was actually pretty taken with Hobb's first-person style, told as if Fitz were now an adult and recalling events from his childhood. But there are a number of issues with the novel that hurt it for me.
First, this book seems to exist purely for setup purposes. Just as Fitz' attention is drawn from one interest to the other, so is the reader, as we experience this world of the Six Duchies purely through his eyes. There is a lot to take in here: a vast ensemble of characters, locations and storylines are introduced. But in almost every single case, that's as far as we get: introduction and set up. As the reader, I was unsure what the central pillar to this story was, for two reasons: first, there are multiple plot strands put into play in Assassin's Apprentice, and none of them really stand out as being THE story: the main backbone around which the other subplots gravitate. Oh sure, you have that business with the Red Ships brewing, but that stays as nothing more than a distant concern. In terms of Fitz' story, the story meanders from one new character to another new training session, with none of them developing enough to really make me care that much. Only the relationship between Fitz and Burrich seem to really evolve into anything meaningful and complicated.
The second reason is the story's lack of effective antagonistic force. I know it may seem strange that after talking about this in my Off The Shelf series that the last two showcases suffer from Antagonist problems, but it really is true: for most of the time, I found myself moving through the story more out of idle curiosity rather than an genuine locked-in engagement to Fitz' plight. This seemed to stem form the lack of a foil for Fitz to bounce off of. The weird thing is that we hear so much about how being a bastard is a sign of embarrassment for the Royal household, about how Fitz' mere presence will bring about tension and conflict, but apart from Chivalry's brother, Regal, everyone else actually likes Fitz or couldn't care less. And Regal is not really an effective antagonistic force anyway: he's barely around until the final act, and his hatred of Fitz feels just a little bit too pantomime, with a lack of justification for his disdain. Only in the latter third of the novel is Fitz faced with someone who he can really lock horns with, someone who really puts the boy's resolve to the test, and these are the books finest moments. Sadly, this section of the book is tragically brief.
I read it through to the end thinking to myself "OK, I get it: this is all building up to a big finale. It's setting the stage."
And do we get a big finale that satisfies? Well...kind of. Sure, we do get some action and dramatic tension after what what has been up until now a fairly ponderous novel, but again, it is hampered by the need for set up. Rather than playing off of the characters and stories set up already, the narrative literally moves to a new area entirely, with a whole new set of characters, stakes...and even a new culture. When you're reading about the finer workings of a foreign society with mere pages to go before the end, you know something is up. So all of that build up had ultimately been set aside, the climax set around a subplot that had only really been introduced in the last quarter or so of the novel.
Assassin's Apprentice isn't a terrible novel by any means: what it does it does well, the characters are vividly drawn and the world well realized. And I can fully appreciate the fact that Assassin's Apprentice is setting the stage for an altogether bigger story that will continue into the sequels, which would surely answer a lot of the questions that this book left hanging. I just wish that Assassin's Apprentice had done more to make me care enough to read on in the first place.