Trilogies And Things In Threes: my review of robin hobb’s assassin’s quest

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So it took a good six weeks, and arguably, I read an whole other book and was forced to wine and dine a half dozen needy university assignments in that time, but I finished Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Quest! And therefore consequently her Farseer trilogy! Huzzah!

So in this blog I want to share my thoughts on both Assassin’s Quest as a book, the trilogy as a whole, and some thoughts on trilogies and the trilogy format itself.

I heard about the series long ago from my younger brother (the one who’s maybe an even bigger book nerd than myself) years ago, but never really did much about it until last year when I took it upon myself to get familiarised with some of the more notable fantasy classics, and from thence recommended Assassin’s Apprentice (among many others) to my beautiful wife as potential birthday or Christmas presents. Lo and behold, I received the whole trilogy as a birthday gift from my oh-so-wants-to-spoil-me beautiful wife.

There are so many elements that I do love about the book and the characters, but there’s also so much that I really think could have been better. That may just be personal bias as someone who is a great lover of Sanderson, Rothfuss and newer fantasy in general. Honestly, I finished one Wheel Of Time book and just couldn’t pick up another. Now perhaps it was just that the sheer voluminous magnitude of another thirteen books of that girth didn’t balance out the awesome-and-excited-ness factor of the books, because certainly, I have no intention of reading the other two trilogies in this epic (despite being totally in love with the concept of a trilolilogy or whatever else one might deign to call it).

I understand that this book had so very far to take the protagonist from phantom-of-former-self-essentially-alone-in-the-woods-on-the-other-side-of-the-continent-from-their-goal to awesome-unexpected-win-on-almost-all-accounts and that several new key characters had to be created and effectively introduced, and that yes, progression was a key element of the story, but sometimes I really felt dragged along (almost against my will) like a kid who just wanted to watch the Powerline concert with Roxanne. But maybe I just really don’t enjoy quest novels/travellogues. Maybe geographical progression is not a plot arc that interests me in the slightest.

But back to my weights and measures concept of yesterparagraph, I think in terms of the marketability of fantasy (and perhaps most fiction in our fast-paced consumerist society) that there is a rule, perhaps unspoken, and akin to one of Sanderson’s Laws, (meaning that it’s probably only useful to writers and those in the book production industry) that length/wordcount needs to be equal to exponential awesomeness. The longer your book is, the more awesome it needs to be. So on the other hand, if you have filler that isn’t actively making your book more awesome, it’s wasting space on the page and should be removed and/or replaced.

Now Sanderson and Rothfuss are in my opinion writers who understand the length : awesomeness balance quite well for longer writers. Rothfuss especially for a single viewpoint narrative. If you’ve read my other two Farseer blogs, you’ll be aware of the parallels I drew between this trilogy and Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. Both are epic single-viewpoint narratives (told in hindsight) in which a young man bereft of his parents learns a great deal of booklearning about the world and not one but two magics, and goes on epic travels, changes the face of the world and ends up broken, bitter, and aged far beyond his years.

Now, obviously I haven’t finished Rothfuss’s trilogy, but I’m both guessing and hoping they are going to be rather different. I can’t imagine a way in which Rothfuss could leave Kvothe at the point he’s at recounting the tale and not have a completely dissatisfying ending. I literally don’t think even he could do that. The world is still in dire peril and none of those problems have been resolved yet.

On the other hand, one who always resolves the dire world-changing problems in awesome and epic ways is the ever magnanimous and of-obligatory-note Brandon Sanderson (or The Branderson for short, as I like to affectionately refer to him) and I am never dissatisfied with the endings of his books. Even The Hero Of Ages (the final piece of his Mistborn trilogy) took me on a dynamic journey which I could see leading to this awesome and satisfying ending the whole way through, and then swept the rug completely out from under me and blew my mind with super-mega-awesome. One of the big things that kept the pace fresh for me though (and Sanderson is the master at this) was the mix of characters and plotlines along the way.

Being a single viewpoint narrative, Assassin’s Quest (though I’m now pretty satisfied with the turn of events and how it worked out) just can’t measure up. I think were the series to be rewritten in multiple-viewpoint third-person limited, with only the pre-chapter italicised portion and/or prologue and epilogue being the first-hand account, it would have done a defter job, and especially in terms of pacing, added so much depth of character to the story as to make the endgame irresistible to the reader and really driven the story towards an awesome ending. That said, the ending was indeed awesome and I loved how it turned out. Fifty pages from the end, I thought it was really anticlimactic, but now, I’m pretty content. I’ll pass on the other six. I’m good.

What my biggest problem with this instalment was though, was that despite the general progression and resolution and bringing back together of all the characters, it was just too slow. There was just much and much of the same all the time. Some of the highlights along the way, things that were intended to distract from the monotony, were abrupt and awkward within that journey dynamic and that some of the answers, dangers and potential problems became obvious to the reader chapters before the protagonist caught up, leaving the reader therefore with ill faith in the main character and a further sense of drag.

Now, I’m not trying in the slightest to tear the book down. I still really enjoyed it and would recommend the series to those looking for classic fantasy with a quest element. And I am giving it three and a half Elderlings out of five, (three is my minimum classified-as-a-good-read level) so please don’t think it’s terrible or not worth reading, because it’s definitely still a benchmark against which to measure all other epic fantasy.

As a few final thoughts on trilogies, I think they work most effectively when they either function as either smaller pieces of a larger story (much like the acts in three-act format) or as very separate stories linked by key characters, themes or settings. Robin Hobb put one inside the other like a babushkastory here, much like Lucas has done/is doing with Star Wars, and the trilolilogy format, as I have hence bequeathed it, is something that I definitely want to try in my own epic works. But as a general rule, though I love trilogies, I don’t know that I will ever write one. I have grander scopes.

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