Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin

IMG_3072

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 17 – Blake Charlton’s Spellwright

So, today we dive into the lovely and fantastical box which is Blake Charlton’s Spellwright. The novel sports an innovative magic system, beautiful writing and puns for those who don’t normally pun. Keep the title in mind as we go.

***Spoiler Warning***

Below this line, I shall spoil without mercy or guilt. You are warned.

Spellwright is the tale of Nicodemus Weal, a cacographic (dyslexic, in this case) spellwright in a world where magic is literally “spelled” in words and paragraphs. Nicodemus is the potential center of several prophecies and plots for power, and struggles to understand what is happening around him, while trying to overcome his disability with magic.

The first item I want to talk about is the word “disability.” It’s used to describe Nicodemus and his fellow cacographers. Nicodemus’ life and his self-perception are heavily based in the reality of how the other wizards (“authors”) treat him. It’s never taken lightly, and it doesn’t go away. Nicodemus’ disability walks with him, convenient or not.

Lesson #1: There are lots of under represented experiences in fantasy. When it comes to mental disabilities, the other examples that spring to mind are Thick from Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy and Hodor from Mr. Martin’s world. Neither of which come close to protagonist material. (More examples I am missing? Head to the comments, dear readers!) Under represented perspectives can make your writing more compelling (if you do it while thinking of the character as a person, not a mouthpiece) and broadening the experiences we write about in fantasy is good for the genre. 

Next we’ll get into the magic system itself. Magic in the world of Spellwright is written spells in magical languages. There are different languages, most specific to a culture or organization. Spellwrights write letters, words and paragraphs in their bodies and cast them into the world to create an effect. A vocabulary of composition is used to describe the magic, making it more accessible than an invented vocabulary would be able to.

Lesson #2: Using mundane and common language to describe the foreign or magical aspects of a world helps the reader enter that world. I was sold on Spellwright in the prologue, where a wizard is forced to “eat her words,” which takes on a horrifying connotation as you quickly realize how the magic system works. Charlton continues to twist common sayings and give them new meanings throughout the book.

On the other end of combining the familiar and the strange, one of the magical languages introduced in the book is Language Prime – the language out of which all life is written. It has only four letters, and therefore any spell written in Language Prime is terribly long and very difficult to memorize. Language Prime is DNA.

Lesson #3: It is useful to describe the strange in terms of the commonplace, but it is also useful to look at the commonplace through the lens of the strange. Taking DNA and working it into the core magic concept adds a level of verisimilitude, and heck: It’s just cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is laying restrictions and obstacles on your character. As a protagonist moves through a heroic story, they are likely to become more powerful/competent/skilled, but they can’t become too powerful. Nicodemus’ great obstacle is his cacography, but that is used to inform his smaller obstacles. He comes into possession of an Index capable of accessing every book and journal in the magical university where he studies. This is super powerful, but his contact with the book means that anything he looks up misspells (another word that takes on a whole new meaning in this story). So, he cannot simply pull powerful wartexts off a page. They misspell and don’t work for him.

He finds a language to spell in, one that is logical and his dyslexia does not effect, but magic written in this language dissolves under sunlight: it was developed by subterrestrial people.

He learns Language Prime, but he will misspell any living thing he touches.

Lesson #4: The deeper the limitation, the better the hero must be to overcome it. Peter S. Beagle put it better: “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed.” This book sets solid limitations on each stride the protagonist makes.

One last thing I enjoyed in this book: the author clearly has a deep affection for the fantasy genre. That’s not something one always wants to come through heavily, but if you have read or do read the book, you will see what I mean.

Well, that’s all folks. See you next time.