Assassin’s Apprentice opens with the main character as a six year old child, the bastard child of the King-in-waiting, who just became known because his young mother’s father could no longer afford to keep feeding him and delivered him to the nearby outpost of the King. He had no name, so they called him Fitz (slang for “bastard”). His appearance introduced a bit of a problem. His father, Chivalry, had married, but the Lady Patience had been unable to produce an heir. Chivalry retired as King-in-waiting to a valley away from the court. A bastard is sort of family, so he has to be taken care of, especially since if he becomes disillusioned he could act as a competition for King. When the previous King-in-waiting, Chivalry, was universally admired for his character or honoring his vassals and subjects as well as his excellent results negotiating with neighbors, while the new King-in-waiting, Verity, was seen as merely a capable fighter but lacking connection with people.
Fitz was placed under the care of Burrich, Chivalry’s (former) man, and one who was devoted to his former master. He took good care of the horses and the hunting dogs, and trained Fitz to do the same. He was not exactly a father, and was generally a brusque sort of man, but he did see that Fitz was fed and clothed, and gave him some guidance navigating life in the Keep. From an early age Fitz was able to share consciousness with animals, especially dogs. This is subtly introduced when Fitz, who is narrating, says that the hound puppy he was growing up with told him there was a certain scent, and you, the reader, kind of assume you misunderstood something and jump over it. Until it becomes clear that this really is happening, at which point it also becomes clear to Burrich. Burrich saw the Wit as dehumanizing: people who use the Wit end up finding more camaraderie with animals than men, and end up abandoning human practices and become animal. This was not fit for Chivraly’s son, and Burrich forbide Fitz to bond with animals. He even took the puppy that Fitz had bonded with, there was a yelp, and Fitz could sense him no more. This did not deter Fitz, but he continued more subtly.
When Fitz was about 12, he happened to catch the eye of King Shrewd one morning while he was scavenging from the tables in Hall from the feast the night before. The king was with one of his younger sons, Regal, by his second wife after the first died. He asked Regal what he would make of Fitz: a friend, an enemy, a tool. Then the king got down to Fitz’s level and declared that Fitz was his, and that he would keep Fitz better than any other (he would beat anyone’s offer). As he explained to Regal, a bastard is a unique person and can be sent where a Prince may be in danger. A bastard is of the royal blood, so you can’t kill him, but he isn’t of the royal line, so he isn’t official. He would be particularly useful in the diplomacy of the knife. Fitz agreed to be the king’s, although he does comment in his narrative that Shrewd bought a loyalty he could have had for free by simply declaring himself Fitz’s grandfather.
Fitz was moved into his own chamber on the royal side of Buckkeep castle, fitted out with good clothes, and sent to be tutored by the swordmaster Hod (a woman). He tutored with the scribe, and had various other forms of instruction. The strangest, though, came at random nights, when a door that was not usually opened and the King’s assassin, Chade, brought him to his quarter for tutoring. There he learned chemistry and herbology and various ways of poising things. He also instructed Fitz on how to reason about internal and external politics, a sort of realpolitik. Chade was a bit like a father, and Fitz looked forward to his visits. Chade also gave him tasks to perform, things like acquiring certain articles without being seen, which Fitz performed eagerly and well. Once Fitz was tasked with getting the king’s fruit knife from his bedroom, but this Fitz staunchly refused to do, because he had sworn to serve the king, but Chade did not relent. After many days of not seeing Chade, and fearing that they were ended, Chade came and told him that it was that king who had requested it, and the king was honored by Fitz’s decision, and had invited him to breakfast with him. After breakfast, Fitz took a knife in full view of the surprised but unprotesting king and slipped it in his robe, later stabbing it into Chade’s mantel, having performed the task without sacrificing his principles.
Chivalry died, probably not by natural causes, and the Lady Patience came to live in the keep. She actually wanted to do right by Fitz and mother him, so she arranged for him to wait and her so that she could instruct him in the things a prince should know. The theory was that naming children for a virtue would cause them to grow into that virtue, but it did not work with Lady Patience. She kept trying to find something he was good in, but never gave him a chance to explore it and become good at it. But she did insist that he learn the Skill, a way of sharing consciousness with other people. It tended to only show up when the blood of the plains combined with the blood of the sea (the ruling family had once invaded from across the ocean), and it was strong in Chivalry.
