Age Of Assassins by R J Barker

The Blurb On The Back:

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.  Someone is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor.  In a 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.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

15-year-old Girton Club-Foot grew up as a slave until Merela Karn – a legendary assassin – made him her apprentice and trained him in her deadly arts.  Together they ply their trade in the Tired Lands: a world whose Gods and Goddesses killed each other in a bloody civil war and which was left irreparably damaged after the rise (and defeat) of the Black Sorcerer.  Following the Black Sorcerer’s defeat the use of magic was forbidden as those who practice it drain life from the land to do so, leaving behind dessert and death with Landsmen roaming the land to root out and kill anyone suspected of using magic – spilling their blood on the damaged earth in the hopes of restoring it to health.

Their work takes them to Castle Maniyadoc, the home of the legendary King Doran ap Mennix, his ambitious and cunning wife Adran Mennix and their vain and brutal son, 19-year-old Aydor.  Adran has a job for Merela: find out who has hired an assassin to kill Aydor and if Merela fails in her mission, then she’ll make sure Girton is killed.  Even though stopping an assassination is a betrayal of their profession and could cost the pair their lives, they take the job.

While Merela disguises herself as Death’s Jester to see what she can find among the nobles of Castle Maniyadoc, Girton disguises himself as the son of a minor nobleman to infiltrate the sons who train in martial arts at the castle.  There he finds splits and allegiances that replicate the power plays unfolding among the adult players and creates a long list of suspects.  His only allies are Rufra (the heir to a disgraced clan ostracised by the other boys) and Drusl (a stable girl who seems to have taken a shine to him).  But an assassin’s life doesn’t easily allow for friends and Girton’s life gets more complicated as he and Merela slowly uncover a conspiracy that threatens to bring chaos to the whole of Maniyadoc and its inhabitants …

R J Baker’s debut fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy) is a confident affair that neatly sets up world building and character dynamics and has interesting relationships between Girton, Merela and Rufra but the mystery is too easy to guess, some of the characters (notably Aydor but also Drusl) are two-dimensional and although I liked the idea of a club-footed assassin, a plot device compensates for (and ultimately negates) it.

The main reason to read this book is the relationship between Merela and Girton, which steers a nice line between master and apprentice professionalism and familial love.  Baker does particularly well at revealing their backstory – how Merela rescued Girton from a slave market – and how Girton has learnt his deadly skills from her (particularly good is how he recounts the different steps and moves by different names and learned how to wait by counting ‘my masters’).  Also good is how Girton discovers how much he doesn’t know about Merela or their work and I particularly enjoyed the dialogue between Merela and Adran, which hints at her life before she took the costume of Death’s Jester and perhaps her reasons for doing the same.

I also enjoyed the friendship that develops in the book between Girton and Rufra in this book – especially as it’s so grudging on Girton’s side to begin with.  Part of the reason it works is because Girton hasn’t had a friend since his time in the slave camp and is aware of Rufra’s low place in the pecking order of squires and how being his friend will hinder his investigation.  There’s also a sense of mystery about Rufra, who’s a little jaded and is keeping secrets – I would have liked to have seen this drawn out more but there’s enough here to sustain my interest in the relationship going into the next book.

Baker does a good job of setting up the key components of Girton’s world.  Particularly chilling are the details of the destruction wrought by magic and how it’s blighted the land and caused food shortages and how the Landsmen select suspected magic users and the innocent to kill (magic users getting a particularly unpleasant end).  The politics is a little basic with the wrangling to become both High King and king of Maniyadoc under developed but the theology is done well – particularly the story of the war between the gods and Xus (god of death) – and I enjoyed the impact that this had on the respective priests.

The mystery element does take a back seat to the world building and other components and I would have liked to have had more information on what Merela has been discovering.  I think that the book also loses some much needed tension because of the decision to have Girton be recounting these events as a confession at some point in the future – it especially spoils the outcome of scenes where his life is in danger because if he’s writing about it you know he’s not really in jeopardy.

The book suffers on the antagonist front – Aydor is a two-dimensional bully boy and although much is made of Adran’s love for him as a son, I didn’t get a sense of why as she never seems to like him or respect him and he’s more a vessel for her own ambition.  I also thought Drusl was underdeveloped, existing primarily as a love interest there to teach Girton a lesson about himself, which I found to veer too close to cliché.

My biggest disappointment in the book though is that while much is made of Girton’s club foot, it never really seems to stop him or inconvenience him in any way and a key revelation half way through reveals a compensatory device that kind of negates it completely beyond drawing some cruel name calling and an inability to run fast.  I found that to be a missed opportunity given that disabilities are so seldom represented in fantasy fiction protagonists.

All this said though, I thought that this was a strong first novel, which has an interesting set up for the sequel and on the strength of this novel I would definitely want to check it out.

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