My most beloved book series: Robin Hobb’s Realm Of The Elderlings

With spoilers, Juliette revisits the book series that means the most to her: Robin Hobb's Real Of The Elderlings...

Many of us have a particular series (whether it’s books, films, graphic novels or a TV show) that we follow over a number of years and that comes to mean more to us than most fiction, the characters growing with us and changing as we change. For me, that series is Robin Hobb’s Realm Of The Elderlings books, which I started reading nearly 20 years ago, in 1998 (the first book was published in 1995) and which has just come to a possibly-final conclusion with the publication of the latest book, Assassin’s Fate. This series has had a huge impact on me and, I think, many others, so what I want to offer here is a fairly personal reflection on the highs and lows of the whole series, and on how effective Assassin’s Fate is as a conclusion, if that is what it turns out to be.

This article is going to discuss the whole series with spoilers from beginning to end, down to the last few pages of the last book, so turn away now if you haven’t read all the books and don’t want them spoiled! That means all sixteen Realm Of The Elderlings books (not just the ones about Fitz). If you’re interested in Hobb, or have read some but not others, check out whether or not you need to read them all here, or for a non-spoilery review of Assassin’s Fate, click here.

This series is now 22 years old, and the world has changed a lot in 22 years. Not just the world within the story, but the real world as well – it was the mid-1990s when this saga began, an alien world sadly lacking in modern cellphones and where there were no e-readers – you had to carry the big hardback around everywhere if the book was new.

One of the series’ big themes, which has reflected widening awareness in the real world, is the complexity of sexuality and gender. The slow-burn development of Fitz and the Fool’s relationship across nine books has happened against a backdrop of increasingly open conversations about LGBTQ+ issues and rights that feed into and inform the story for those of us not directly affected ourselves. I don’t know whether Hobb always intended the Fool to be gender-fluid or not (I had, I confess, assumed the character was actually female after Amber gave Althea advice on how to hide her menstruation while disguised as a boy in Ship Of Magic, and only let go of the idea in Fool’s Fate) but that is not the point. As the series goes on, the Fool’s early jokes about Fitz’s obsession with ‘plumbing’ become an increasingly sincere and meaningful exploration of gender-fluidity and the complexity of deeply intimate relationships.

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It seems fairly clear from the Fool’s words in The Golden Fool that he wants to be with Fitz in every way; Fitz is not sexually attracted to the Fool, but by the end of the saga, has realised that, regardless of anybody’s ‘plumbing’, these two souls (the Fool and Nighteyes) are the ones he wants to be with. As a heterosexual, cisgender woman I can’t say how well these plots work for those who may see themselves in these characters, but from the outside, they seem like a well drawn and sensitive way to illustrate some things not always found in mainstream literature or fantasy. And, having ‘shipped’ Fitz and the Fool when reading the early books as a teenager, I was finally thoroughly satisfied in this respect by the conclusion to Assassin’s Fate, having cursed Fool’s Fate in no uncertain terms (I am not the biggest fan of Molly!).

Assassin’s Fate provides a beautiful, largely satisfying conclusion to the story of Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes by finally giving us the ending promised by the last line of Assassin’s Quest: “We dream of carving our dragon.” That was always Fitz’s fate and the most appropriate not-entirely-ending for him. It was reassuringly foreshadowed time and again in the Fitz And The Fool trilogy as well, with Bee dreaming of wolves shaking off bits of stone and three becoming one. As someone who desperately wanted Fitz to be with the Fool all along (not necessarily sexually, but in a partnership) and who loved Nighteyes, this was the perfect conclusion for me.

