An interesting new debut fantasy series
It’s a game of assassin versus assassin
Girton Club-foot has no family, a crippled leg, and is apprenticed to the best assassin in the land.
He’s learning the art of taking lives, but his latest mission tasks him 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 to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder — and his own.
This is the first new fantasy series that I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, it’s only the second this year (the other was Ed McDonald’s Blackwing). Long-time readers of CR may have noticed that I’ve been struggling with the genre for a while, but Age of Assassins really worked for me. This is the start of an interesting, engaging and entertaining new fantasy series. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.
I enjoyed the small-scale of the novel: most of the action takes place within a single, small-ish city (at least, that’s the impression I got of the place). This meant Barker didn’t spend endless pages on worldbuilding and extraneous details, and could instead focus on the characters and the events taking place before the reader. This does not mean that the world felt underdeveloped or incomplete — quite the opposite. There was some venturing forth, as well as mention of the wider politics of the region. We learn that the world has suffered an environmental decline, with great swathes fallow and uninhabitable. (Magical shenanigans were involved.) I have a feeling the world will open up considerably in the next two novels — at least, that’s the impression I get from the second synopsis, anyway.
The characters are pretty interesting. Girton, for example, is a former slave with a club-foot, rescued (well, bought) by a master assassin, and trained as an apprentice. We learn about his past through a series of short flashbacks. His relationship with Merela Karn was an interesting and endearing one. She has clearly taken on the role of not only professional mentor, but also a mother-figure of sorts. Girton grows up a fair bit over the course of the novel — not that he was immature or infantile at the beginning, but life comes at him pretty hard, as he learns more about life, politics, himself, and friendship.
The two assassins are hired by Queen Adran to discover the identity of another assassin, who has been hired to kill her son, the heir to the throne. Karn has a history with Adran, the details of which we learn as the novel progresses. Girton goes undercover as a son of a far-off lord, joining the squires to be close to the other noble sons — a potential pool of suspects. Karn takes on the role of a jester — a perfect role to move about freely in the castle, among the nobles. There are various factions and conflicting agenda in the castle, and our two heroes are kept busy throughout.
“The whole atmosphere of this castle was like a bowstring held taut, pregnant with violence.”
The novel is, at heart, a murder mystery, and Barker does a great job of dropping hints and red herrings at the right moments to keep us guessing. The story moves at a good clip, never feeling rushed, but nor do scenes get bogged down with unnecessary or excessive details.
I was pleased to find the novel quite funny, too — it’s been billed as part of the new wave of grimdark, and sure there are certain elements of that on display. However, it’s also frequently funny. Whether via a well-placed quip, or bizarre situation, Age of Assassin is not as poe-faced as other examples in the genre can be.
“There is something rewarding in picking a lock. Something very satisfying about the click of the barrels and the pressure vanishing as the lock gives way to skill. It is not quite as rewarding done while a castle’s toilets empty themselves over your body, but a happy life is one where you take your pleasures where you can.”
Here’s another one that amused me, as a (half-)Scot:
“She left while I finished hanging my kilt. It took me another half-hour because a kilt is a truly stupid garment and I question the sanity of any man who would wear one voluntarily.”
Overall, then: Age of Assassins is a very strong fantasy debut, and the start of a very promising series. If you’re a fan of fantasy — especially the novels of Brent Weeks, Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie (to name but four) — I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here, too.
Age of Assassins is out now, published by Orbit Books in the US and UK. The sequel, Blood of Assassins (US/UK), is due to be published in February 2018. The final novel in the trilogy, King of Assassins, should follow in August 2018.
Also on CR: Interview with RJ Barker (2017)