The Skill master hated Fitz, and he trained by domination and fear. He abused his pupils, requiring strong asceticism of them and mocking those who failed out. Fitz very much did not want to fail, because he wanted to learn to Skill. He had to hide his secret as assassin’s apprentice though, which hindered his ability to open himself up. Once though, he did let the master in, but then overpowered him out of fear. Using the Skill produces a euphoria that leads to disaster if one embraces the euphoria, and Fitz forgot his training, opening himself up for a devastating attack by the master, who was subtly trying to kill him using Skill. He was not going to go back, embracing himself as the failure that the master (and remaining pupils) mocked him as. The king’s Fool came to him, as he did occasionally, saying cryptic things that could be interpreted as foolish but sounded like they had insight locked within, and said he needed to go back and learn. It seemed that Burrich had dragged the Skill master to the Witness Stones and challenged the master to combat to show that the master had no right to refuse to teach Fitz. The Fool said that—had he been there—he could have told how Burrich had become like the unrelenting fighter before Chivalry went away and soundly defeated the master despite any Skill he was using. So Fitz trained, not learning much Skill, until the final test, where they would be sent somewhere in the kingdom to hear the master Skill to them an item they were to bring back.
The descendants of the ancestors of the Farseer clan who had conquered the land from overseas had continued raiding since then, but it had changed in recent times. The warning posts were not being manned, so that raids were more frequent. So the king sent a delegation to the Duke in charge of the towers to see why, and Chade assigned Fitz to figure out what the Duke was doing, and to kill him if necessary. Fitz was assigned as retainer to a very annoying woman who was always inside her wagon. He decided that the problem was not the Duke so much as his young peasant wife who did not know how nobility acted and felt insecure in her position, so she spent all the money on clothes. He went one evening to the kitchen to get a late meal and found her trying to heal her dog. Fitz, good with dogs, removed the wire the dog had ingested. And knowing that she would not take advice from him, he told her a story about a dream he’d allegedly had, planting in her mind that the noble thing to do was to spend money on protecting the people. Problem solved.
It turned out that Chade masqueraded as the annoying lady, and they had a different job to do while they were there. The raiders had taken some people of the town of Forge (which produced iron) captive, asking for money to not let them go, which, of course, did not make any sense. Chade and Fitz travelled to Forge by night and found Forge burned, empty except for the captives where were somehow stripped of their humanity, unable to think about anything but satisfying their immediate needs. The unnerving thing to Fitz was that he could sense people and animals, but he could not sense the Forged people at all.
When Fitz removed the blindfold after being taken to his location for the Skill test, he discovered that the only way to get back to Buckkeep was to travel through Forge. He never did sense the master’s Skill, and he narrowly escaped. While he was slowly making his way back, the hound that had been given to him as a pet and who he had bonded with (being in his own room now, away from Burrich), saw someone stabbing Burrich and the hound. The hound survived for a few days but Fitz felt him disappear before he was able to make it back. When he returned, Burrich had managed to not die, but the hound was dead.
The King-in-waiting, Verity, began to do nothing but stay in his room, staring out the window, barely eating. Fitz was assigned to bring him food and make sure he ate it. One day he had a conversation with Verity for a while before he realized that neither of them had said anything. It was not that Fitz had no Skill, but rather that the master had no idea how to teach it, because Shrewd had not thought it wise to teach the Skill to people outside royalty. Verity had been trained by the previous master, who was gentle and knew how build people up in the Skill. Verity told Fitz that the real purpose of the groups the master was forming not to act as surrogate eyes, as he thought, but to allow their King (or Queen) to use the skill more powerfully by offering themselves for the King to draw on. Verity was spending all his time clouding the vision of the raiders so that they did not see the rocks until it was too late, or were confused, or any number of other things, but alone was very draining. Fitz offered himself (not even knowing what he had said), and Verity used him briefly before realizing that Fitz had no idea of what he had really offered; without the appropriate precautions Verity could have drained him dead.
Shrewd said that Verity needed to marry. Verity said he was too busy. Eventually they settled on a princess from the mountain tribes over the border. It would be a politically wise match (unlike Chivalry’s match to a noble’s daughter, which could provide no advantage). Verity insisted that he could not spare time to attend in the autumn, which is when the mountain people believed it was auspicious to marry but was when the raiders came, so his younger brother would go in his place. He would be present at the ceremony via Skill. Fitz was sent along with the gathering, which took several weeks to arrive, to kill the princess’ brother Rurisk, who was in ill health anyway from an arrow wound. Before he left, the Fool warned Fitz to eat or drink nothing that he had not prepared himself. Fitz asked the Fool why he gave him all these riddles; the Fool replied that Fitz’ existence provided options and that he wanted to keep those options existing.
The mountain tribe’s capital city was very different than the Farseer kingdom of the Six Duchies. There were many gardens, and the palace was made out of living trees sculpted into becoming roofs. The rulers called themselves “the Sacrifice” because the rulers sacrificed themselves for the people’s good. It seemed civilized in a very different way than Buckkeep. Fitz was able to speak some words in their language, and had expressed a desire to see the gardens of the city. The princess herself offered to take him to her favorites, telling him about all the different plants and offering him tastes of various interesting roots. Towards the end, the princess asked about Verity, and Fitz’s answers described him as a servant of the people, about 33, and a kind man. Apparently this was different to what the princess had heard from Regal and she began to think that she may have been mistaken in her evaluation of him (and possibly others, as her servant offered).