My only disappointment there – and it was a big one – was that we didn’t get to experience the final transformation through Fitz’s perspective. The logic behind that decision may be that the books’ existence is technically explained through Bee writing down Fitz’s stories, with one of the most emotional moments of an emotional climax being Fitz’s re-telling to her of the very beginning of Assassin’s Apprentice, and his grandfather’s hand gripping his own. But that isn’t really an explanation – the first series was supposedly made up of Fitz’s papers that he burned, so I doubt readers would have minded suspending their disbelief to follow Fitz up to the moment of transformation. After waiting twenty years to see Fitz and the Fool (with Nighteyes) finally come together in a permanent way, it was very disappointing to see it happen through another’s eyes and not get to experience their joining as a reader. It also left Fitz and Nighteyes’ last lines of dialogue and narration rather abrupt and downbeat – the last thing Nighteyes says is, ‘That one needs little looking after’ (in reference to Bee) while the last words of Fitz’s narration we will get to read are, ‘But I could not’. As a final line, ‘we dream of carving our dragon’ was rather better.

I experienced some similarly conflicted feelings about the developments in the Bingtown characters’ stories here. When we meet Althea and Brashen of the Liveship trilogy in Dragon Keeper, they are happily living their lives and it’s nice to catch up with them, but we don’t desperately need their perspective. However, when Malta goes through dramatic and life-changing events in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, we get to see things through her eyes again, as we did when she was younger, because the story and our relationship with that character demands it.

Here, however, because of the first person narrative structure, we see the Bingtown characters only through Fitz’s or Bee’s eyes even as cataclysmic, life-changing events happen to them. While Malta is largely continuing on as we left her, Althea and Brashen’s entire livelihood is destroyed and the ships that have been their companions all their lives transform all together. It’s a happy ending for the long-suffering Paragon, but hardly for the others, even if Althea does appear to be joyous at Vivacia’s transformation. Poor Wintrow is even worse off – we see this character we followed for so long contemplate the end of a very long-term relationship along with huge changes to his way of life, not to mention the death of his step-son, but all through the eyes of a child who neither knows him nor cares about him. (This is one aspect in which Fitz is a far more effective narrator than Bee, as at least the reader can share his compassion for Althea and Brashen, even if the fact the reader knows them so much better than he does makes it all rather lopsided). At least Althea did not, as was at one point threatened, drown off-page, which would have been even more frustrating for fans of the Liveship books.

The overall direction of the conclusion, though, was absolutely right. It balanced itself between the poles of happy-ever-after and everything-is-miserable-and-pointless rather well. The original conclusion to Assassin’s Quest was bittersweet, to say the least – Fitz had Nighteyes, but basically nothing else. The conclusion to the Liveship trilogy, while not perfect for everyone all around (interestingly, Assassin’s Fate directly notes the inherent discomfort of Althea living aboard Paragon, who took in the soul of her rapist, Kennit) is much happier and more satisfying – but ultimately almost entirely undone by this new volume.

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How any individual reader feels about the conclusion to the Tawny Man trilogy depends largely on how they feel about Fitz’s relationships with Molly and the Fool. Not being a fan of Molly at all (she was rather annoying at the best of times and complained constantly about Fitz abandoning her in Assassin’s Quest despite the fact that she left him and didn’t even tell him she was pregnant), personally I was extremely annoyed that Burrich (whom I loved) was killed off to make room for Fitz’s relationship with her while the Fool disappeared without even a proper goodbye. However, for Molly fans, that was a very happy ending, while the ending to the Rain Wilds Chronicles is so very much made up of happy endings all around, it almost goes too far the other way and becomes a bit saccharine. Here, the balance feels just right – there is sacrifice, there is tragedy, but there is also love and hope and finally, finally, Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes are together again.

There’s so much to this series, and the whole thing is so rich and compelling, it’s impossible to list all the individual highs and lows, the good moments and the bad, here, but what follows is a highly subjective collection of some of the moments, characters and developments that stood out to me across the series.

