Author: RJ Barker
Published: August 2017
When an attempt is made on the life of the heir to the Kingdom of Maniyadoc, Merela Karn and her apprentice Girton Club-Foot are called in to investigate. Queen Adran wants to know who hired the assassin and root them out before more arrive. Only Merela and Girton are no ordinary investigators; not members of the royal guard or local watch, they are in fact two people one would least likely to expect do this job. They are assassins themselves, employed not to take a life, but to save it.
“To Catch An Assassin, Use An Assassin.”
Age Of Assassins is like a smooth but complex red wine, easy and inviting to consume yet the mystery of its flavors keeps you wondering what comes next. It’s part grimdark fantasy, and part mystery novel with a slight YA feel but is definitely adult fiction. I wanted to drink from this bottle until it was gone and had to force myself to put it down or I’d have been up all night and missed work the next day.
What I liked
I liked a lot about Age Of Assassins. The plot itself really pulled me in because I do like a good mystery even if I don’t read that genre all that often. Merela and Girton, perhaps the best assassin in the world and her young apprentice are drawn into a situation not of their choosing. But once they accept the job there is no turning back or their lives are forfeit. Commissioned by Queen Adran to locate the traitor in their midst Merela and Girton must disguise themselves, taking on other personalities to become two of the many subjects who take residence in the castle. Their investigation leads from one clue to the next, one suspect to another, until the final bloody climax when all is revealed. Given its setting it has a slight feel of Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose but definitely goes its own way.
The who-done-it aspect of the novel is deftly done. This isn’t Sherlock Holmes (though we do have two investigators going off in different directions), but there is a mystery to be solved. Barker does a great job of dropping hints that you know are hints without actually giving away the reveal until the end. At least I didn’t see it.
The world-building has a depth that can be seen but Barker only takes us into that part along the water’s edge, allowing us wade into the shallows of the wider sea to be explored. The story is located almost entirely within the walls of castle Maniyadoc and the lands just surrounding it, letting us explore its confines and the various people who make up its court and their machinations. What we do see of the world beyond are little glimpses into a bleak landscape and a people who live in fear of magic and those who wield it. This works well for a first novel in a series though as it wets the appetite for more to come as the narrative moves beyond Maniyadoc.
The magic system isn’t explored in-depth at least in terms of how magic works. Instead we see the effects magic has on the world with a landscape turned into a desert known as the Sour Lands. A place where plant life has been destroyed as the use of powerful magic sucked the life-force from the land. Bordering the Sour Lands are the Tired Lands where life is hard and always on the verge of succumbing to the encroaching dessert. Here the people have learned to fear anyone who wields magic and the memory of the last powerful mage who nearly wiped out the kingdom remains fresh. Anyone with a hint of magical power is rooted out at a young age and put to death by Landsmen preferably at the edge of the desert where their lifeblood will bring back a small patch of greenery. To be identified as having latent magical ability is a death sentence one fears above nearly all else.
As I noted above, Barker only really hints at the larger world beyond Maniyadoc. There are a few references to the larger kingdom and world beyond its borders, but most of the narrative centers on this one small location. Yet the world-building doesn’t end there. Some of the more subtle and simple elements used to good effect are in the labels assigned to places and events. I’ve already mentioned the Tired Lands and the Sour Lands. This also extends to names for classes of people where there are the Blessed (as in those who are blessed to be noble), and the Thankful (as in you should be thankful we the blessed let you wait on us). And there’s the names for seasons which I loved once I figured out what Barker was talking about; yearsbirth, yearslife, yearsage, and yearsdeath.
Barker’s writing style is smooth and the text flows without jarring interruption. And while the plot and ambiance of the book have definite grimdark overtones there’s enough humor placed at just the right places to keep it from being too bleak.
But the best element of the book is it’s characters, or really it’s antagonist Girton. Girton narrates the story in a first person simple past tense so that we see the events unfolding as he did with a bit of foreshadowing thrown in here and there. Every so often a dream sequence is added providing insight into Girton’s past, little by little letting us know how he came to be an assassin’s apprentice.
Girton is a young man of 15, on the verge of adulthood, but has probably seen more death and bloodshed than most men twice his age. He succinctly describes it one afternoon when he is mourning what has befallen him as “the death of a boy I had never been.” He’s already lived a hard life, not only because of who he’s apprenticed to and what they do, but because he has a disability, hence his cognomen Club-Foot. His disability is both a hindrance and a help to Girton. The hindrance may seem obvious, he isn’t as quick as other youths, he isn’t as agile, but this also serves him as it puts others off their guard causing them to think he’s less capable than he really is. Girton has learned to live with and compensate for his leg and he’s the more dangerous because of it. All of this serves to make Girton so very endearing. No longer a child and net yet really an adult he is thrust into a world of adult politics and deceit. He must learn how the game is played and over the course of the narrative endure that right of passage to manhood.
Of all the other characters Merela is the most important. She is both Master and mother figure to Girton. This dual role causes tension and intense feeling in their relationship. And though she is something of a minor antagonist we only see her through Girton’s perspective.
Another aspect of the narrative I really enjoyed are the combat scenes with Girton. In these scenes the narrative jumps into first person present and we experience the battle through Girton’s lens as a killer. He observes what is happening before him and then his training kicks in. He moves through combat forms and techniques labeling them as he goes (think people who learn martial arts and the forms they learn to progress to another color belt), then shifts as he reacts to his opponent almost like a dance. Back and forth between form and dance. It’s a really useful narrative device that helps convey the way Girton’s mind focuses on the task in front of him as if he is “in the zone” for lack of a better phrase.
What I didn’t Like
To be honest there wasn’t much I didn’t like. Perhaps the one thing that bothered me were some of the stock villain character types. There’s the jealous and evil prince brought up in a life of power and wealth. Then there’s the other noble youths (all squires) who are pretty similar to the prince but in a different faction. Queen Adran is the power hungry and manipulating wife/mother who’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. It isn’t that they are poorly written or drag the story down, I just would have liked to have seen a bit more depth and nuance to them.
There’s also the ever so slight YA feel which many would like but isn’t for me. Again THIS ISN’T A YA NOVEL, but at times Girton’s character is written with that persona of trying to figure out who he is and his place in the world over and against the people around him which is basic to YA, but is also basic to a lot of fantasy literature where the farm boy discovers he’s the chosen one. Girton isn’t written as “the chosen one” and this IS fantasy, but this trope is kind of stale for me right now. But again, I’ve probably made more of a fuss about this in this paragraph than the book actually warrants so just ignore me.
Age Of Assassins was a wonderful read. A dark fantasy mystery tale with deftly written action scenes and strong lead characters imbued depth and soul who tug on your emotions. You’ll find yourself growing attached to Girton (and Merela). By the end you’ll be clamoring for book two in the Wounded Kingdom series. If you haven’t read it yet you still have time before Blood Of Assassins hits the shelves. Pick it up, put a fire on the hearth, sit back in your favorite reading chair and drink from its pages. Soon you’ll be asking yourself, “should I go to bed, or put another log on the fire and read a few more chapters?” Read on my friends…