Thursday, February 10, 2011

Assassin's Apprentice

The best way to describe Assassin's Apprentice is to note it as being akin to Game of Thrones, but with a more intense, psychological focus on character and character development. Like Game of Thrones, that esteemed titan of fantasy fiction, Assassin's Apprentice shows us a fantasy world that is heavily dosed with realism. Certainly, magic and fantastical elements exist, but they are minimalist and quite rare. Instead of fireballs being flung around, this book shows us an immensely detailed medieval world where daily life is difficult and politicking for power and influence is paramount.

It is a world with an incredible amount of depth to it and, I have to admit, that at first this turned me off, to a certain extent. The writing has an astonishing attention to detail that, if you are unprepared for it, can seem nauseatingly excessive. I actually have tried to read this book before, but petered out when over halfway through as I simply was in a mood for faster and more vibrant fare. But, if you have the patience for an epic tale (and this is the first in a trilogy), then this is quite possibly the best fantasy book I've read since Game of Thrones.

Strength in Character

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for great, detailed characters and epic character development. Thus this book was right up my alley. Just about every single character in this book feels absolutely real, with complicated behaviors, motivations, and mannerisms that are unique and memorable. They feel just like they should for people living in a harsh medieval world, and the book is all the better for it. But what makes the book such a rarity is how intensely psychological it can get. I'll expand on that point shortly.

Assassin's Apprentice (and presumably the entire trilogy) follows the life of one Fitz-Chivalry, a bastard of a noble prince who is brought up in less than ideal conditions. For, accurate to life, the life of a bastard-born in a medieval time period is not a good one, and a great deal of conflict comes from this unavoidable fact. Fitz is raised by a stable-master, trained as a disposable assassin for the royal court, and largely disrespected and frowned upon at every turn, not allowed to leave to make his own life because of the threat his bloodline represents.

The psychological aspect comes from how the author follows his life directly from birth to young adulthood. It is written in the first person, and the author effectively portrays his thoughts as they would sound at his age. Thus, when Fitz is six years old, his thoughts are curious, simple, and wandering. When he is a teenager, his thoughts become more rebellious, self-absorbed, and occasionally depressing. In practice, this turned out to be a double-edged sword; I enjoyed the accuracy and appropriate cadence of Fitz's thoughts, but Fitz as a kid could get quite annoying and Fitz as a teenager occasionally had feelings of overblown tragedy that made me want to slap him. But, overall, I thought that it was effectively done and I wouldn't have it any other way. It is through this personal lens that we see very intimately what Fitz goes through; this is a book that does not shy away from difficult dilemmas and mature themes, which is what helps to make this story truly intense and magnificent.

The World of the Six Duchies

Another thing I particularly appreciated about the book was the vivid world it provided. Assassin's Apprentice mostly takes place in a kingdom known as the Six Duchies. The majority that we see makes it look a bleak place with windswept bluffs and a constant flow of sea spray. Consequently, it reminded me yet again of Game of Thrones; the rocky islands of the Greyjoys and the cold wilderness of the Starks.

But what had even greater appeal was the fact that clearly the author spent a lot of time thinking over how the cities of the world would react to events such as raids and shifts in royal policy at the capital of Buckkeep. The economy of the Six Duchies makes perfect sense, and the keeps and holdings seem to act just as nations and states do in real life, with a keen attention to their self-interest and working to economic and political gain. At the same time, personal desires and goals affect the kingdom as well; at one point, Fitz travels with a prince's coterie to address the inability of a landholder to adequately man his watchtowers because of his obsession with his new bride. Political problems such as this kept me quite interested in the world of Assassin's Apprentice, not a huge surprise given my politics degree from college!


In the end, Assassin's Apprentice is a book that took some getting used to for me to truly appreciate it. Once I was prepared to take on a story chock full of details and with an epic sprawl to it, I was then able to see how amazing it was. This is definitely something to keep in mind for those curious about the series and writing style. As for me, I very much look forward to reading the sequels and I hope that the great trend will continue.

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