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
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.
Mort 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.
I 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.
In 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
While 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!