King of Assassins by R J Barker
I am very grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Orbit
Price – £9.99
Published – Out Now
The King is Dead, Long Live the King…
Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc – years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vythr eyes the High King’s throne and will take the court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and betrayal. There the endgame of twenty of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings. Friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.
Warning – there will be spoilers for those of you yet to have read either Age of Assassins or Blood of Assassins
There is a theory that in comedy the number three turns up because it’s the earliest possible time that you can tell a sequence and on the third time wrongfoot the reader. In the last of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy, we as the author have got used to the lives of the assassin Girton Club Foot and his best friend King Rufra in Castle Maniyadoc in stories that are intriguing mixes of epic fantasy, political thriller and murder mystery. But ever since the very end of Age of Assassins when we were abruptly warned that we were actually hearing Girton’s confessions there was a niggling suspicion that things would end in a much darker place and now we have arrived at that destination and everything we learnt and assumed over the previous books needs to be rethought because this is the end of one amazing trilogy.
We arrive nearly two decades after the end of Blood of Assassins and there have been many changes since young Rufra ap Vyrthr won his throne after the Battle of the Three Kings. He has brought peaceful democratic changes to his subjects; married twice and now has young children. His former foe Aydor is now a trusted warrior and finally he is protected by his best friend Girton who has moved on from being an angry headstrong warrior to now both his sworn protector, his Death’s Jester (think a mixture of priest/storyteller) and behind the scenes his assassin to deal more subtly with threats to his rule. Their Kingdom is strong but Rufra has now been focusing his attention on the centre of the Tired Lands and with the death of the previous ruthless High King then Rufra moves his key family and warriors to Castle Ceadoc to begin the horse-trading with other Kings and interested parties to become the ruler of everything. Girton meanwhile has just lost a close friend during one assassination attempt on Rufra’s family and now he follows Rufra suspecting his skilled and dangerous opponent lurks in the shadows ready for a rematch. Everything is primed for a final reckoning.
After reading the previous entries you start to feel off-balance reading this novel. We’re now used to the lands and customs of Maniyadoc but suddenly we have moved into Castle Ceadoc is a very different kind of environment – Rufra is shown to be just one faction in a much larger fight for power; other Kings, the mysterious powers that runs the Kingdom; the Landsmen who are sworn to eliminate magic and on the edge the cult known as the Children of Xus. Old foes are returning, and new ones are also revealing themselves at last. Whereas previously Rufra’s sense of justice and idealism were strengths to bring people under his banner here they are perceived as dangerous weaknesses preventing his support. This time the stakes are high as whoever gains power could cause issues for Rufra too if he fails. Its an interesting theme that the closer you get to ultimate power then you may have to start sacrificing some ideals to make the alliances and secure your own agenda – will you be the same person you set out to be? Are there always going to be deep seated interests that while they accept the rile of a King re far more comfortable having the power in the shadows to keep the status quo continuing ever onwards?
Tension is constantly escalating in this story with fracturing friendships and grasps for power. A big key to how that is achieved is Castle Ceadoc itself…this environment constantly feels wrong. You will see the title of the Wounded Kingdom in a very different sense after this story. Larger than anywhere else we have seen previously the impression is of a huge sprawling castle of uneven floors; vast towers; narrow winding corridors and hidden depths and terrors luring underneath while everyone is watched by massive statues of the dead gods and other threats lurking in shadows. Girton himself finds his magical abilities abruptly curtailed and everyone feels on edge with a sense that someone or something is watching their every move and preparing their attacks. The pressure mounts and mounts and slowly the strategies of their enemy are revealed who unusually seems to know our main characters and their weaknesses unusually well.
But the focus of the trilogy has been on Girton. We are used to Girton being the outsider in the shadows and hiding his talents each time in a different disguise but this time we have him up front and centre in the court (albeit now dressed in the costume and make up of Death’s Jester so much that most people don’t recognise him without his costume). Rufra’s family and troops know him as a cunning warrior and his reputation as an assassin is now pretty much an open secret. He is comfortable in his skin; still funny but less prone to anger and fear than we’ve seen before but also feeling the first signs of middle age in his strength and speed. An intriguing development is that due to his prowess Assassins are once again in fashion across the Lands and Girton is both held in esteem and viewed as a great target to test your skills against. It’s however much much harder to investigate a murder and conspiracy when you’re so famous and everyone wants to meet you and test you are as good as they hear! At the same time Rufra’s focus on absolute power is starting to run against Girton’s sense of fairness and the two are more likely to fight than agree. All the things we are used to are out of sync…suggesting the centre cannot hold for much longer. Particularly as the one secret Girtin is still hiding is that he is a sorcerer and the one thing Rufra will not accept is magic. Discovery of his last secret means death at the hands of his oldest friend.
Surrounding him and often the heart of the book is the relationships Girton has developed with Merela and Aydor. Merela the woman who found Girton as a child has been a mystery for much of the story. For the first time we see where she comes from and what drove her into becoming an assassin; her motives and journey with Girton need to be reviewed in the light of these revelations. Aydor however has moved from being the bully we loved to hate to the loveable bear of man who in learning to give up power can offer Girton a refreshingly honest opinion as well as being able to deflate his tendency for the dramatic. Because we’ve journeyed with these two and know how much they now mean their arcs in this story provide the emotional depth and concern as to where they will feature in this final adventure.
The overall feeling you get is we are heading for a mighty climax and Barker has done this skilfully; by the time we enter the final few chapters a scene where characters simply walk up steps slowly is physically and emotionally pounding with a sense that all hell is about to break loose when the final step is loose. We are plunged into kinetic fight scenes where we feel every blow; treated to the assassins’ dangerous moves and this time particularly as Girton has embraced his role as an assassin he can when needed create an air of theatricality he uses to terrify and surprise his targets that is delightful just as much as it makes you cheer him on. This time though there is a stronger mythic element to the story previously only hinted at as the focus on the Children of Xus and their very different worship of the God of Death means Girton starts to find himself key to a much more mysterious plan; in scenes both fairy simple but incredibly eerie hinting at something so much bigger under the surface of the physical world.
Having been a huge fan of this trilogy from the day I first opened the book I can say I categorically loved this finale. RJ Barker is proving himself to be one of the most interesting storytellers debuting in the UK and this trilogy is something I think all readers of fantasy need to read. The sequence is fresh, dazzling and most important of all it has emotional depth from the joys of triumph to the despair of loss and grief and seeing how the seeds of the wider story have been planted is a fantastic reading experience. When I first reviewed RJ’s Age of Assassins I noted that we tend to think of Robin Hobb as our go to Assassin’s story. With the Wounded Kingdom and Girton Club-Foot RJ Barker has matched the story of FitzChivalry Farseer with a compelling lead character and amazingly detailed world perhaps one day there may be more tales about The Tired Lands but safe to say whatever novels await I will be reading them avidly.