(2018) R. J. Barker, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 436pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50525-1
Blood of Assassins is book two in R.J. Barker's 'The Wounded Kingdom' series, if you have not read book one, Age of Assassins, then that is the place to start as this one continues the adventure, albeit a few years later.
Girton Club-Foot is the protagonist, an assassin's apprentice who travels with his Master to enact their trade. The kingdom of Maniyadoc is split with civil war; three kings claim it and have raised armies to support their claim. Girton returns to the camp of his friend King Rufra to support his claim.
The character Girton is easy to like, although he makes some bad decisions and ends up in difficulties because of them. Perhaps ironically, for someone who deals with societies prejudice, he is blinded by his own pre-judging of groups and individuals. But his blind spots are understandable; when an organisation exists to hunt down and kill sorcerers and you happen to have magic skills that you are trying to hide, you are probably not going to be best friends.
Girton big weakness is his inability to trust those close to him, despite their obvious affection for him. He does not give Rufra an opportunity to be his friend rather than his king and then resents him for this, he makes decisions for his Master without talking to her, decisions that nearly cost her life. It is a little frustrating for the reader, as his mistakes are not small ones.
Barker's writing is very accessible, the style flows easily and the pages turn quickly. It is similar in style and content to Robin Hobb's assassin books, which is no bad thing.
The society the novels are set in is harsh, suspected magic users are put to death without much in the way of a trial, war and suffering are rife, religion is stark and offers little comfort from the dead gods. Having said that, the tone of the novels themselves is relatively light and does not dwell on the darker aspects.
The presentation of Girton disability is done in a sensitive way, it is only referred to when he feels an increase in his physical pain or when other characters underestimate or undervalue him based on his appearance. The derogatory description of magebent hits him twice as hard, for his obvious physical appearance and for his hidden magic.
It is difficult to know exactly how old Girton is, he is frequently referred to by other characters as a 'boy', but I read this as character treating him as younger due to his appearance and disability. He is emotionally dependant on his Master and Rufra in a way that comes across as childish, but again I feel this is a result of the harsh treatment of society rather than biological age.
One of the characters uses his position in society to abuse and sexually assault women, lots of people know about it, but do not or cannot challenge him, perhaps ensuring women are not left alone with him or using other ways to change the behaviour of potential victims rather than the abuser. In the days of the 'me too' campaign this feels only too familiar.
Overall Blood of Assassins is a fascinating look at life and social attitudes through the lens of fiction and fantasy.
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