Trigger Warning: This post discusses mental health issues of both the books’ character and myself.
Spoiler Note: I don’t directly spoil any major plot points, but I discuss my feelings relating to some of those plot points (specifically for Assassin’s Fate), and that might be spoilery enough for some people.
I had no idea how to title this post. It started out as a discussion of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series and her effective use of choice and (delayed) consequence to create characters that live and breathe. Then it became a talk on how first-person POV is used to delve into the psychology of a protagonist in a way I’ve never seen–across decades and several trilogies. Then it morphed into a ramble on the power of stories and words and how this series has become a cornerstone of my life. Now it’s mostly a gushing love letter to FitzChivalry Farseer (Hobb’s protagonist) and the series as a whole. But I figured calling it “A Stupidly Long Ramblepiece in Which I Smear My Wet, Beating Love for These Books All Over Your Screen Via Too Many Em Dashes and Sentence Fragments” might get me flagged for…well, something. So I’m sticking with the more academic version.
It’s also a post where I open up more of myself to people–random ones, at that–than I normally would in cold, sober daylight. But I’m running high on sleep deprivation and, frankly, this has been clawing to escape from my brain for the past year.
Besides, internet people aren’t real.
Someone once asked me what the Farseer books were about, at which point I froze and nervously started rambling off some carbon copy of a wiki synopsis. “It’s about the illegitimate son of a prince becoming a royal assassin and he has to navigate court intrigues but there are also these raiders…” And so on, all the while a voice in my head was whispering how trite it all sounded. How ordinary. A coming-of-age story about a young bastard learning to become an assassin? With dragons and magic? Bet they’ve never read anything like that before!
They say first impressions are important, and I had a chance to introduce someone to a series that has been utterly life-changing for me. So what did I do? I gave the verbal equivalent of a wet-noodle handshake.
I was afraid that if I started going into what really made the books special for me, I would never stop and come off as too weird, too fanatical, too vulnerable. I thought, some people don’t even like the books all that much. And, I’m probably reading things in the story that aren’t really there. And, you’re not smart or experienced enough to talk about this.
So I barely scratched the surface of the story. Afterwards, I felt guilt and disappointment in equal measure. Like I was a teenager again and had been caught holding my girlfriend’s hand, and all I did was blurt out, “We’re just friends!” It’s been a nagging thorn of regret in my mind ever since.
Well, this is my way of remedying that. And a way of acknowledging myself. Because, fuck it, life is too short and unpredictable to start shortchanging yourself out of your own passions.
In the end, this isn’t a series about assassins, or dragons, or magic. It’s about the life of FitzChivalry Farseer. Or maybe just life in general. Of the small and large events that lay the path to our future. Of the people we touch and shape, and are shaped by, along the way. Of trying to find a place in a world that’s confusing and hostile. Of the pain and loneliness that seep into our bones and never truly leave.
I almost wish I could say that I’ve been reading these books for two decades, but as I’m only about as old as Assassin’s Apprentice, I can’t. I imagine growing up with the books alongside the characters would have been a special experience. But then, I had the benefit of not waiting years between the end of Farseer and Tawny Man, so I suppose I should be relieved.
I’d entered the final semester of my undergrad when I first got into the series. Mentally, I was in a bad place–the worst I’d experienced yet. I was plagued with loneliness, fears of inadequacy, and self-hatred. When I wasn’t crying or harming myself out of guilt and disgust, I was lying in bed, insensate, feeling like the last living thing on earth.
One night, when things weren’t as bad, I started reading Assassin’s Apprentice. People on Pat Rothfuss’ Worldbuilders stream had recommended it a couple of weeks back, and I’d immediately bought the first three books. I found myself enjoying it–I liked the narrative voice and the characters were interesting.
Then I got to this scene–this horrible, wrenching scene– early in the book where Fitz believes himself to be discarded by the man who’s come to be his mentor, his friend, and someone he could love. He staggers from numbness to devastated tears, and tells a bewildered Burrich, his guardian, that he is so alone.
