“To catch an assassin, use an 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 him and his master with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone, or many someones, is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder.
In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies Girton finds friends he never expected, responsibilities he never wanted, and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire kingdom.”
Age of Assassins is one of those novels that I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a long time and glanced at longingly while I worked on my request list. This month I finally picked it up and I’m so happy that I did! A handwritten sign in my local bookstore compared it favorably to Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, which I was curious about – having read it I can see why, as on the surface they do share a fair bit in common. Both are first person PoV coming of age stories of a young assassin-in-training, thrown into a world of courtly intrigue featuring a spoiled heir and a fearsomely ambitious Queen pulling the strings. However, the two authors have rather different approaches to the subject and I can safely say that Age of Assassins is very much its own thing, and a thoroughly bloody excellent thing at that. Where Hobb’s tale is very much a traditional epic fantasy, Barker’s story is far more focused on subterfuge and mystery.
Girton is a sympathetic protagonist – he is a diligent student; obedient, loyal, and extremely grateful to his master, who has pulled him from a life of slavery (or worse). In turn, Merela is a highly skilled assassin and yet she brims with compassion and understanding for her young ward. Their chemistry and mutual respect is one of the great strengths of the novel, and reminds me very much of a similar relationship in John Gwynne’s A Time of Dread, one of my favorites from earlier this year. Girton is given room to learn and grow, make mistakes and even act out, safe in the knowledge that his guardian’s love is unconditional. Their shared regard is also their greatest vulnerability, and it’s moving to read the blurring of their master/student, parent/child relationship. Girton has a great deal of agency; he has opportunities to make his own decisions about his future, and later, to reflect on the mistakes he has made. Most heart-wrenching is watching him long for the life he didn’t (or couldn’t) choose, that of a normal boy. All in all, he is a thoughtful and sensitive young man who undergoes setbacks and challenges without falling into the trap of being unbearably self-absorbed (often an issue with teen protagonists – not unrealistic necessarily, but not often fun to read, either). He also has a disability, as his name suggests – this is handled well in that it is not what defines Girton; rather, it is a part of him and accepted as such. It is not presented as something to feel sorry for him over, nor is it something intended to make him ‘inspirational’ to able-bodied readers. It is simply a part of his story, something that is occasionally a hindrance to him and at times, useful to his undercover persona.
The main thrust of the plot lies with our ambitious Queen Adran. Believing that someone wishes to murder her son, she hires Merela to investigate. Merela and Girton must go undercover and blend in with life at Castle Maniyadoc – Merela takes on the identity of Death’s Jester, and Girton joins the ranks of the Squires, which throws him directly into the path of Adran’s spoiled and generally loathsome son. There is an established hierarchy amongst the noble squires, and Girton struggles to find acceptance; indeed, there are a number of events suggesting that someone has it in for him. This is where the plot really kicks into high gear, as the cast of characters opens up and the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the story takes over. There are so many characters with credible motivations it’s staggering to read. At no point did I feel like I had a clear handle on it, and where normally I pick up on these cues, this time around when the final reveal took place all I could do was laugh. It was all there and I genuinely didn’t spot it. I even kicked myself because once it was revealed I could see exactly where it had been foreshadowed. Bravo, RJ.
The setting is fully realized without being over explained. I think we were given just the right amount of information to be tantalizing, with plenty of room for future entries in the series to flesh out the world. Everything from the antlered mounts and dead gods to the Tired Lands versus the Sour Lands was intriguing and a little bit horrifying – a solid glimpse into the culture of an unforgiving world, where magic is outlawed and considered an abomination which must be repaid with blood, lest the land be drained of life. It is a cruel setting that is at times pretty grim, with a caste system, a deep fear of those who wield magic, and an inherent sense of injustice. The prose flows beautifully, and the glimpses of the past we are given via dream sequences work very well. Barker uses some common tropes, but I think he brings enough originality to the table that I find myself with little to complain about. In short, it was a deeply enjoyable novel and the minute I publish this review I’ll be purchasing a copy of Blood of Assassins without a second thought. Highly recommended.
Bingo Squares 2018
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Protag is an Artist (Death’s Jester)
- Fewer than 2500 GR ratings