Most welcome voice: Nighteyes

There are so many wonderful characters in these books, but the one whose voice is most welcome at all times is surely Nighteyes. So often, he is the only voice of sanity in any given situation, and he sees and accepts the truth (especially if it involves inevitable death) far quicker than Fitz. He also has a wonderful sense of humour and a knack for pure snark. After his gut-wrenching death, it was an absolute joy to see him reappear as a Skill-ghost (or a Wit-ghost? something) to guide Bee, and then to hear him clearly again as the final book reached its conclusion. When Fitz was left pinned under a beam in a flooding tunnel, I felt reasonably secure that this was not quite how we would leave him forever – his carving a dragon had been too clearly foretold – but to be welcomed back into his narrative by Nighteyes’ declaration that ‘Dying is boring’ was perfect.

Most purely satisfying moment: Hest gets eaten by a dragon

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The Rain Wilds Chronicles are probably the least beloved of the series, partly because they have been rather stretched from two books to four, and partly because the characters are not quite as compelling as most of the others. But these books have their moments and include one of the simplest, most straightforwardly punch-the-air satisfying moments in the whole saga, as in Blood Of Dragons the irredeemably awful Hest is finally, quietly, eaten by a dragon to whom he has been ridiculously, arrogantly rude. Good riddance.

Most satisfying assassination: Capra

Fitz spends the first half of Assassin’s Quest determined to murder Regal in revenge for the wrongs done to him, but ends up Skill-blasting him, and Regal is eventually finished off by Small Ferret (which it, in itself, quite satisfying). Later, in Fool’s Fate, Fitz wants to kill the Pale Woman, but ends up abandoning her to die instead of actually doing the deed. In Assassin’s Fate, Bee considers killing Vindeliar but leaves him and he eventually dies in a melee. And so, while in real life I approve of neither vengeance nor assassination, as a reader it was finally rather satisfying to see Fitz make sure he finished off Capra before leaving Clerres.

Most frustrating red herring: Riddle

I don’t know whether this was planned as a red herring, or was the result of a late plot change, but Riddle’s introduction in Fool’s Fate frustrates me every time I read it. Fitz leaves the Fool behind at Buckkeep in an attempt to save his life and sets sail for the Outislands. But on the ship he is accompanied by a young man who fiddles with Fitz’s clothing to make him look better, spends his time on wooden carvings, and is called ‘Riddle’. I was convinced this must surely be the Fool in disguise, but it’s not – he’s a fairly ordinary, if very nice, young man employed by Chade. I couldn’t help wondering if this was a last minute change when Hobb suddenly realised Fitz would recognise the Fool no matter how well he was disguised, but perhaps I’m being unfair. It’s rather irritating all the same (especially since the way the Fool actually arrived, which involves him having to use the Wit, stretches plausibility a bit).

Fitz’s most stupid moment: Ignoring the messenger

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I love FitzChivalry Farseer with all my heart, but one of the things that makes him such a compelling character is that he makes mistakes, and can occasionally be very stupid indeed. However, when that stupidity seems out of character even for Fitz, and exists only to drive the plot in a particular direction and frustrate the reader, it can become a problem. There are many moments I could highlight here (delaying leaving a burning room being one of them – thank goodness that was not, in the end, the cause of his death) but the worst of all has to be during the very beginning of Fool’s Assassin, when Fitz first allows random strangers Revel is suspicious of into his home, then ignores a messenger who has come a long way with a message that can only be delivered directly to him. Because he wants an extra dance with Molly. Urgh.

Best developed character: Malta

When we first meet Malta, she is a thoroughly unlikeable character. A spoiled teenager encouraged to selfishness by her father and intent on using everyone around her, she is rude and unpleasant to be with, to boot. However, once she reaches the Rain Wilds, exposure to another way of life followed by extreme hardship causes Malta to grow up more quickly than almost any other character in the series. Having hated her in Ship Of Magic, by the time I got to Ship Of Destiny I was really, truly rooting for her, and it was wonderful to see her again in City Of Dragons. Her story is made up of some beautifully drawn character development.

