8.5/10 – Will be posted to Fantasy Book Review shortly.
I received an advanced copy of Age of Assassins in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Orbit Books, Nazia, and R.J. Barker for this opportunity.
Age of Assassins was simply unputdownable. It has been a long time since I have devoured a book so fast. From the quality of this tale, it is almost unbelievable that this is R.J. Barker’s debut outing. The main characters that we follow are a 15-year-old disabled assassin called Girton Club-Foot and his Master who is arguably one of the finest and most experienced killers who has ever dwelt within the Tired Lands. After a blistering opening section and certain complications at Castle Maniyadoc they are assigned to take on a deadly business venture which requires them to track down a lurking fellow assassin who is contracted to kill the heir to the throne.
“To Catch An Assassin… Use An Assassin”
The majority of the narrative is presented in the first person perspective with Girton re-telling his adventures within Maniyadoc where he was trying to achieve the desired outcome set by his mysterious employers. To fit in within this alien environment he has to take on the guise of a character completely unlike himself that he must play to infiltrate the castle, its most influential individuals and understand the political viewpoints that these people promote whilst always being convincing and not giving away his talents and his assignment. As a new arrival to the Castle he is hated by most but still, he meets unlikely friends, makes formidable enemies and crosses paths with a pretty stable-hand. There are dangers, Royal complications, and twists throughout the whole of this narrative. Unlike many debut novels where a young hero starts as a weakling and then somehow becomes the “Hero of Ages”, Girton already knows his craft pretty well therefore it is interesting to see him in his disguise, analysing the situations with deadly poetic but mathematical precision and then how he has to act as a helpless Squire so not to blow his cover. Assassination and combat maneuvers are presented as a sort of science here with numbered balletic movements and it is highly engaging. In addition to the first person perspective mentioned, we also occasionally see past events presented in the third person through memories or dreams. These interludes or interruptions flowed superbly well, channeling the action in a childish, dreamlike fashion and these sequences were often intense and sometimes downright harrowing. Girton’s past has not been the most picturesque and enjoyable.
As well as a highly absorbingly presented yet ravaged fantasy world, the genre familiar notion of assassins and equally familiar plots where a nation brims with unrest and potential civil wars – one of this book’s greatest assets I believe is the thrilling mystery elements that are present from the beginning. In addition to the above-discussed more familiar aspects of a fantasy tale, the mystery side of things is truly exquisite which makes Age of Assassins almost reminiscent of an original Joseph Rouletabille or Sherlock Holmes novel but of course not set in a late 19th, early 20th-century setting. One reason for this is we follow one of the main characters whilst the other is running off doing their own thing (Watson and Holmes anyone?) checking in occasionally so we never have a full picture of the happenings which is similar to the old-school detective stories. There is so much going on in this book, so many minuscule motions that characters make, minute slips of their “masks of sanity” with things they may say that have a huge impact on the story. Age of Assassins is a book that needs attention paid to it, little nuggets of information are dropped throughout and if I noticed them then when a revelation was made I felt awesome to have analysed part of the outcome. In my mind, Barker’s book definitely has as much in common with a detective and a thriller story as it does fantasy novels and I think it is a stunning mix. There is so much going on and sometimes when a dilemma, question or issue is answered or analysed then consequently double that amount of problems are then created.
Although in Epic fantasy terms it is quite a short book at 400 pages or so, the religions and the history are expertly created through character discussions, factions and also (this will make sense when you read it) dances. The landscape in this world has previously been dealt a brutal hand in infamous battles which have lead to sorcerers and any magic being criminalised and therefore almost eradicated from this world. The cast of characters are vast, my particular favorites after Girton and his master were obscure bullied squire Rufra and the quartermaster Nywulf.
The writing style, to begin with, was unusual. I cannot put my finger on why exactly. It took me about a chapter and a half to understand the flow and appreciate what was being written here. I know it is difficult to write a story in the first person that is truly emotionally engaging yet Age of Assassins definitely is. This story is completely self-contained. The culmination is perfectly composed and the majority of the seeds that have been planted come to feature in the finale… but not all. This is a trilogy so of course there are some loose threads but the majority of these are implied throughout the background rather than at the forefront of the narrative. The epilogue sets things up brilliantly for Blood of Assassins. It is the perfect mix of fantasy and mystery. A stunning and mysterious debut outing where we follow deadly assassins that may be tracking an assassin who is even deadlier. Highly recommended.