I received an advanced copy of Kings of Assassins in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to RJ Barker and Nazia and Jenni at Orbit. *This may contain slight spoilers for the trilogy*
Well, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. Where should I start? I can safely say in the (almost) two years I have been reviewing that this is my favourite trilogy that I have read that was released in that timeframe. I was the first person to review Age of Assassins, one of the first to review Blood of Assassins, and I had a to-be-read quota of thirty books as of last Friday. That was until King of Assassins ended up on my doorstep. Everything else took a back seat and I devoured this exquisite mystery, magic and assassin-tinged fantasy conclusion in two days.
Set fifteen years after the conclusion of Blood of Assassins, in Maniyadoc under the caring rule of King Rufra the atmosphere and events have been of the peaceful variant. A plague has led to the loss of life for two out of every three civilians around the Tired Lands everywhere, but for some reason, the catastrophic destruction passed Rufra’s city by almost as if it didn’t exist at all.
The high king of Ceadoc was not so lucky. He fell victim to the illness which leads people to become living and breathing empty shells. At his final demise, all eyes across the nation turn onto the capital. Every individual with power, armies, or an influence proceeds to attend a meeting where a next high king will be assigned. Rufra, with his new wife and three children, decides to ‘throw his hat into the ring’ and hopes he can bring the positivity and beneficial lifestyles that his civilians have revelled within to the capital and the whole world. Of course, it won’t be that simple. Assassins, betrayals, rivalries and enemies from the past are lurking within every shadow of this giant, mysterious and confusing city.
My favourite genre to read after fantasy is a mystery or detective thriller and the combination here is unique, thrilling and completely unpredictable. I had no idea what was going to happen until about 10 pages from the end of the book. It gave me goosebumps, it made me sweat and then in the epilogue I was presented an even bigger reveal that left me speechless. Throughout this narrative, I cried a couple of times. There are a large number of characters that have been in previous entries and also a lot of new players joining the ensemble for the epic finale. Girton once again takes on the role of a sleuth to discover and analyse all sorts of events including assassinations, dead people still walking around, the true emotions of the Gods and many more unanswerable dilemmas. We even have a classic “locked room” murder to investigate which reminded me of Gaston Leroux’s classic – The Mystery of the Yellow Room and many others similar scenarios from film and TV since. Girton is arguably the finest assassin in the world but he is a just above average detective and in the first person perspective I believe the affinity created with Girton and his dilemmas shows Barker’s exceptional skills as a writer.
I could have honestly read seven books about Barker’s Tired Lands and the players involved. That being said, I really appreciate what RJ has done with the time that passes between each novel. We first met Girton at fifteen and he is now thirty-five in King of Assassins. The character development is amazing, all the characters have changed so much but Barker cleverly links back to past relationships, traits, friendships in expert fashion so however grotesque the world and current events are we still see aspects of those fifteen-year-old children who were training, bullying, making first friends and trying to impress girls. They’ve changed drastically of course but little snippets, maybe often subtext reminds us of the innocence these major players came from. That all being said, I hope Barker returns to the Tired Lands and will present a few short stories of what Girton, Boros, Rufra or Aydor were up to in between the three main novels.
Girton Club-Foot is a character I could read about all day long. He’s currently Death’s Jester and when fighting still uses his balletic numbered poetic moves of murder. Some scenes that happen here are utterly grimdark – a character gets his tongue cut out, somebody drowns, limbs are lopped off, and magic annihilation of people and the environment – but King of Assassins could never be referred to as that genre because the main characters are so likeable and even a world famous assassin is only doing things as he believes it’s true and the best for the world. In fact, Girton’s previous antics are so famous that it seems every army who approaches Ceadoc has an assassin. Some worship Girton, some wish to test their worth against him and some remain completely unseen. My favourite of these characters was definitely the mute Tinia Speaks-Not. Aside from her Aydor and Boros are the most interesting to follow. Both were in Age of Assassins and have changed so much they are almost unrecognisable. It makes me want to go back and start the trilogy again.
There is one statement in King of Assassins that Barker presents that I analysed to state that physically or mentally disabled individuals can and often are the real heroes. Girton has a Club-Foot, Tinia is mute, his master has post-traumatic issues from her past and yet they are respected as the finest of their friends or groups. I thought that was a poignant touch. I’m not sure if it was intended but that is what I took away from it.
Barker wrapped up this trilogy almost perfectly. There is a showdown of epic proportions which may decide the future of the Tired Lands and that was expertly played out. After that about fourty pages remain to tie the knots and fill the gaps. Some epic action happens during this finale, however, I wish it would have been fleshed out a bit. One of the final showdowns seemed more of a ticking of a box to say that that plot arc had been finished as opposed to presenting the keen acute legendary battle of the ages that we could have witnessed between two fine warriors. That being said, this is one of the best fantasy trilogies I have ever read and I can’t wait to see what RJ presents us next. As long as he knows in the future I need more Girton, even if he writes them for me and nobody else!