I recently received a copy of Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin (ISBN 978-0-553-39242-5 and US$28.00 in hardcover), the first book of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy and a continuation of the Realm of the Elderlings stories begun in 1996's Assassin's Apprentice. It traces later adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer as he lives for many years in the guise of Tom Badgerlock, Holder of Withywoods--a gentry position as a caretaker for a high-ranking noble's estate. In the course of the novel, he and his wife, Molly, experience a miraculous late birth and the unusual consequences of it, as well as the tragic return of an old friend from a faraway land. Compelling and accessible, the book shows that the trilogy it begins has great promise as a successor to the Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies.
That said, there are some problems in the text. At several points, the actions taken by the eponymous protagonist seem out of line with his character, as demonstrated in the six books which narrate his earlier life. For example, his inability to maintain upkeep on Withywoods even before the unfortunate events there (that understandably distract him) seems at odds with his long life with Hap near Forge from the beginnings of the Tawny Man series. His inattention to certain other characters is also...odd for him. Too, there is the issue of Bee; she seems to be the product of particular bloodlines discussed in earlier Elderlings books. In itself, this is not a problem--but her full sister, Nettle, shows none of the traits of that descent despite having the same parentage. A Punnett square could demonstrate why this occurs, of course, but the descriptions of those bloodlines in the earlier texts seems to indicate that the confluence of them operates outside normal genetics.
Even so, Fool's Assassin is an engaging read. Hobb continues to use the first-person retrospective narration that typifies the novels dealing with FitzChivalry Farseer--although there is an interweaving of narration from another character that came as a bit of a shock initially. Hobb also continues to use the device of opening chapters with snippets from in-milieu documents, offering context for the narrative and extending the correspondence of her Tolkienian sub-creation to the readerly primary world. (The device extends at least as far back as Asmiov's opening the chapters of many of his Foundation novels with quotations from the Encyclopedia Galactica. Its deployment embeds Hobb thoroughly in the conventions of traditional fantasy and science fiction, making her departures from those generic norms more acceptable to readers accustomed to them.) The nuancing of distinctions among the gentry--although not as much among the nobility--of the Six Duchies is also helpful; one of the common features of mainstream fantasy literature is the relative non-distinction within broad social strata (noted here), and the inclusion of more detail in that line helps to make the milieu more authentic. Scholars will have much to say about the text, and more general readers will doubtlessly find it worth the time it takes to read; what more can be asked of a text?