Nicest book: Fool’s Errand

Nighteyes’ death is heart-breaking, but inevitable, given the average lifespan of a wolf (and, thankfully, he is never truly gone). The rest of Fool’s Errand, however, is an absolute treat for fans of Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes. It is the only book in which we really get to enjoy their friendship. Through the early series, up until the latter stages of Assassin’s Quest, there is a tension and uncertainty between Fitz and the Fool, while later (after Nighteyes’ death), halfway through The Golden Fool, they fall out and don’t speak for half the book. The two are together a lot in Fool’s Quest and Assassin’s Fate, but sometimes at odds, and the Fool is physically suffering and traumatised by long torture. Only in Fool’s Errand do we really get to see them work together, without constant angst. It’s also lovely to have Fitz back at , which always feels like home for the series.

Most tortuous-to-read sequence: Wintrow amputating Kennit’s leg

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These books are full of detailed descriptions of physical pain, torture and discomfort, including rape, more than one amputation, slow death by worms and countless beatings. The one that really stands out as a section it’s difficult to force yourself to read, though, is Wintrow’s messy amputation of Kennit’s leg in The Mad Ship. As well as doing what a lot of great grimdark fantasy does and delving into the reality of a trope (in this case, the pirate with a peg-leg), because Wintrow has to steel himself to do it, the reader also has to steel themselves to read it, rather than the painful but swift moving action sequences that bring about some of the other painful set-pieces. What then follows is an extremely detailed description of a major amputation without anaesthetic. Shudder.

Most emotionally draining sequence: The climax of Fool’s Fate

I can vividly remember staying up until 3am, increasingly distressed, reading through the section of this book from the moment Fitz finds the Fool’s dead body to his revival. It didn’t seem possible that there was any way to make this better – although this is fantasy, it is not the sort of fantasy where death is cheap. The only slim hope was Fitz’s death and revival at the end of Royal Assassin, and although that did not seem possible here, I was determined to read on until I knew for sure. Added to that was the horrific nature of the Fool’s death (there was flaying involved) and the awful descriptions of how Fitz found him. I could not and would not stop until it got better. Somehow, eventually, it did.

My favourite book: (The back half of) Assassin’s Quest

This is, of course, very personal, but I noticed that, at the very end of Assassin’s Fate, Nighteyes observes to Fitz how fondly he remembers the journey that makes up the back half of Assassin’s Quest despite its difficulties, and I wondered if Hobb herself feels a little bit the same way. I love all these books to some degree; Assassin’s Apprentice, Ship Of Destiny and Fool’s Errand are particular favourites. But Assassin’s Quest is special. Not really the first half, which drags on for far too long as Fitz pursues Regal and sulks, but it picks up when Verity Skill-commands him to come, and from the moment the Fool recognises the stranger he has rescued, the story becomes a wonderful, warm account of a group of people enduring hardship for love, for duty, for honour and for each other. Fitz and the Fool’s bond is secured both by Silver and by simple love and companionship, and the two of them and Nighteyes get to enjoy some time hunting, teasing each other, playing games and offering each other comfort. That is why it was so appropriate for Assassin’s Fate to end the way it did – from the moment Fitz saw Verity go into his dragon, there was really no other end for him.

Assassin’s Fate as a whole is not a perfect book. I was very frustrated that the almost-promised connection with Verity-as-dragon, like the brief moment of connection at the end of Fool’s Fate, was never quite made for the reader. Nighteyes remembers a conversation with Verity that Fitz does not, while way back at the beginning of the book, it seemed like Nighteyes would lead Bee to Verity, but she is recaptured before he gets a chance. Indeed, Bee’s constant habit of escaping and getting recaptured was extremely annoying – it felt like she was just treading water while the rest of the story caught up with her and seemed frustrating and unnecessary, with the whole interlude with Trader Akriel doing nothing but giving Bee something to feel guilty about. However, these are very minor quibbles. Overall, this was a moving conclusion to a story that has meant a great deal to me for a very long time, and I am very, very grateful to have it!

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Which is your most beloved book series? We’ll revisit more on the site over the coming months.