Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

age of assassins rj barker fantasy girton blood of assassins king of assassinsI know RJ likes taxidermy and antlers…I don’t have antlers but I have this bird skeleton and horn.

RJ Barker’s entrancing Age of Assassins is a bit of an odd duck—there aren’t many actual assassinations in it, but it’s easy to forget that as the story of young apprentice assassin Girton unfolds. Apparently the age of assassins is fifteen (heh). Girton and his master are summoned—in the most satisfying way that one can summon an assassin—to protect the heir to a decaying, tired land. It doesn’t help that the heir is a piece of garbage and any number of people could want him dead. Going undercover in a deadly game of killer vs killer, our young hero discovers disturbing things about himself and the tenuous political situation that will have implications for the wider world. One is conscious that this is the first in a trilogy, as a large part of the story focuses on Girton and his development as an assassin, as a man, and as something else entirely.

Central to this is the world of the story. Maybe it says something about us latter-day fantasy readers that many modern works view magic as a draining, malevolent force. In this world, sorcery has long ago sapped the land and its people of almost all vitality, and any hint of it is met with an instinctive frenzy of revulsion and hate. Blood of innocents is spilled without a second thought to keep it at bay, and anyone tainted with it can expect a fate worse than death. Magic is a disease, or so we’re led to believe.

That sounds pretty grim, but as a consequence this world also inhabits a fascinating midpoint between our mundane existence and full-on fantasy, allowing the inclusion of creatures such as the ubiquitous “mounts,” which are basically deer on steroids. This indulgence by Barker, who has a famous affinity for antlered things, signals to us that although familiar, this is at heart an alien world, and we should not expect it to conform to our prejudices.

Additional world-building is done, thankfully, without much infodump exposition but through clever conversational devices. Most notably is a dramatic performance in the middle of the book that acts out much of the history and mythology of the world. The specifics include points relevant to the plot, so at no point does it feel tedious.

The central character Girton is cursed with a club foot. This alone is interesting, as protagonists with disabilities are still rare. I was often reminded of his antagonist counterpart, Joe Abercrombie’s Inquisitor Glokta. Girton’s deformity serves as a source of constant physical pain, and perhaps as a stand-in for the mental pain of being a teenage boy. I was annoyed at Girton and his eye-rolling drama for a lot of this book. He seemed like a whiny teenager with trivial problems and I wanted to slap him more than once. But this is true to the character. The incongruence of a trained killer that’s shy and awkward strains believability at first. Eventually I began to sympathize with him, as the problems he faces—difficulty being accepted by the other squires that he’s only pretending to be, bullying by entitled jerks, embarrassment at his own existence—were fleshed out as universal and relevant even in a fantasy world. Perhaps mirroring this, the writing style is a bit awkward in some places. Okay, more than a bit awkward. Barker wrote this thing in like six weeks.

One issue I had was the ease of killing people. The dance-like fighting style is an interesting approach, but numerous nameless “guards” all fall like filler NPCs in a video game. Taking lives should not be so casual. This felt far out of step with the deep emotional resonance of the rest of the story, and I wish authors would stop resorting to this device to solve problems.

As Girton’s skills develop parallel with the plot, there is a shocking—though maybe not to a reader who’s paying attention—revelation about him and his relationship to his master that answers questions you might have had previously. There follows a palpable sense of betrayal and self-questioning which will clearly figure in future volumes. There’s also an uncomfortable Oedipal relationship between Girton and his “my master.” Her continual sighs of “Oh, Girton,” are best left to the imagination. It is unacknowledged, but adds an additional layer of depth to the story. Whether this is intentional or not, only Barker knows.

I wish fantasy novels didn’t seem obligated to end with an epic battle. This is at its core a story about assassins, not knights and kings. There are reasons why the supporting characters in this book might have a final battle, but I wish Girton’s climax had been more in keeping with the spirit of an assassin.

Still, by the end I found myself identifying enough with Girton that I want to continue the series with Blood of Assassins and see how his story develops, if only to see him spread his wings and come out from the shadow of his master. Books two and three are already out, and just from the covers we can see that he will play an important role in the wars to come as befits a legendary assassin, and as something else entirely.

 

RJ Barker’s website: RJBarker.com

 

Pairs well with:  Founders All Day IPA

 

Founders has a solid lineup, and I’ve never had anything from the brewery that I dislike. I’m not really an IPA guy, I usually stick to stouts and porters and abbey ales. Maybe wheat when I’m feeling adventurous. So the All Day IPA is a good compromise for people who like some bitterness, but not too much. Only 40 IBUs and 4.7% abv, you can drink it throughout the day. It’s got some grapefruit flavor up front, then a lot of pine, and a clean finish that doesn’t quite make me want to curl my tongue in hopicidal horror. There’s a certain bitterness at the heart of Age of Assassins too, so I think this beer goes well with it.

 

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