Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin


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.


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…


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.


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 19 – David Anthony Durham’s The Other Lands

Other LandsToday we return to the War with the Mein in The Other Lands, and the beautiful writing of David Anthony Durham. The royal Akaran children have grown into the leaders of the Known World and face the unknown challenges of the Other Lands. If you are curious, you can find my post on Acacia, the first novel of this trilogy, right here.

Spoilers. You know, I feel silly saying this every time, but I would also feel terrible if this happened to be the first post you looked at, and I didn’t mention it.


Now that my guilt is assuaged, let’s continue. When last we left the Akaran heirs, Corinn had seized power, Mena was a badass and Dariel was still a bit of a pirate. (you know, my “reread” for these was an audiobook so I keep wanting to type “Daario” instead of “Dariel”. Yay for mixing up my fantasy worlds. Anyway…)

Rather than getting too much into plot right away, I’d like to point out that nine years pass between Acacia and The Other Lands, and it works. Pulling off that sort of time jump is daunting, especially in a continuous trilogy. It’s actually the second such gap, the first one happens inside the first book. In both cases Durham strikes a balance between detailed flashbacks and forward motion, so that it feels at once like the characters had lives during the interval, and that we, as readers, didn’t miss anything essential.

Lesson #1: Sketch the in between time. Creating the feeling that a character moves on after your story and lived before it is a challenge, and Durham provides an excellent example of finding the balance between too much and too little information to make the characters breathe.

Next, a question: Have you ever read a book with multiple perspectives where, when the perspective changes, you feel a twinge of annoyance because you were enjoying the perspective of the chapter before? We inevitably have favorites in these multi-POV epics, and it can be difficult to keep all the perspectives engaging all the time.

One of the ways this gets handled in The Other Lands is simple: lots and lots of cliffhangers. Nearly every chapter leaves the POV in dire straights. No mean feat in a four hundred odd page book. But every time I regretted leaving a character, the regret was quickly soothed by the answer to a previous cliffhanger.

Lesson #2: Since, subjectively, all characters are not created equal, a powerful plot point can smooth that twinge of annoyance we felt when a favorite character’s chapter ends. It works particularly well in The Other Lands and adds a headlong momentum to the novel.

Speaking of those cliffhangers — Let’s get briefly into plot. The Numrek appeared in the world with Hanish Mein, as part of an invading force in the first book. They stayed to serve Queen Corinn and her siblings, but we discover that they are lying in wait for their countrymen to join them and intend to conquer the Known World. When their treachery begins, we see it from Corinn’s perspective. The chapter ends and we move to Mena’s POV. Mena is playing with the young Prince Aaden and some of the Numrek are standing guard over them. The scene takes its time to unfold, with Mena realizing, painfully slowly, that something is wrong.

Lesson #3: Watching people do ordinary things when they should be running like hell is effectively stressful for the reader. This particular example is a masterful use of multiple perspective’s to create tension. There are a lot of reasons to avoid too many perspectives, particularly if you are a relatively new writer, but the Other Lands’ use of perspective is something to look at if you insist on many POVs. 

The last thing I want to point out with this novel is the fauna. The beasts living in this world aren’t the standard dragons, griffins, etc… We encounter creatures warped by magic and more natural monsters. For a genre where anything can happen, we still tend to see familiar magical and non-magical fauna. (My personal favorites are the “sea wolves”, a sort of giant squid like thing, but that might just be because I hate the League.)

Lesson #4: Dragons and griffins are all very well, but the variety available from the mythological and natural worlds far exceeds the basics. I find myself thinking I should dig up some of the kid’s nature programs I used to watch for worldbuilding ideas. 

That’s all for now, folks! Thanks for reading.