Fitz was feeling suddenly terrible and excused himself, knowing himself to have been poisoned. He took the seapurge that the Fool had given him. The next morning Rurisk came to him, happy to find him alive. He asked apologized and Fitz gave his father’s reply: it is too late to apologize because I have already forgiven you. He noted that some murders are only profitable if done at the right time. If he or his sister were to die in the next six months, everyone would cry “murder”, so there was no point to killing him (if Fitz were the king’s poisoner, as a very drunk Regal had let slip late one night during his previous visit). Nor did Rurisk seem to be in poor health. In fact, the whole mission seemed odd, and Fitz was torn between honoring and obeying his king and the facts on the ground.
He finally made up his mind and went to Rurisk’s chamber one night. He suggested they drink some wine. After Rurisk got out the gift of one of the wines from Buckkeep, Fitz openly poured the packet of poison into Rurisk’s glass, saying that he was sent to poison him. Then he set it aside and drank out of his glass. They talked for a bit, drinking out of the one glass, when Rurisk went into convulsions on the floor, to the surprise of Fitz. One of Regal’s men came in and accused Fitz of poisoning Rurisk, and the situation became clear: Regal wanted to kill Rurisk and pin it on Fitz, whom he hated. Now Fitz had two problems: stay alive (fortunately he had drunk a little less wine than Rurisk) and kill the (non-royalty) who knew that he was the king’s assassin, or he would no longer be useful in that role.
The princesses servants nursed him back to semblance of health over the next few days, as the one closest to the princess (who was only eighteen, still a bit of a child, and who wanted to kill Fitz because he poisoned her brother) said, he had drunk from the same cup, no one would poison themselves. The princess publicly forgave Fitz, which gave him immunity from retribution both from her side and also from Regal’s, at least while they were in the mountains. Fitz went to Burrich for help, despite them not really being on speaking terms over Fitz’s use of the Wit with is puppy. Regal lured Fitz into the hot springs bathing room on the pretense of wanting to forgive him as the princess had asked, and one of the mountain men sympathetic to Regal’s tales knocked Burrich on the head and disabled Fitz. Regal mocked Fitz, saying that he was partnering with the Skill master to suck Verity dead when he Skilled during the ceremony; he wanted to be the next king. Then he pushed Fitz into the hot water bath.
Fitz knew that he would die, so he desperately tried to Skill Verity. As Verity had said, it really was easy. He was able to warn a surprised Verity, but the ceremony was about to start. Fitz asked Verity to use him to gain strength. Verity did so, sucked the Skill master dead (he died of a heart failure, it seems), then pushed through the coterie that the Skill master had trained to Skill directly to the princess, saying gently that he waited for her, and he grieved for her brother, too, since he had nothing to do with his death. Then Verity released Fitz so that he would not die.
Fitz was apparently pulled from the water by the hound that Burrich had gotten rid of. Apparently Burrich had sold it to a trader, who sold it to one of the mountain people. They had found each other earlier, but the bond was no longer strong. Still, it sensed Fitz dying, found him, and bit his hands to drag him out of the water. Fitz returned to Buckkeep, where he had to see the man who had tried to poison him. He learned that the Skill master was the bastard brother of Regal, and that Chade, too, was a royal bastard. He did his job well in life, although his health was never the best after the poisoning.
Assassin’s Apprentice is well done. The world is simple, but has depth, kind of like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The characters are quite varied, each being passionate about something, and each has motives that are believable for a medieval, Norse-type settlement. The court intrigue has increasing layers of depth to it, each with believable motives. The world has an element of magic to it, but it is more a communication magic than a magic that alters the world. This gives part of the sense of “it seems like we really ought to be able to do this” that good fantasy has.
Fitz is an unusual assassin. Yes, he’s trained to kill people, but he is strongly loyal and values life. Apparently he killed people after the events of the book, but so far he did not actually kill anyone. He is an assassin by trade but firstly he is a boy with heart. He is loyal to the kingdom, and loyal to those that treat him well (like Verity). He is willing to give his life to benefit others, as he offered Verity as he was dying. He may be an assassin, but you get the sense that he might only actually do it if the intended victim actually deserves it.
This is one of the better fantasy books I have read recently. The characters are rich and flawed and lovable. The world is familiar yet has things we long for (like talking with animals). On the other hand, it has scary dangers, too, like being Forged by raiders. We follow a boy’s struggle of growing up without parents, and see him become a person of character and integrity (despite the career chosen for him). The author has a lot of insight into life, which she imbues into her creation.