It was about three in the morning. There was class in five hours. And I was lying in my bed sobbing uncontrollably into a paperback. It was an ugly mess–snot and tears, clenched chest, tight throat, the whole package. My heart tore to see Fitz feel so freshly discarded. It was like this boy’s pain was my own.
But then, it was.
Because I knew how it felt like to plunge into soul-crushing loneliness, this feeling that eats you from the inside out. This thing whose onslaught you’re helpless against, so you lie curled and shaking, willing oblivion on yourself.
During one particularly bad episode, I’d expressed my feelings to my then-boyfriend. His words were an echo of Burrich’s: “I’m here. You’re not alone.” It was well-meant. But how do you explain the pervasiveness of the lies the darkness whispers to you? How do you explain that, even when you’re surrounded with friends, even when you’re in a room full of people you know and love, you still feel isolated? Unmoored? I couldn’t. And like Fitz, I said nothing.
The Wit bond is described as a merging of two kindred souls. When Fitz found Nighteyes, he was drawn to the surge of helplessness and anger and loneliness coursing through the wolf, because it was a reflection of his own emotional state. So it was with me and Fitz. His wounds echoed my own like no other character in any book, of any genre, had done. I cried for this boy and I cried for the small, broken thing curled inside me. And there was no looking back after that; sometimes they just don’t give you a choice. My heart was his.
I devoured the next fourteen books over the course of three months, and reread them twice more within the year. It was a journey like I’d never experienced. I watched Kettricken grow from an impulsive girl to a determined Queen, to a pillar of wisdom and grace and diplomacy that the Six Duchies rests upon. I watched as Chade unveiled more layers of himself with every book, as he managed to be continuously exciting and frustrating and one of the best damn supporting characters I’ve ever read. I watched Patience define the word “courage.” I saw the love between Fitz and Fool grow strong and fracture and return stronger still (they catapulted over Frodo and Sam as my favourite literary duo). I watched the events of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds run parallel to Fitz’s story–saw the sliver of fate that separated Fitz from Kennit. I watched as life beat Fitz and Fool to the ground again and again, then hauled them back up broken and gaping and afraid.
Throughout it all, there was an intimacy to Fitz’s narrative that I couldn’t escape–his thoughts of failure, his belief that he is inherently unloveable, they all held up a mirror to myself. There were scenes that have forever been burned into my mind; there were lines I read over and over until I saw them scrawled across my eyelids. For a time, my own problems were but a corner of darkness cowering from the luminance of this incredible world.
And then came Assassin’s Fate.
The first thought that popped into my mind when I saw its online description was a panicky “it’s only 864 pages?” I think it’s safe to say that Robin Hobb has completely skewed my perception of what a long book is.
There was this awful feeling of inevitability that surfaced about 300 pages in. The feeling that, ultimately, this story isn’t one of vengeance or rescue, but of consequence. That everything that’s happened since the beginning of Assassin’s Apprentice, from when a small boy was abandoned in a keep full of princes and stablemasters, has been leading up to this exact point. A convergence of echoes. A slow, inexorable slide into something I wasn’t ready for. It was a kind of dread, not unlike how I felt nearing the end of Mass Effect 3. I was so afraid for Fitz and Fool. One might think, they’ve already been through hell and back multiple times, what more could happen? Robin has taught me that there are always more ways to be hurt.
And I was right. I’d gotten into the habit of reading while standing, and at one moment in the book, my legs just…gave out. Next thing I know, I’m on my knees sobbing and gasping. I had to stop reading at that point because it was getting physically painful for me to continue. I spent the entire day and the half of next in a weak feverish state. My chest lurched every time I unwittingly thought about the book. I thought that getting punched in the heart would hurt less than this; the pain would, at least, end sooner. (I eventually scrounged up the will to read on, and boy, am I glad I did. That ending is so damn right.)
