Robin Hobb’s Realm Of The Elderlings Series: Do I Need to Read Them All?

Thinking of tackling Robin Hobbs' Realm Of The Elderlings series? Juliette talks you through it...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Since this article is aimed at those who may not have read all of these books, spoilers will be kept to an absolute minimum – though a discussion of the overall development of a long-running series will inevitably involve some indication of where the early books are heading.

Robin Hobb’s Realm Of The Elderlings series is an epic fantasy saga currently comprising sixteen books. It tells a continuous, chronological story that starts in the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, and reaches a conclusion (whether it is a final conclusion remains to be seen) in the most recent, Assassin’s Fate. However, unlike some other long-running fantasy sagas, this series is sub-divided into four trilogies and a quartet, written in a variety of styles – most notably, nine in the first person and seven in the third person – and with widely varying tone and setting.

These are the books that make up the series:

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The Farseer Trilogy, narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Fitz, set in the Six Duchies and the Mountain Kingdom:

Assassin’s Apprentice

Royal Assassin

Assassin’s Quest

The Liveship Trilogy, narrated in the third person and following several protagonists and an antagonist, particularly various members of the Bingtown Vestrit family, set around Bingtown, the Rain Wilds, the Pirate Isles and the Cursed Shores:

Ship Of Magic

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The Mad Ship

Ship Of Destiny

The Tawny Man Trilogy, narrated in the first person by Fitz, set in the Six Duchies and the Outislands:

Fool’s Errand

The Golden Fool

Fool’s Fate

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The Rain Wilds Chronicles, narrated in the third person and following various dragon handlers and settlers, set on the Rain Wild River and in Kelsingra:

Dragon Keeper

Dragon Haven

City Of Dragons

Blood Of Dragons

The Fitz And The Fool Trilogy, narrated in the first person by Fitz and one other character, set in the Six Duchies, Kelsingra, the Cursed Shores and Clerres:

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Fool’s Assassin

Fool’s Quest

Assassin’s Fate

Naturally, a lot of fans will be happy to read all the books, in order. However, these are long books. While the older ones will be available in cheap second-hand copies, investing in all the newer ones can be expensive, and they represent hours and hours of reading. They can be fairly slow-paced, and the slowest and, perhaps most difficult to get through, are all the opening volumes to sub-series (Ship Of Magic, Dragon Keeper, and Fool’s Assassin). There’s also the changing narration and focalisation to deal with – for many readers, their interest in this world is tied up in their attachment to Fitz, the character we follow throughout the first trilogy and our introduction into this world. It takes a long time for the connections between the Liveship trilogy and the Farseer trilogy to become clear, and some readers are simply less interested in books that are not about Fitz.

This inevitably leads to a common question – can readers just read the books about Fitz and skip the Liveship and Rain Wilds books? The answer depends largely on what you want to get out of them. In such a long series, we are regularly offered reminders of who everyone is and what has happened to them and brief explanations are offered for new readers as well. So it is, of course, possible to read only the books narrated by Fitz and understand, broadly speaking, what is going on.

However, the Fitz books will be a much richer experience for readers who have also read the Liveship trilogy. The final Fitz And The Fool trilogy brings together characters from all of the books and Assassin’s Fate in particular has major implications for everyone from that series, as well as Fitz. The Liveship trilogy is also much more intimately connected to the Farseer trilogy that at first it seems – hints are dropped throughout the first two books but the connection is only really revealed in the third (and even then, some readers at the time doubted it – it was not until The Golden Fool that it was spelled out unequivocally in the narrative).

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The Rain Wilds Chronicles, on the other hand, are rather more skippable. The conclusion to the series affects developments in the Fitz And The Fool trilogy, characters from the quartet appear in that trilogy and certain elements of the fantasy world are built upon further, so completists will need to read it. But the most important point of view characters from Rain Wilds to have an impact on Fitz And The Fool are characters we know from the Liveship trilogy, and the major events of the Chronicles are not too terribly unpredictable, given the events of the other sub-series. If you’re a big fan of Fitz but less interested in the rest of the Realm, I’d say you might want to think again about the Liveship trilogy, but you can get away without reading the Rain Wilds Chronicles, and simply discover the consequences of those books as Fitz does.

