Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin

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It feels appropriate that my return to writing about writing is also a return to a long familiar and beloved series. We’re diving into Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb today — the third of her trilogies about FitzChivalry Farseer.

As always. There will be spoilers — all the spoilers. Possibly for previous trilogies too. If you aren’t caught up on the various Six Duchies trilogies, well… then you have work to do. Get out of here and read some Robin Hobb.

So…

Fool’s Assassin takes place mostly at Withywoods, a charming country estate in the Six Duchies, and now the home of Molly and Fitz in their retirement. The events of the book center around their unexpected child Bee — she is even given alternating POVs with Fitz through most of the book.

This is not a plot driven book. It’s about Bee growing and Fitz handling aging in his own way. It’s about losing people and trying to get used to new people. It’s about expectations and living. Because of that, I’m not going to spend much time recapping here.

Let’s jump into some writing lessons from Fool’s Assassin.

Throughout the Six Duchies books, the background characters are fairly evenly split between men and women. There are male and female assassins, healers, soldiers, magic users, musicians, merchants, and on, and on. It’s done with very little comment.

That’s it really. There are plenty of times where men and women in this book have Western gender-normative roles, in the foreground and in the background. But by having lots of main cast, secondary cast and “extra” female characters who fill various normative and non-normative roles, it alleviates the pressure on the female characters to be entirely representative of the gender.

Lesson #1 : Gender Balance for Extras

Diversity in storytelling isn’t all about creating diverse protagonists. We need diverse backgrounds too. We need women in the room when it’s not a brothel or a group of wives.  Even if the culture you are building is patriarchal, keep in mind that women are still ‘around’ so to speak. It sounds self-evident, but it’s unrealistic when the extras’ demographics are monolithic.

As I mentioned, this book switches between Fitz’s POV, our dear former assassin, and his daughter. Bee is nine years old for most of the book, and she’s an ‘odd’ child. She has a much longer gestation period, she’s born with a high level of consciousness, has prophetic dreams, is able to read and write and draw at a young age. If you’ve read the series, you’ll pick up quickly on what she is, even if poor Fitz hasn’t caught up yet.

Writing children isn’t easy. Writing non-humans or extraordinary humans isn’t easy. Bee’s POV walks the lines of both carefully and with grace. She’s a child, but not exactly an ordinary one. Seeing her through her own eyes and the eyes of her father gives you empathy for the character, and at the same time lets you understand the ‘creepy child’ response she gets from some adults in her life.

Like Fitz, I wasn’t sure what to make of Bee at the beginning, and she grew on me.

Lesson #2: Being Bee

The tight first person of Fitz’s trilogies is consistently a masterclass in perspective. Bee’s perspective is like getting a whole new set of invaluable lectures on the subject. She’s sometimes selfish and naive, frustrated when her own self-evident truths are misunderstood, and both eminently human and quietly alien. 

For as brutal as these books are, a surprising number of characters have made it through six books and into Fool’s Assassin. Aging a character, letting them change and yet be the same, is something that we get multiple examples of in Fool’s Assassin.

Molly has been around peripherally for six books, and by now is an aging woman. Chade, an assassin who was old to begin with,  is now a medical miracle. Kettriken, once princess of a foreign kingdom, then queen of the Six Duchies, and now a dowager queen, has different priorities. Her son, King Dutiful, is a father in his own right.

Lesson #3: Aging Well 

It would be easy to let any of these characters stand still — to not check up on them, to leave the younger generations out and focus exclusively on the happenings and aging of the protagonist. And Hobb doesn’t. They’ve all grown up, grown older, and grown different.

First person. I mentioned the fabulous first person, but we’re going back to it in order to talk about misunderstandings.

This is everything from Fitz’s surprise that Chade is happy when Fitz reaches out telepathically, to his disappointment in Chade’s inability to offer consolation to Fitz on Molly’s death. There’s such nuance to the way Fitz sees Bee and Bee sees Fitz. There are tons of different details in here to look for.

Lesson #4: Misunderstandings between Characters

Human interactions are fraught with misinterpretations, with tiny differences of opinion and memory. Communication is imperfect, even between old friends. Hobb pays attention to her character relationships, and gives rough and irregular edges to their ability to relate, communicate and understand.

That’s four, and normally I’d stop there. But I have a few more thoughts. So…

SUPER SPOILER BONUS ROUNDS

Like really. I’m going to spoil the end of a few books in a moment. Get out of here if you haven’t read Farseer, Tawny Man et all.

So.

Grim dark fantasy is in vogue,  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people using the brutality of a secondary world to make it ‘realistic’. One problem with relying on that sort of thing, especially in an ongoing series, is the pressure to alway go bigger — to find things worse than death, to make the deaths more horrific, etc..

In the second book of the first trilogy, Fitz dies. Our first person POV is executed. Bloody brutal.

And yet, Hobb consistently succeeds in coming up with worse corners for Fitz to fight his way out of — without yet going back to killing him.

Fool’s Assassin is mostly small events both happy and sad — but I read the book waiting for the other shoe to drop — to really get punched in the gut by more than the melancholy of aging and watching the world change. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it better. There’s a body count at the end, a painful and effective body count, but that isn’t the main impact.

Ending the book with Bee in the hands of fanatical torturers, just after seeing what said torturers did to the beloved Fool, is crushing. Can’t wait to see how she breaks my heart in the next book.

Lesson #5: Upping the Ante

There are things so much worse than death. I like a good grimdark story as much as the next person. Possibly more than the next person. But murdering characters for shock value does not a narrative make. Don’t get twisted into thinking that death, torture, maiming, loss and illness can’t be effective in degrees. You don’t have to go all the way to be effective. 

