The Ink Pot

Where to start?

Written by Robin Hobb between 1995 and 2017, The Realm of the Elderlings is a sixteen book high fantasy series split into four trilogies and one tetralogy (that’s four books).

The main story arc follows protagonist Fitz, an illegitimate son of the ruling family of the Six Duchies. As a boy, Fitz is trained as an assassin to serve the throne and learns to tame his talent for two kinds of magic, one forbidden, one revered. His tragic life at court and beyond is laid bare across nine books.

The other seven books follow side-characters within the same world, just a bit further south, primarily in Bingtown, the Pirate Isles, and the Rain Wild swamps. These books are about pirates, living ships, and dragons.

Eventually, all the characters and storylines across the series meet in the final trilogy.

That, in the very nuttiest of nutshells, is what Realm of the Elderlings is all about. And if the prospect of ancient magic, court politics, pirates, living ships, and dragons hasn’t captured your attention at all, well… perhaps this genre of fiction is not for you. That’s fine. I think you’re missing out, though.

The Realm of the Elderlings is, in my eyes, the finest example of high fantasy you can find on a bookstore shelf. High praise, but I assure you I’m not being hyperbolic. If you combine the socio-political foundation of Game of Thrones with the prose and characterization of Name of the Wind, you get Realm of the Elderlings. Except I wince slightly at even those comparisons because this series deserves to stand in the spotlight entirely on its own.

Robin Hobb takes a fairly unusual approach to style throughout most of the series. The nine novels that follow Fitz are narrated from a first-person retrospective. For those unfamiliar, that means the stories are told from the point of view of a character looking back on events. There is therefore great emphasis on characters’ internal conflict over the external. This in turn creates an extraordinarily immersive experience for the reader: details in these stories are minute, the pace is sedate, and the characters are so deeply realized that they feel real in the way King Arthur and Sir Lancelot do: so steeped in lore they may as well have existed.

Now, fair warning. Robin Hobb’s books are slow burn. If you’re looking for heart-pounding, twist-and-turn high fantasy, you won’t find it here. The Realm of the Elderlings is thematic, character-driven fantasy that, through its depiction of power, love, otherness, and evil, will leave you utterly on the edge of your seat. And oh man is it brutal—probably the most brutal fantasy series I’ve read (and I’ve read a fair few). Hobb’s exploration of trauma—both psychological and physical—is nerve-jangling. The series only gets darker as it progresses, and by the latter trilogies, I believe it teeters into grimdark territory in a more complex and nuanced way than many famed novels of that genre.

But like I’ve alluded to, if there’s one thing this series indisputably masters, it’s the characters. I challenge anyone to find a character more deeply frustrating and deeply loveable than Fitz. Likewise, I also challenge anyone to find a more devastatingly beautiful depiction of love and friendship than the one between Fitz and the Fool. But these two key protagonists are really only the tip of the iceberg: there are quite literally dozens of characters across the series that will make you laugh, cry, and throw your book across the room.

So, what order should you read these books in?

To cap off this post, I want to offer up the proper reading order of the series with mini why you should read… sections attached to each sub-series. The Realm of the Elderlings took me almost a year to get through, and it’s like nothing I’ve read before or since. On a heartfelt point, Robin Hobb has given the literary world a gift. Do yourself a favour: open it, and get stuck in.

Just a note: there’s no detailed spoilers here, but these descriptions will read somewhat like blurbs. If you really don’t want to know anything about these books, maybe don’t pay attention to this section.

The Farseer Trilogy

Read about the quiet rise of Fitz, a bastard son of the throne, in the hands of Buckkeep Castle’s gruff master of stables and the shadowy tutelage of its court assassin. In young Fitz’s blood lies two magical arts: one revered, one hated. The Skill is the magic of kings, and the Wit is the magic of beasts. Beset not only by the internal politics of Buckkeep, Fitz also has to contend with the threat of the Red Ships, an invading force with the brutal ability to turn ordinary people into mindless, violent shells of their former selves. Oh, and did I mention Nigheyes, his wolf companion?

The Liveship Traders Trilogy


Bingtown is a bright, vibrant hotbed of trade and home to the liveships—rare, mysterious boats carved from wizardwood that ripen into magical sentience after three generations of crews. The fortunes of the Vestrits, one of Bingtown’s oldest and most respected families, rest on the Vivacia, their beloved liveship. But family disputes, the death of tradition, and the dangerously charming pirate king Kennit threaten to disrupt not only the Vestrits, but Bingtown’s entire way of life. Sea serpents, pirate voyages, and treasure abound in this series, the absolute best of Hobb. As a bonus: if you want to read masterfully realized women, this one’s for you.

The Tawny Man Trilogy  

It’s been fifteen years since the Red Ship war, and Fitz lives in exile under a different name in a remote cottage in the hills. Away from court and away from danger, he thinks he’s happy. But he’s not, and the reign at Buckkeep is fragile. If you want to read more about the social and political impact of the Wit, and if you like animal companions, found family, and the power of the Skill, get stuck in. The cast of the first trilogy returns, with more complicated relationships, higher stakes, and even greater demands on Fitz.

The Rain Wild Chronicles

Back in the corner of the world where the Liveships roam, The Rain Wild books are all about dragons. Specifically, rather sickly dragons, and the outcast humans tasked with their care. This cast of characters, led by a dragon expert trying to escape an abusive marriage, embark on a journey to find a lost ancient city in which to rear their charges. If you like adventure, sabotage, love triangles, and (of course) dragons, then pick this series up. You’ll find it has very polarizing reviews, but this quartet ended up containing some of my favourites moments. The books are much faster paced, too.

The Fitz and Fool Trilogy


Perhaps the hardest to talk about without spoilers—so I’ll just say this: if you want an absolutely wretchedly heart-breaking rollercoaster, this one’s for you. Also, if you’ve read this far in the series, duh, finish it.