I was talking to my therapist the other day about something that happened to me years ago. I won’t bore you with it here, but The Thing that Happened was awful and left me a bit damaged. We were discussing how, if the same Thing happened today, I would put an immediate stop to it. I would say, “Here, now. That’s enough of that,” or, “I won’t allow this kind of treatment.” And I got a bit upset, asking miserably, “Why didn’t I stop It before?” And my therapist smiled, the way she probably smiles at a lot of clients, and said, “When we know better, we do better.”
That’s a hard thing.
I don’t often expect topics like deep physical and emotional abuse to be dealt with honestly in young adult fantasy novels, but Robin Hobb does it to great effect in the first installment of The Farseer Trilogy: The Assassin’s Apprentice.
Now, before you ask, because I know you’re going to, yes; I am a huge nerd. I am a Potterhead, a Whovian, a Trekker (not a Trekkie, as I have recently been informed). I go to conventions, though I haven’t tried cosplaying yet. I love obscure board games. And I am a sucker for well-written fantasy; Rothfuss, not James, Weeks, not Myers.
The Assassin’s Apprentice is a coming-of-age tale about young Fitz, the bastard child of one of the princes of The Six Duchies. The history of the royal lineage is dealt with as solemnly as any great Tudor house – a nice touch. There is a clever but simple magic system in place. But most unique of all is Hobb’s style. She has obviously been inspired by classic authors; to me, the piece reads as a combination of Jane Eyre, Johnny Tremain, David Copperfield, and The Midwife’s Apprentice. All orphans. And all. Very. Abused.
One of Fitz’ training masters, Galen, is especially nasty, and uses brainwashing techniques, corporal punishment, and sense deprivation to gain access to his students’ minds. Of course, we see these through the eyes of a young boy who naively believes he is learning valuable lessons until it is too late. Hobb writes heartbreakingly, “One can only walk so far from one’s true self before the bond either snaps, or pulls back. I am fortunate. I have been pulled back.”
There are many antagonistic forces in Fitz’ young life, and he does his best to make wise, just, and informed choices, even in the face of tragedy. But lest he descend irretrievably into the black pit of insipid literary Mary-Sues, Hobb has given him some idiosyncrasies to distinguish him as an admirably three-dimensional character. Fitz is a sulker, self-righteous at times, and often self-pitying, with a low opinion of himself, and an ability to trust anyone until they have exhausted his faith reserves.
Apprentice is a long, luxurious read that left me feeling as though I’d eaten a large, satisfying meal. The Dungeons and Dragons, sword-and-sorcery side of me was sated – the carbs. The characters engaged and challenged me – protein. And the honest look at hurt and healing snuck in some fiber almost without my notice. Fitz seems to tell the reader over and over again that while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can heal and grow in spite of it. And as we gain the perspective to know better, we have the chance to do better.