Tough Travels: Apprentices

Well crazily enough another month has gone by, which means it’s time to go Tough Travelling again – this time with a look at the much-loved role of the apprentice.

Tough Travels was originally created by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn, revived on Fantasy Faction, and is now hosted by the team at The Fantasy Hive. Inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’s humorous classic The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, every month it highlights a particular fantasy trope, theme or cliché, and invites bloggers to list stand-out books related to that week’s theme.

Here’s what the Tough Guide has to say about apprentices

“Apprentices are people who are training for a trade or skill, which means they are usually quite young and bad at what they do. Most of the time they are like nurses during an operation, being there only to hand the master his tools. They seem to have to do this for a good many years before they get to do anything more interesting, and it is therefore not surprising that some of them get restless and either try to do the interesting stuff themselves or simply run away. The Rules state that if an Apprentice tries to do the interesting stuff on their own it will blow up in their face. If they run away, they will learn all sorts of things very quickly and also probably prove to be the MISSING HEIR to a Kingdom.”

I think I have to disagree a little with the Tough Guide here, because in the books I’ve read I wouldn’t say fantasy apprentices are necessarily bad at what they do, so much as unusually skilled at some things (which brings them to a master’s attention in the first place) but terrible at other things, or simply not wise at applying their skills.  I feel like this is often why they need a master – to make them more of a wise all-rounder. I do agree though that when they try to do interesting stuff on their own it often blows up in their face, especially when their master has warned them not to.

I think for me the most memorable fantasy apprentices are ones where the skill they were learning was particularly unique or fascinating, or where they had an interesting relationship with their master.  So with that in mind, here are my 5 picks:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Cover Image: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

The main character of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Karou, is an apprentice to a master with a very unique skill – crafting new bodies and resurrecting the dead by placing their spirits into these bodies.

What makes her one of my favourite apprentices is that she isn’t just born with the talent to do this, nor does she go through a quick martial training that suddenly makes her a ninja or expert swordsmen. Instead she has spent years learning a complex, taxing, specialised process few others know, and her mastery of it becomes crucial as the trilogy progresses. The relationship between master and apprentice in this story is also a touching, complex one.


Book Cover: MortMort has to be one of my favourite Discworld novels. The main character, DEATH (a grim reaper who always speaks in capital letters) gets sick of his job and decides to take on an apprentice… a premise that is in an of itself amusing!

The apprentice is Mort, a young man who’s not sure what he wants to do with his life and is initially keen for the opportunity… but it turns out he can’t quite meet the demands of reaping, and things get wonderfully complicated.

Assassin’s Apprentice

Book Cover: Assassin's ApprenticeI feel like with Assassin’s Apprentice Robin Hobb almost single-handedly popularised the words ‘assassin’ and ‘apprentice’ in fantasy titles… not to mention being one of the first to use the now-ubiquitous trope of deadly apprentice killers.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember one of the most intriguing things about this book was following the reluctant Fitz as he learned the grim arts of manipulation, spying, poisoning and assassination.


Book Cover: UprootedIn Uprooted the sacrificial-lamb-damsel-in-distress character Agnieszka soon shirks this role, becoming apprentice to the powerful magician in the local tower known as the ‘Dragon’.

Her magical skill is fundamentally different to that of the Dragon, which means the apprenticeship doesn’t always go smoothly, but ultimately master and apprentice learn from one another, and their relationship becomes crucial in keeping evil at bay.

A Poison Study

Book Cover: Poison StudyWhile there were a few things I didn’t like about Poison Study, one of the things I loved and that kept me reading was the main character’s apprenticeship.

To escape execution, Yelena agrees to assume the role of food taster for the Commander. She is apprenticed to his intimidating Chief of Security who schools her in the dangerous art of detecting poisons through smell and taste. I found her training and the information about the various poisons, enthralling. I especially liked the sinister story behind poison called “My Love”.


For links to more Tough Travelling posts, or to join in yourself and see next month’s theme, check out the host page on The Fantasy Hive.

