(2017) R. J. Barker, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 397pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50854-2
Age of Assassins is book one in R. J. Barker's Wounded Kingdom series.
Girton Club-foot is the protagonist who takes us through the intrigue and machinations of a medieval style court where politics can be fatal and magic is outlawed. 'To catch an assassin, use an assassin' is the opening statement, but of course it is never quite that simple. The assassin is just the tool, if you want to keep someone safe you have to catch the one who sent them. In this case, that means Court politics rather than midnight chases on the rooftops.
The inclusion of a disabled protagonist is an interesting choice when dealing with this type of setting. There is no place for the flawed in medieval fantasy culture, which is reinforced by his role as an assassin. The interview at the end of the book reveals that Barker himself is disabled and so identifies strongly with this element of his character. Perhaps the author's sense of alienation is shown through Girton's experiences, but it also shows in how realistic this portrayal is. Girton is not defined by his disability, nor does he allow it to hold him back from the opportunities he is offered.
Girton's separation from others in society, first by his circumstances, then by his disability and finally by his profession, leads to a casual attitude to the lives of others. While he does not kill where there is no benefit to this, he has no qualms about killing. This can make a character difficult to like, but in this case, the reasons are clear and the passion of the character for those he cares about, and for finding the truth amongst the lies, carries the reader through.
Having said all that, the relationship worth mentioning is between Girton and his Master Merela. As she took him as an apprentice when he was very young, the relationship has all the hallmarks of a parental one, despite the emotional detachment associated with their profession. In fact, in hindsight Girton as the narrator suggests that he is the reason that his Master allowed herself to be trapped in this scenario, looking to stop an assassin despite the professional and life-threatening issues that could cause. It is also a refreshing change from other works to have the most respected master of assassins being female.
Anyone who loves Robin Hobb's 'Assassins' trilogy is likely to love Barkerís story as well, not just in theme but there is a similarity in the writing style that draws you into the story. The assassins in both are professional, but have a softer more human side in the right circumstances. However, this novel is not derivative, the twists and turns of the plot are very much original.
Age of Assassins is a character-driven political intrigue with enough depth to keep the reader hooked all the way through.
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