I had never experienced anything of that intensity with a book, or any fictional media. A part of me was cringing and yelling about how pathetic I looked. These are fictional characters, for God’s sake, and I was behaving as though a family member or a friend had died.
But for once, a louder part of me retorted: They are my friends. They are my family.
I thought: FitzChivalry is me and I am him. I am able to love him in ways that I can’t love myself; I can mourn him in ways that I won’t ever do for myself.
I thought: To give someone that kind of love is easy. To accept it from someone–yourself–is much, much harder. Because you have to believe that you’re deserving of such kindness.
But you don’t.
But maybe. Maybe if I hold him tight enough, and speak the words–the beautiful, forbidden words–often enough, they will ricochet and eventually reach the heart of me.
I don’t think I ever fully understood, until that moment, just what this character meant to me.
And it was also at that moment I realized I was holding the conclusion to a masterpiece.
Fitz isn’t a confident assassin hero. He’s the sum and distillation of all your doubts, fears, and self-hatreds. He’s a heartbreaking reminder that the wounds you receive as a child don’t fade, but seed and propagate until they’re directing every thought and action.
There’s a quote that will forever haunt me, one that I think best represents the whole of the series:
Sometimes it seems unfair that events so old can reach forward through the years, sinking claws into one’s life and twisting all that follows it. Yet perhaps that is the ultimate justice: we are the sum of all we have done added to the sum of all that has been done to us. There is no escaping that, not for any of us.
That’s a sobering thing to see in an epic fantasy.
But do you know what astounds me? His empathy. Despite his upbringing, despite every horror life has thrown at him, he never loses his ability to love deeply and be hurt deeply. It’s what I find most remarkable and beautiful about Fitz’s character–the utter strength and vastness of his heart; his capacity to feel so absolutely rivals Shakespearean heroes (how many times has someone said to him, “You feel so much”?). That open vulnerability is something I’ve never before encountered in a male fantasy protagonist–something that’s set the bar for so many male fantasy protagonists. It made me ask myself so many times why more characters like him don’t exist.
Robin Hobb has said that her characters don’t feel like her own creations, but people living in a different reality, projecting their stories through to her. I can’t agree with her more. Many books feature complex, interesting characters, but I feel like most of them can only exist within the confines of their world, their constructed plots. Only a few can I imagine pulling into our reality. Only a few do I wish, desperately, to spend a day–a week, a year, forever–with.
In the end, I think all connections we make with books and their characters are akin to Wit bonds. Stories we find at particular moments in our lives imprint onto our beings and never truly vanish. The edges of their memories might fade, but their core lingers. So it was for me with Harry Potter. So it was with Middle Earth. I’ve come to call these “junction books.”
Then there are your “Nighteyes”– the unexpected, insidious stories that crawl through your skin and flood your senses. When you run your fingers down the surface of your heart, trying to find the seams of your connection, you realize you can’t, because you’re so hopelessly intertwined and there’s no sense to where you end and they begin.
And you can’t imagine giving that much of your heart to any other.
The Realm of the Elderlings is my Nighteyes, but it may not be your Nighteyes. That’s okay. The world is vast and our imagination infinite. There are so many brilliant stories out there, already written or waiting to be written.
Thank you to the people on Pat Rothfuss’ inaugural Worldbuilders Twitch stream who asked for book recommendations and the people who typed “Robin Hobb” over and over in answer (it’s not everyday you get to say “Twitch chat saved my life”). I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you helped me find a piece of myself I didn’t even know was missing, during a time when I was terribly lost and afraid. I never would have picked up the books if not for those recommendations, and if not for the books, I don’t know if I would’ve ever re-found my love for reading and writing. And I don’t know if I would even be here now. Which is, you know, kind of fucking amazing. Talk about small actions making large ripples, yeah? The Fool would be smiling so hard.
The future I envision today isn’t quite the terrible, engulfing darkness from before. Not to say it’s not very hard, still. There are days that feel unbearable, and I have no doubt that will continue. Yet I find myself looking forward to growing older with FitzChivalry nestled in my heart. And I think that’s a step.