If you also liked any of these apprentices, or have a favourite fantasy apprentice of your own, feel free to mention them in the comments!

< Last Month’s Tough Travels: ‘Shapeshifters’

Next Month’s Tough Travels: ‘Mothers’>

33 thoughts on “Tough Travels: Apprentices

  1. I’m currently reading the Ranger’s Apprentice series and I’m really liking it. It is one of those cases where, the apprentices aren’t stupid, just uneducated in their fields–they are newbies, but they work hard and are smart.
    Great list! I need to try the Study series again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never heard of the Ranger’s Apprentice series, I’ll have to check it out!

      I’ve actually only read the first book in the Study series so far. I didn’t like some things about Poison Study, but I really loved others, so I was a bit torn as to whether to continue – I haven’t so far but I might one day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The fantasy apprentice I most clearly remember comes not from a book, but a movie. Dragonslayer, released by Paramount & Disney way back in 1981, with a very creditable dragon and special effects. The (sorcerer’s) apprentice, Galen, begins in the usual way of bumbling and misapplying his master’s magic but ends by slaying the dragon (though it must be said, with the help of his dead master), and winning the girl. Check it out: it’s a treat in these days of everything CGI’d

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with your point about apprentices usually not being “bad” as this description suggests. Apprentices often jump right into their craft and do it well. Luke Skywalker and Tiffany Aching come to my mind. But I think the questions to ask are: is this a good thing? Shouldn’t apprentices be bad when they start out? Why do writers feel inclined to write their apprentice characters as already skilled? I wonder if it has to do with the whole “chosen one” mode of fantasy writing, that these characters are intrinsically capable and fitting for the roles they take on. I think another part of it is just time; the book needs to get to the primary action fast, so showing a new apprentice making mistakes and struggling to learn over years might be a distraction. Great topic! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes that’s a really interesting point – as much as I don’t want to read too many pages of an apprentice struggling and making mistakes and being bad at things, I also find it too convenient and chosen-one-ish when they can magically already do everything and are even better than their master, rendering the master kind of useless. I think it’s definitely a time thing, like you said, as well as a ‘destined for the role’ thing. That’s why we get training montages in films (I always think of this clip from Team America 🙂 ), so we can cut straight to the action… but that intense condensing doesn’t work so easily in books.

      I guess that’s why I often like it when we get introduced to the apprentice after they’ve already been in training for a while (that’s the case with Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone), or when they have a bit of an innate skill or talent but are still not amazing and need a master to help them use it properly and safely. And if they start completely from scratch, as long as there’s a sense of time passing and we skip to the interesting bits of the training that can work too (that’s the case in Poison Study).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved Uprooted. Though her life was so different from mine, I became her for the duration. I hadn’t thought of her as an apprentice, just because she didn’t start that way, but I think she’s an excellent choice.
    Overall, I didn’t like Fitz all that much (I only read this one book of the series) but his role as apprentice was the most interesting part. In a way, he had two apprenticeships in that book, one at the stables, and the other from the mysterious assassin. His ambivalence about the assassin role was perfect: on the one hand, we don’t want to kill people, on the other hand, what a fascinating education! Similar (if less immediate and dramatic) dilemmas come up in real life in many ways, and I bought this book for my sons even though I found Fitz a bit frustrating. Hopefully he becomes more assertive as he ages in the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Uprooted is such a great book!! I’m glad you loved it too. And I’ve also only read the one book in the Farseer trilogy – I’ve been meaning to continue with the others at some point but haven’t got around to it yet. I’m also keen to see how Fitz’s character changes, I can see why you found him a bit frustrating. His training was definitely one of the most interesting things – it didn’t glorify the role or the tasks he had to do, but it was really fascinating. Certainly not your standard combat training for killing bad guys.


