The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Okay, well. Throat clearing noises (*turning to hacking cough*). In spite of my long-term aversion of new fantasy trilogies, I started reading this, using my Kindle Unlimited subscription. That’s how they get you: volume 1 was free, volume 2 not so much. My first surprise was to learn that this author, whose books I had seen out of the corner of my eye for years, is actually Margaret Ogden, a prolific American writer. The second surprise was not actually much of a surprise: this trilogy is actually the first of at least three trilogies, all set in the same fictional world, and depending on how you count, there are five trilogies and one of the trilogies has four books in it.

Vietnam flashbacks to the Katherine Kerr Deverry series, which I began with enthusiasm in the mid-1980s, but read begrudgingly to its conclusion, fifteen books and 23 years later.

But here we are, on holiday, and short of reading material in the sense that I have dipped into and rejected a number of books recently. I’m halfway through Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, at which point I lost interest. I started and abandoned the following: Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (just not in the mood); Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (existential boredom); and think I will abandon Stephen Baxter’s Time (Manifold) (again, just not in the mood). I don’t know what I want really. So, okay, here comes some high fantasy, some swords and sorcery without too many swords and only hints of sorcery in this, the first of the sequence.

And it must be okay because I stuck with it and even read with some enthusiasm. It’s a fish out of water tale, like The Goblin Emperor maybe, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. A young boy, bastard son of a prince, is abandoned to his father’s care, although never actually meets his father, who goes into disgraced exile. He’s then raised and educated in a fairly haphazard way until he falls under the care of the King’s assassin, and is trained in the ways of poisons and sneaking about.

It’s immediately interesting because if you’ve read anything like this before, you’ll know that the protagonist is usually heroic, noble, able, and certainly not the kind of person who drops poison into peoples’ drinks. Robin Hobbs’ world building is efficient but not burdensome. You get the sense of a bigger picture without being overwhelmed by exposition dumps, and I like the deft way she hints at the future importance of certain events and characters without spending too much time on them. The denouement of this is swift and chaotic, twisting and turning over a few pages without infuriating you as to the irrational decision making of key characters. You never feel like the thing is being padded for length like a Stephen King novel.

I’ve tried and been tempted recently by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. I read The Dragonbone Chair but just didn’t feel the need to read on. I enjoyed the first bit of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, but didn’t feel like reading on after the third, The Last Argument of Kings became a bit of a drag. And while I was initially enthusiastic about Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire series, I completely lost interest during the third book.

In other words, I know myself well enough to know that while the first in a series might grab me, I’ll almost inevitably be disappointed if I read on. I regret to this day that I didn’t get a time-machine visitation from my future self after I’d read the first 6 of Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, telling me to stop reading back then.

So I don’t know if I’ll carry on with Robin Hobb. I did really enjoy The Assassin’s Apprentice, but you can never really be sure. Is it better to leave it as a somewhat fond memory (The Dragonbone Chair)? Or to dig a trench and settle in for the long haul?

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