I dream that one day I can take his hand in my own, look into his eyes, and whisper, you are worthy, and, you are loved, and let the words wash over us in a baptism of belief and hope.
And together we will falter, slowly but ever surely, into the light.
A last-minute shoutout to author Taylor Brooke, whose twitter thread helped me find the resolve to actually publish this. I have no idea how many times I nearly chickened out. If you like romance and sci-fi, go check out her book, Fortitude Smashed. It’s fantastic.
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Thank you for this, I didn’t know the books had affected anyone else this way as well. I’ve always been worried to recommend them to people in case they don’t feel how I felt reading them, but I’ll take a leaf out of your book and tell everyone. I’m glad you opened up, I’m sure it’s made a difference to others too.
Thank YOU so much reading. <3 And I totally get what you mean. I still get little twinges of anxiety whenever I recommend the series to anyone because I end up thinking "oh no, what if they don't even *like* it that much?" But if it means introducing someone to a series that could possibly change their life, it's worth it. 🙂
Hi! Stumbled across this during a google search. I’m reading Fool’s Errand right now and I’ve also read the Farseer trilogy. Thanks so much for sharing; I really enjoyed this piece!
I like what you said about Fitz’s empathy. It does seem to be uncommon to find a male protagonist like this in fantasy, but it’s one of my favorite parts about Fitz. The mental health aspect is also a draw for me. I think that representation is so important.
Anyhow, really great points and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to how you feel about these characters! I’m looking forward to continuing reading The Tawny Man trilogy and beyond (though I am slightly apprehensive about the last book now lol).
That was unexpected.
Although I’ve finally found stability, I relate to most of what you’ve written.
At the time, I’ve related so much to Fitz, and indeed, the compassion I felt for him I hardly was able to feel for myself. Then again, I wasn’t suffering from trauma, mainly just from life and the inability to find a good reason for my existence.
And so, Fitz also was my catharsis.
I went through life searching desperately for someone who’d make me feel like I wasn’t alone. It’s not that I didn’t have friends, family, often a partner, but I felt like I was alone in my head, floating through thoughts and feelings that noone could possibly grasp. I felt monstruous. I felt like truly being myself and trusting someone to fully understand who I was would be…well, a fool’s errand.
As he did for you, Fitz (and therefore the Fool and Nighteyes) became this fictional true friend that would understand.
And as you did, I used (and still do use) stories as a way of shaping my identity. I think we all do, in a way, but some probably more than others, and with more awareness of the phenomenon. I’m in a category I named “Eater of stories” (it translates very awkwardly to English, sorry). Not that I’m a compulsive reader either, it’s just that everything is pretext for a story, and it’s one of the reasons why I love asking people about themselves.
Anyway, I ramble a lot, but I guess what I wanted to say is: thank you for having written this piece. I feel like we had similar experiences with this particular story, and it’s rather amazing to see someone who understands.
I wish you all the best
Hey this was all so nice to read. Hobbs entire Realm of the elderling series has blown me away. Her style of writing, the depth of character development. I’ve reread each trilogy numerous times. Sometimes I felt just like Wintrow and other times wished I was more like Althea. I felt my heart was reflected truest in Alise’s journey from conventional societal traps to liberated self sufficiency- she found a life of her own. And how can words describe the lifetime between the Fitz and the fool? Sigh lol. To me, no one compares to what she achieved in this series and I’ve read ALOT of books. I’m in love with her writing, the world and her characters. I love how some of the truths about life are revealed within the characters through their introspection. I still cry at the same parts with each rereading!
I’m getting to this late, but thank you so much for the comment! It’s incredible how this series has touched so many people in such a visceral way. Sometimes when I reread books, parts of it can feel like…a chore, you know? Because I know everything that happens and I know the dialogue, etc. And I think the RoTE books are the only ones that make me feel even *more* excited with each reread. It’s like coming home to a best friend every time. Ugh just so incredible <3
Really nice piece Kathy. Thank you