  5. First of all, I have to laugh at this bit: “The Rules state that if an Apprentice tries to do the interesting stuff on their own it will blow up in their face. If they run away, they will learn all sorts of things very quickly and also probably prove to be the MISSING HEIR to a Kingdom”- that’s so apt. But yeah, I agree they’re not generally terrible all-round, or they wouldn’t have become an apprentice in the first place. I love how you interpreted this as well and agree the most interesting part is when they’re learning something cool 😀

    Karou’s job is so cool- and yes, I love how it’s not something she’s born with but something she’s learned (I always think of her as being like one of those Florence-Nightingale-nurse type on the battlefield… not sure I’m explaining myself properly though 😉 ) But yeah, I thought the relationship with her teacher was so well done as well.

    Mort is my favourite too!! And I absolutely love that you included it!!!

    You’re so right about Assassin’s Apprentice, so I think it’s pretty appropriate for this to be on the list 😀

    I can’t believe I still need to read Uprooted- it’s been sitting on my kindle for years… whoops.

    I absolutely love Yelena’s training in Poison Study (less so in later books when she just became more and more powerful) but I loved the cleverness of the first book and the focus on her poison training.

    Awesome picks!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha yes that line is very apt, and the missing heir bit made me laugh too!

      Yes Karou had such a cool job, and I get what you mean about the beloved/iconic battlefield nurse type, that definitely fits.

      I hope you like Uprooted when you do dust off that virtual copy 😉 It really was an entertaining and atmospheric book.

      Great you liked Yelena’s training too! I haven’t read the later books yet, I guess in part because I enjoyed her poison training so much and it didn’t seem like there would be any focus on that in the sequels… but I might one day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad that works!

        And that’s really good to know about Uprooted 😀

        Yeah I really did like the first book- the later books focused on other training and (without spoilers) let’s just say she got a bit overpowered imo. Well, I’ll be honest I didn’t like the rest of the series as much, I hope you have a better time with the rest of the poison study books if you end up reading them!

        You’re welcome!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great list, Nicola, and good point about apprentices not always being poorly skilled. I included Jonathan Strange on ours – a prime example of the apprentice quickly becoming even more skilled than the master!

    I still hate myself for not thinking of Mort…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha yes true, Strange outstripped his master pretty quickly (I guess that also had to do with the fact his master was a really stubborn, difficult character!!). Actually he was so talented I’d forgotten he was even an apprentice until I saw your list.

      Ah I know the feeling, I often see great books and characters on other lists and am annoyed I didn’t think of them too!


  7. Wonderful as always! I love these posts, they’re like carefully curated book recommendations each month 😀

    I only wish Sparrowhawk/Ged was on this list, but I guess he isn’t an apprentice for much of his tale…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Haha yes, actually the topics often remind me of great books I haven’t thought about or recommended to anyone in a while so it works well to jog my memory and keep things different 🙂

      True, Ged was an apprentice even if not for a long time! I’d forgotten about that, which is silly because I remember I really liked his master/tutor Ogion.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you so much for giving a shout out to Assassin’s Apprentice. It’s one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. The master-apprentice relationship between Chade and Fitz is both heartwarming and bitter and tragic. There are times you love Chade and see him as a good father figure that Fitz doesn’t have. There are other times Chade is cold and you just want to wring his neck. And yet, Chade has a reason for being the way he is. Likewise, the lead character Fitz, is a character you can’t help but mourn with, someone whose struggles you feel, as though you are placed in his shoes. Hobb is by far one of the best fantasy writers of all time. The way she can make you feel for characters, even minor characters you only meet for one or two chapters, never to see again, is unparalleled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I mentioned one of your all-time favourites! And that’s a really good point, Chade was a fascinating character too, and his relationship with Fitz was a complex and compelling one. Hobb really is a great writer, I must read more of her books, I am often seeing glowing recommendations for other series of hers too!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Daughter of Smoke and Bone is such a great trilogy, I can highly recommend starting with it!! It is a bit of a necromancer story, but more so in the sequels than in the first book I’d say – actually in my opinion the series gets more complex, unexpected and enthralling in the second and third books… though I know many people who love the first book just as much as the others. The romance has also got to be one of my favourite romances in a series ever 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.