Age of Assassins by R J Barker
Publisher - Orbit
Price - £8.99 Paperback (Out Now)
It's a game of Assassin versus Assassin.
Girton Club-Foot, apprentice to the land's best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But his latest mission tasks Girton with a far more difficult challenge to save a life. Sonmeone is trying to kill the herir to the throne, ansd it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor. Ina kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies, Girton will find enemies he never expected, friends he never wanted and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.
If I say the words Assassin’s Apprentice I suspect currently only one author may come to your mind. When I first heard the premise of this novel I immediately pictured Hobb’s world but having finished I was very pleased to say this is a fantastic debut fantasy that has a completely different approach while still giving you a unique world and characters that mean the next time you hear those two words you will now think of two excellent but very different authors both well worth reading.
We first meet Girton and his assassin master Merela Karn as they infiltrate Castle Maniyadoc but are quickly captured by Queen Adran; whose husband is being poisoned and her son is being plotted against. Adran’s solution is to use Karn to investigate and identify the traitor trying to get to the throne. Karn decides that as Girton is under threat of death that she has no choice but to agree and so Girton is disguised as a low-ranking noble to help investigate the Castle and report back to her. The story is a murder mystery where the murder has yet to be committed and our trained assassins are using their powers of infiltration to catch the killer rather than their usual line of work. On top of this Girton must go undercover so a 14-year-old fully trained assassin pretends to be a novice at the bottom of the local hierarchy at the mercy of the local higher nobles.
It's a story which takes several standard fantasy ideas – kingdom in turmoil, assassins and palace intrigue and creates something fresh and new. Barker has a great ear for dialogue that informs character. A key part of that is Girton; he is the first-person narrator of the story and while quite young has a wry sense of humour as well as a fine eye for watching people. He can see the various factions fighting for power in the castle but at the same time having largely been an assassin since a young child he’s not used to spending time with people especially those his own age. This means for the first time he explores having friends, enemies and even potential for romance – he comes across as a very three-dimensional character and even prone to strops when he feels Merela is keeping him away from having a life of his own. I also was impressed that Girton is shown to have a club foot and while this means he can tire more easily (especially if climbing walls!) he is still an affective assassin. In this world the assassins use a martial art that is almost like dancing – we get gracefully described attack moves such as “Ninth iteration – The Bow” where he can easily use his body to defend or attack far stronger foes. When Girton gets an opportunity to show his actual skills it’s tremendously satisfying! It’s very refreshing to see a fantasy story that accepts not everyone is the perfectly healthy hero and one I wish I saw more often in the genre.
The other element that makes this such a good read is the world building. Rather than epic fantasy sprawling a country virtually all the action is confined to one castle. It’s a fantasy kingdom done in miniature – the local King has several factions who live under his protection from local lords in training to an assortment of priests. It feels a place full of narrow corridors, hidden conversations and Girton (as well as ourselves) is having to learn to navigate this; which starts to put him in his hidden enemy’s sights. Slowly you see that everyone is taking sides or hiding secrets; which as any good mystery novel does are slowly revealed in the investigations. As with a good crime novel these revelations are also a good way to also explain the wider social politics of the kingdom. We see often in Griton’s flashbacks to his earlier life that magic is a thing to be feared; something that has someone how polluted the land and can take a toll on people; although is that down to the magic at work or the people ruling the lands? It’s a fascinating world where the people believe not their Gods have died but they still have priests. The Assassins also knit at a bigger picture at work – not simple mercenaries but people who seem to work to a code and potentially higher purpose that Merela is not yet ready to share. I suspect a lot more is to be answered in the remaining parts of the trilogy and the politics that Girton involves himself with starts to have wider implications…
This was an immensely satisfying read. I felt like I’d visited a new kind of world I’d not been to before; loved the emotional punches and moments you want to punch the air when Girton succeeds and worry over characters when in danger. My only quibble is that sometimes the mystery felt a bit too linear - each clue led immediately to the next part of the puzzle and a few more red herrings may have helped confuse me more. Despite that I think this is one of the best debuts in 2017 and well worth your time as I think this series could be well worth your time and I’m intrigued where it is going
PS – by the way you really need to read the bit about the giant antlered beasts they ride instead of horses – so cute and deadly. Sorry I’m all about the furry beings 😊