While less common, it is of course equally possible for fans of the Liveship books to wonder if they need to read the other books in the series. The Liveship trilogy probably stands on its own better than any of the others, for while the effectiveness of the original ending to the Farseer trilogy depends on how you feel about very bittersweet endings, and the later series are built on the foundations of the first two, the Liveship trilogy offers a complete story that builds the parts of the world it inhabits from scratch, comes to a wholly satisfying conclusion and tells its own clear narrative about the tragedy of cycles of abuse and the power of memory.

That beautifully satisfying conclusion is, as is always the danger with sequels, somewhat ripped apart by the events of Assassin’s Fate, so fans of the Liveship trilogy may even prefer to avoid the latest sub-series. The events of the Rain Wild Chronicles are less cataclysmic and offer a nicer opportunity to catch up with old friends from the earlier series, but are correspondingly rather less essential. If you’ve read only the Liveship trilogy, there are probably three main reasons you might want to read more of the books:

1. You are a completist and cannot ignore a continuation of the story you know is out there. Have at it – make sure you read the Rain Wilds Chronicles, Fool’s Quest, and Assassin’s Fate, and if you want to understand the latter two, you’ll probably want to catch up on all the other books as well.

2. You love the character of Amber and want to know more about her. Go back and read the Farseer trilogy, then continue with the Tawny Man and Fitz And The Fool trilogies, though you can probably skip the Rain Wilds Chronicles without losing too much.

3. You’ve enjoyed what you’ve read about this world and would like to know more about it, and particularly what’s going on with the dragons. Continue on with all the rest of the books. You can skip the Farseer trilogy if your primary interest is the dragons, but the Tawny Man and Fitz And The Fool trilogies will make more sense if you’ve read their predecessor.

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There is also another question to answer here – not just ‘Do I need to read them all?’, but also ‘Do I need to read them all in order?’ While I’d say that, ultimately, the answer to the first question is yes, if you want to fully appreciate the depth of the stories and the created world, I think the answer to the second question might be no, depending on your personality.

For some people, anything other than strict chronological order is unthinkable, which is fair enough – just be aware there may be some slow patches and books that are harder to get through. However, other options are available. While readers may be aware of the series of characters, events and choices that have led to the world we arrive in with the Fitz And The Fool trilogy, our first person narrator, Fitz, is not. It is, in fact, a perfectly valid choice to read the Fitz-narrated books first, and then go back and catch up on the others.

There are drawbacks to this method, of course – the major events and the conclusions of the Liveship and Rain Wilds books will definitely be spoiled. But these are rich books, and part of the joy of them is simply spending time in this world, with these characters. I myself read the original Farseer trilogy in the wrong order – back in the Stone Age, when I was a teenager, there was no Amazon and no Kindles, and if a book wasn’t in my local bookshop, I had to wait up to a week to get it ordered in. I was so desperate, after reading Assassin’s Apprentice, to find out what happened to Fitz that I read the concluding volume, Assassin’s Quest, before the middle one, Royal Assassin. So of course, by the time I came to read Royal Assassin absolutely every event in it had been thoroughly spoiled. But I didn’t care – these books are books you read because you want to immerse yourself in them, not simply find out what happens (and the explanations of what was going on were clear enough in Assassin’s Quest that I had very little trouble following it).

Reading the Fitz books before the others provides a fascinating opportunity to explore this world from one character’s point of view, following his story from beginning to end and finding out about larger events in his world as he does. Afterwards, readers can go back and learn more about the other characters who appear in the books and their backgrounds and their stories – especially through the Liveship books. But the experience will be just as rich even if you know how it ends, and some may find themselves more motivated to read the other books if they have foreknowledge of how they all link in to Fitz’s story.

TL:DR – Yes, probably, except maybe the Rain Wilds Chronicles, but you don’t necessarily have to read them in order!