I had all three of this trilogy on my bookshelf (in hardback even) but I've never read them, and I have no idea why. In fact when I picked this book up, I found a train ticket from 2008 marking the end of chapter 2, but I don't even recall reading that far. Go figure.
Because I loved this book! And stayed up way too late, engrossed in it, and spent all yesterday dopy-while-working, as booklovers are wont to do. So this is Debbie's fault for mentioning them and putting up photos from Robin Hobb at a book signing that made me jealous, and not sure if I should thank her or shake my fist at her. But probably thank.
Hobb's style is dense, even perhaps ornate, and quite formal but it never slips over into too purple or even flowery. It does read as what it purports itself to be, the memoirs of an old man, starting from his earliest memory as at the age of 6 he is handed to his noble father's family to be dealt with, his mother's poor family being sick of taking care of "the bastard". This first book covers Fitz life until about the age of 15, and as the title makes obvious, he is taken into the royal household to be raised, where he eventually becomes apprentice to the royal assassin, among a great many other things.
The world draws enough on the fantasy and medieval tropes to make it easy to understand, but has it's own unique qualities all the same. The Skill (essentially telepathy) and the Wit (mind-melding with animals) are vital to the story, but despite the temptation to give these powers to everyone, they are limited, and that itself is a plot point: The skill must be learnt, and few are capable, while the wit comes unbidden and is hidden, considered unfit. And although Fitz has both, he is made to feel ashamed of one and must hide it, and is damaged in his ability to use the other at will.
Fitz is not the only one broken and damaged, in fact that's probably what I like about the book and why I stayed up until 3 am engrossed in it (and got to spend the next day wandering around dopy-at-work, not a rare condition among bookworms I guess :) Hobb spends a lot of time on characterization, and even the most out and out villains are well rounded, complete people.
One might hate them, but it's easy to see how they got to be where they are: To take the example of Prince Regal, raised by his perma-intoxicated near delusional mother who is suffering both a superiority complex and an inferiority complex at the same time - second wife of the king, replacing a most beloved first wife she cannot live up to, yet she feels superior because she is of noble blood unlike the first queen, and therefore her sons. Add to that her self-induced death by overdose that Regal is sure was actually an assassination, and you have a young man, second in line, but raised to believe he is the more worthy, and that everyone else is out to get him because of it, so he better get them first.
Yet Hobb says very little of this outright, she simply shows it all happening in the background, so by the time Regal becomes an outright antagonist near the end of the book, it's just the natural order of things.
Also the POV of "Old Fitz looking back at his life" totally worked for me. There is enough omniscient narrator and additional 20/20 hindsight, but just enough, not more, to make some things clear, but not enough to be smashing us over the head with foreshadowing. And I enjoyed the occasional aside into old Fitz wondering if he should write down some things, or if they are better left forgotten.
Recommended for: People who like series, Tolkien lovers, it reminded me actually a little of Brandon Sanderson - particularly Way of Kings but a lot more focussed POV wise, so if you like his style but found WoK wandered around too much, this might be well up your alley.
Not recommended for people who don't like series, because this is the start of what can be seen as either a really long one or several short ones set in the same universe that crossover.