When we think of epic fantasy we tend to think immediately of an alternative, magical world that is like yet unlike our own, and this is indeed a strong element of Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels. But even richer is the inner world of the main character. FitzChivalry Farseer is one of the most compelling protagonists in fantasy, and it is his psychological transformations, and his relationships, which set these novels apart. Each central character’s name, to the initiated, is like a conjuring: Molly Redskirts, the Fool, Nighteyes, Burrich, Chade. The dark twists of this story are more than plot events; they twist from the inside.
Assassin’s Apprentice was released in the 1990s and the series has won a dedicated readership ever since. This year, the threads of Fitz’s story culminate devastatingly in Assassin’s Fate.
I caught up with Robin Hobb for an interview to mark this significant occasion.
I’ve been following the (mis)adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer since the 90s. For me and certainly many readers like me, this book was very emotional, as it finally concludes the story of this beloved character. What were your emotions going into this project, knowing it was the end of Fitz’s story?
Over and over, I missed personal and editorial deadlines as I was writing this book. I always knew where Fitz’s tale would lead; I think if you read Assassin’s Apprentice again, you will find all the hints already there, and there are others scattered throughout the other trilogies.
But knowing the destination of a journey does not always make it easy to go there. The entire story of that world is more like something woven than a linear thread. Events in Jamaillia or Bingtown inevitably have repercussions in the Six Duchies. And so Fitz’s mission would affect, not just his own family and lands, but the dragons and the Liveship Traders and the Pirate Isles and the dragon keepers of Jamiallia. There was a tremendous amount of detail to track, and I freely admit that I made errors. The books were ‘assembled’ as much as they were ‘written.’
And finally, the emotional toll on me is something I’m not especially comfortable talking about. Characters are very real to me. When I say that for twenty years they have been my closest friends and companions, I’m not exaggerating. They were with me, in my mind, every day. Bits of dialogues, glimpses of interactions and the growth among the characters were always with me, not for days or months but for years. Above all, I wanted to do them justice, but also to tell the story unflinchingly. I hope I did that.
A couple of months after the book was completed, I had a medical emergency that resulted in a middle of the night ambulance ride to a hospital in the city. It turned out to be a minor incident, but at the time, it certainly felt major to me. As I was lying on the floor, it cameo me that if everything ended for me that night, it would be okay because I had finished the books. I had kept faith with my characters.
That’s how much they meant to me.
I know that sounds whacked out. But I don’t think anyone has the clearest thoughts during a medical emergency. My other main concern was that I wanted my dog put somewhere so he couldn’t create a big problem by biting the paramedics. And those two concerns are what I remember most clearly about that night!
In some ways, Fitz is a character who has grown with you—he has been in your life for decades. Has the series taken unexpected turns for you, through the years? Did you initially plan it differently? Certainly at the end of each of the first three books, it seemed as if Fitz did not have a future…Assassin’s Quest was devastating. It was a great surprise and delight when he returned with Fool’s Errand.
As I mentioned above, I had a pretty clear idea of where Fitz was bound from the beginning. But I’ll go back to a metaphor I’ve used before; for me, writing a book is like planning a road trip. I know which events and locations are important along the way, and I know the final destination. But I also know there will be detours, and bridges washed out, flat tires, and unexpected hitch hikers. And I’m glad of that. I think if I had to write a precise outline and stick to it exactly, I would be very bored as a writer. Part of the joy of writing is having a character suddenly take control of the narrative. She will say or do something that is completely in line with who she is, but suddenly the plot will have a major torque in it, and I will see previous events through a different lens.
I often was sure, absolutely certain, that I was finished writing Fitz and other characters in those stories. Every book should end where the next one would logically begin. At the end of Assassin’s Quest, and again at the end of Fool’s Fate, I was certain that I was finished with those stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that more things would happen; it was that I thought I had left my characters in a good place, and that perhaps the readers would be content with that much of the story.
Even now, as I’ve set that world aside, I know that things continue to happen there. Riddle and Nettle, Bee, Lant, Etta, Brashen . . . there are so many characters, human, Elderling and dragon, who continue to live there. But I’ve always promised myself that I would never write a book simply for the sake of writing one more book set in a world I enjoyed. Stories have to be compelling. They must demand to be told, and they must be stories that could only take place in that world. It would be relatively simple to write a rote ‘Romeo and Juliet’ plot set in that world, a story that could take place anywhere, really. But I won’t do that. It would be cheating the characters and the readers. And all of us would know it.
These books explore unconventional ideas in roundabout ways. The Fool’s gender ambiguity is one example; another is the concept of family in this final trilogy: Bee essentially has four parents, one of whom is a wolf. And it feels organic, not like a statement. In some ways, this final trilogy feels like a story about family, just as the first was about growing up. Does that sound right to you, and what are your thoughts?
I do not care for ‘message’ stories, regardless of genre. Wait, I take that back. I love Aesop’s Fables. But that is because there is a clear contract between the reader and that ancient author. He intended to teach little lessons, and those stories do.
Inevitably, a writer’s values will bleed through into the stories he tells. It can’t be avoided. But sharing one’s values should not be the core reason for writing a story! The purpose of story is story itself, not to convert the reader. I often think that I write not because I have answers, but because I have questions. And in a story, I can try out different answers to those questions.
Yes, the Fool’s gender is ambiguous. And no one was more surprised by that than I was. Starling was the character who pointed it out to me, and once she had done so, it was inevitable. But at no point did I sit down and think, “I’m going to write a story with a gender ambiguous character.” The Fool simply stepped out onto the stage and into the spotlight, and that was who he was.
The Fitz and the Fool trilogy can be seen as being about family. Or about getting old. About considering what the purpose of one’s life has been. But mostly what it was about is, “And then what happened, in the years after Fool’s Fate? What happened after Kelsingra as rediscovered, and how did the establishment of a dragon population affect Fitz’s life?” I put into my books what I want to find in the books I read. A good story and engaging characters. But not a heavy handed message.
The intimacy of the Farseer novels that comes of being written in the first person is intense. The reader is fully immersed in Fitz’s world and emotions. How does the experience of writing this way contrast with your work in other books, which are narrated in the third person?
I always think of first person as the natural story telling voice. All day long, we tell stories to other people. “I dropped my phone in water, and it stopped working and I really need it today.” “I got stuck in traffic behind this person who was on her cell and she kept nearly running into the car in the other lane, but I was afraid to honk at her and startle her and have her rear end the car in front of me.” “I didn’t get lunch because I had to finish that project, and then Max hadn’t done the graphics for it, so it will still be late, and I had packed a really good lunch, but now it’s all soggy and awful.”
The “I” grabs attention in a very immediate way. Epistolary novels and diaries do the same thing. Suddenly the reader has someone’s personal correspondence and the reader just knows that intimate details are going to be revealed. The ‘I’ does that in a narrative. I love to read first person novels.
But sometimes the story demands several narrators. The story has to be told by the characters in the best position to have a good view of what is really happening. So in the Liveships, I did multiple points-of-view but I tried very hard to keep that POV tightly focused. I wanted the reader to be inside the character’s mind and heart, even if the character wasn’t telling the story in first person.
In The Fitz and The Fool trilogy, I was very nervous about using two first-person narrators in the same book. But I think it worked.
Without spoiling the plot of Assassin’s Fate, it seems fair to say that there are more stories possible for this world. Will you be returning to it in future novels?
In the past, I’ve given absolute answers to such questions. “No, I’m finished writing about Fitz,” I have said, at least twice and with great sincerity. Then I was wrong. I’m not really sure if or when I will return to writing tales set in the Six Duchies. I’ll leave it at that.