Finishing this post I keep thinking of other things to talk about: Fitz saving the dog near the end and how satisfying it is to have him be a righteous badass after so much slow burn patience in the book. Or how painfully unfinished the lives of Revel and others feel when they are murdered.

Man, I missed this.

What did ya’ll think of Fool’s Assassin? Learn anything fun for your writing?

Box 13 – Glen Cook’s The White Rose

The Black Company

Ahh…The White Rose. Welcome back to Glen Cook‘s the Black Company, brothers and sisters. Today we are going to talk about the conclusion of the first trilogy in the saga of the Black Company. You can poke around for my thoughts on the two previous installments here and here. Ready to talk military fantasy? Alright. Here we go!

Wait. One more thing: Spoilers. They will abound. I may pop back to things in the previous books too. You have been advised.

So. After years in the service of the morally questionable sorceress, the Lady, the Black Company has made an enemy of her. They now serve the White Rose, a young deaf mute woman prophesied to bring down the Lady. After hiding out in the aptly named Plain of Fear, the Company ends up in a ferocious battle, not with the Lady, but with her unquestionably evil husband, who is still trying to resurrect himself.

For this book we are going to talk about characters mostly, but we’ll start with the character of a place. A lot of the book’s action takes place on and under the Plain of Fear. This is an area that has a totally different set of flora and fauna than the rest of the world, much of which is dangerous. It is, in fact, literally a chunk of another world. This is mentioned in the first two books, but briefly. While most of the story up til this point has been populated by relatively ordinary mules and horse,  we suddenly see talking rocks, flying mantas and sentient trees that can zap you with lightening. In this case, Glen Cook went big on pointing out the weird, which is awesome.

Lesson #1: Don’t forget that while you are introducing your readers to your strange new world, you can introduce your characters to it as well. The Black Company lives in a secondary world, but it feels recognizable for anyone familiar with the fantasy genre. It has a recognizable climate and ecosystem, weapons and human nature, and even the magic isn’t that out there. And then we drop into the Plain of Fear, and are as disoriented and weirded out as the Company. Giant flying …whales? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this set up, and it’s worth looking at what we and our characters take for granted as the normal world, and how to fuss with that.

Villains first? Or Heroes? Let’s save our hero, Darling the White Rose, and do our villains first. We can start with the Limper. The Limper is a lieutenant of the Lady and her husband before her. He is a scary, bitter, petty sorcerer of enormous power. And damn him, he just won’t die. Over two books, the Company has buried him alive, stuck him full of holes and hung him, and sent him off to be killed by the Lady.  He always comes back.

Lesson #2: Every time the Limper shows up again, you want him to go down more than the last time – which makes him a great villain. This could easily be done poorly. But in the Limper, I think we start to get a feel for the frustration of villains when those plucky heroes just won’t go down. (To quote 006: “Why can’t you just be a good boy, and die?”). And you hate him. He just keeps showing up. He is dogged, implacable, and evil. He is frightening. The Limper has a James Bond-ish number of lives.

Our other villain is The Lady, and she is faced with a world changing choice in this book. The Lady is not actually evil, you get that about halfway through this book. She is power hungry and ruthless, as well as a badass sorceress. But not evil. Not the way her husband, the Dominator is. And her choice is to let her husband free himself (which probably would not end well for the world or her) or fight to keep him imprisoned and sacrifice herself in the process.

Lesson #3: This should not be an easy choice. Some people might look at that and say, “Obviously, keep the real Evil from coming into the world.” But Glen Cook’s world really doesn’t have that sort of pure idealism, even among the heroes. The Lady has been extremely powerful, has elongated her life and been defined by her station (she is The Lady). And the choice isn’t easy for her. Neither are its repercussions, which are explored in later books. Different choices are easier for different characters, but it is important to remember in writing that self-sacrifice is not a hugely common human trait. Especially not when there is time to imagine the consequences.

Heroes now? Yes. Heroes. The White Rose. A woman fated to lead the defeat of the Dominator and the Lady. Darling. Darling, at this point, is a tall blocky woman. She speaks with sign-language. She is a military genius. And she is a magical “null”. Magic will not work around her, which is why she is so dangerous to someone like the Lady.

There is a lot to like about Darling. She feels more like a general more than a chosen one. She’s not beautiful. She’s doesn’t spend this book coming into her power. She is not going to end this with an epic battle of sorcery, she’s going to end this by taking magic out of the equation all together.

Lesson #4: Removing magic instead of besting or bettering it, is a unique twist on a sorcerous climax. In many worlds, from The Black Company to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, to D&D, wizards are over powered. There just isn’t much an ordinary person can do when they are faced by someone with magic in these worlds. Cook deals with this imbalance by allowing a character to recreate the playing field. This is something to think about when creating a magic system that gives a remarkable advantage to only one group.

We’re going to break the rules and throw one more lesson in here. Bomanz is not a hero or a villain in the strictest sense. He is the sorcerer that accidentally allowed the Lady and her ten minions to escape. His is the second perspective we get in this story, aside from our well-beloved Croaker. Bomanz is an old man who came chasing the knowledge from the ancient evils buried in the Barrowland. He has been working on this for a long time when we meet him. There are a lot of stories with old men in them. Like many of them, Bomanz is very clever, and he is a wizard. Unlike many of them, he is depicted as aged.

Lesson #5: Aging isn’t often a pretty thing, and most fantasy avoids dealing with that realistically. It is even rarer to get an elderly POV dealing with it. 

So. We have finished up the first trilogy of the Black Company. Don’t worry. We’ll be back. Lots more in this box.

Cheers!