Blood of Assassins by R J Barker

Publisher Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review

To Save a King, Kill A King…

The Assassin Girton Club-Foot and his master have returned to Maniyadoc in hope of finding sanctuary, but death, as always dogs Girton’s heels. War rages across Maniyadoc, with three kings claiming the same crown – and one of them is Girton’s old friend Rufra. With threats on every side. Girton hurries to his friend’s aid – though his greatest enemy of all remains closer than ever.

WARNING – Mild Spoilers await those yet to read Age of Assassins

So, a few months ago I caught up with RJ Barker’s impressive debut Age of Assassins which I would happily say is a great fantasy tale combining a murder mystery with a claustrophobic atmosphere due to it’s castle-bound setting. Now the awaited sequel is out and while this a bigger scale story Barker again delivers a fantastic story blending characters with action, politics and antlers. It asks that important question we face when we grow who…exactly who are we?

At the end of Age of Assassins Girton and his Assassin Master Merela had uncovered treachery at Castle Maniyadoc and prevented a scheming Queen putting her heir Aydor on the throne by effectively starting a civil war between the warring factions. Girton has helped his best friend Rufra escape a murder plot and he himself was fighting for the throne. Girtin however had suffered not just the loss of his first love but discovered he had magical abilities in a world where this meant an immediate death sentence. The Assassins’ only option was to flee into the wilderness…

We arrive in Blood of Assassins five years later and Girton finds himself unexpectedly back in Maniyadoc’s politics carrying a gravely wounded Merela. The war Gorton unexpectedly triggered has split into three factions all led by nobles that Girton encountered on his last visit. Rufra the first friend he has ever made; Aydor the previous sole heir who was a vicious bully and Tomas who was a skilled noble also with claims on the throne. Girton finds himself in Aydor’s camp which is on the edge of defeat by Rufra and against his will he is forced to persuade Rufra Aydor wants a truce and carries a message that Rufra is being spied upon by Tomas from within his inner circle.

It would have been easy for a very simple re-telling of the first story, but it is immensely satisfying that Barker has decided to go for a very different feel to the first novel. This time the action moves from a single castle to a wide field camp where Rufra is preparing for battle and has multiple factions (loosely) allied. Each group has its own agendas from a sect that worships the god of death to the scarier Landsmen sworn to wipe out all those who have magical abilities. Girton would usually want to lurk in the shadows but Rufra quickly makes it known that instead he is a loyal friend and ally. This all adds to a causing significant uncertainty for Girton who’s Master is on edge of death, watching his friend talking to his worst enemy and grappling with a magical ability that if found out could spell his death. He even finds a new generation of super-skilled soldiers being groomed that may match his own talents.  Whereas previously in times of stress or trouble he could always rely on the parental influence of Merela to stabilise him here she is absent and on top of that he carries brutal memories of what he had to do in the wilderness to survive. What is he a blunt instrument of death or something more?  All the time spies and murderers encircle his friend’s camp increasing the tension.

Character is a key aspect of Barker’s writing and one fascinating point here is how much do people change over five years? Girton has grown more powerful physically but emotionally is in turmoil which re-visiting Maniyadoc has exacerbated – the sharp-witted, playful and kind Girton has become a more brooding, angrier and violent man now rejecting the swords of an assassin for a brutal mean Warhammer. Placing himself between Rufra who seems to now have a bigger vision for a better type of kingdom where justice and equality reign and Aydor who while protesting his future loyalty has a history of deceit and arrogance means Girton is torn between his automatic instinct to protect versus his friend’s desire to make peace. Rather than make Girton a pure hero Barker shows Griton’s past makes him decide for what to him are very logical reasons to do some very scary things. Ultimately reminding the reader that while Girton is a one of the deadliest assassins in the land he is also still a young man on the run from his past and terrified of losing anyone he holds dear no matter the cost to himself or others.  Both Aydor and Rufra also have to decide where they stand in this time of crisis against their instincts

A newer element that is impressive is the use of larger set-pieces. In Age of Assassins it was very much focused on one-on-one conflict. In this case however the story levels up to larger armies and brigades fighting one another. The Normen are introduced as a foe who are happy to torture and kill their way through an enemy even causing howls through the night of their victims to make other’s nervous. It makes for an unpredictable and vicious foe and in one key scene set over a few hours we have Girton and a group of soldiers make a heroic stand in a village. Barker is great at describing moving and flowing action scenes but the key aspect he delivers in spades is in using action to define character.  Not as in the more recent trend of grimdark showing everyone to be brutal at a base level but the ability for a character to decide to make the right thing; stand up against the tyrant and go into battle whatever the cost even if one man (or woman as Barker’s world doesn’t have the typical sexism of others) against a horde. Themes such as justice and friendship can appear outdated, but the way Barker really provides the emotional depth of such scenes was a highlight of the novel (there may have been fist-punching reader).

So, this is a sequel that cleverly builds and, in my view, excels on what the first tale delivered. That sense of increasing scale and what is now on the line makes this an exhilarating read and I think it is safe to say while I’m more than ready to read the conclusion to this series but also will be watching this writer’s career with interest!