Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker

Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker

Not enough bone to make a ship out of, but coyote skull insisted on being in the picture.

 

It’s embarrassing how long it’s taken me to get around to this. RJ Barker is well into his second series and here I am still on the first one. It’s part laziness, part other things getting in the way. But in a way that’s fitting, because in Blood of Assassins, the beautifully-written sequel to Age of Assassins, we return to Maniyadoc after much time away, and much has changed. But some things haven’t.

The assassin Girton Club-Foot’s moody teenager of the first book has given way to a sullen young man who has seen too much ugliness in the world to be shocked at it, and one question Blood of Assassins seems to ask is, is there still a chance to change things for the better? Can people change? Girton and his master Merela Karn return to the lands of their old friend Rufra to find him fighting old enemies tooth and nail not only for his crown, but for newer, fairer ways for the people. When his master is critically poisoned and clinging to the edge of life, Girton is drafted to investigate the possibility of a spy in their midst mostly on his own. But his own prejudices and inability to let go of the past lead him to dangerous assumptions. Meanwhile the magic in him continues to grow more powerful and less controllable, and he must struggle to conceal it. It even has begun to speak to him, tempting him with tantalizingly easy solutions to problems. Amusingly I was reminded of Black Philip from the 2015 horror film “The Witch.” Wouldst thou like to live deliciously???

Blood of Assassins deftly avoids the common issue of second books wherein we get neither the building of a new world with new characters nor an epic conclusion to a series. In this case, the kingdom has been so ravaged by war and change as to be almost unrecognizable to the main protagonist. Even Girton himself has given up his elegant blades for a heavy warhammer as his weapon, a not-so-subtle clue to the state of his spirit. Many returning characters are different, and we are left feeling appropriately set adrift in a world we should know, but don’t really.

Although this a fantasy, like the one before it it’s really a mystery that happens to be set in a fantasy world. And like many mysteries we are introduced to the cast of suspects rather early on in rapid succession, so the reader may struggle to keep them all straight at first. They are all developed later, though, so it gets easier. Girton himself, I assume intentionally, can be difficult to like at times. He is impulsive and quick to anger, and often makes foolish decisions. He is not a good judge of character and makes many mistakes with terrible consequences. He does have a few cathartic moments of self-awareness, but like a momentarily reformed alcoholic, you wonder whether it’ll stick for very long. He’s certainly no Sherlock Holmes, and neither is he an unstoppable Mary Sue, which would be an easy trap to fall into with a powerful assassin-warrior-sorcerer, even one with a club foot. A driving force for the story is whether he’ll be able to put right what he’s done wrong, which works very well.

In addition to fantasy and mystery, there is also a feeling of Shakespearean tragedy about the whole thing, helped along by Barker’s at times poetic and heart-wrenching prose. Things often go bad simply because people just don’t communicate well with each other, like a slow motion trainwreck that one just can’t look away from. In this Blood of Assassins is the quintessential “second act” book where we hope the character has reached and passed his low point, but fear maybe not. The book is also more character-driven than the first, and at times it feels the plot is serving the characters rather than the other way around. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that’s a positive, but I suspect that question will depend on which of the supporting characters return for the third installment. I did feel the pacing slowed a bit in the middle parts, though the battle scenes did help to remedy this.

I very much liked the shrugging off of Merela for much of the book. There is a heavy sense that Girton must get out from under his master’s wings, not only to grow as a person but to survive. His inability to really relate to anyone but his “s/mother” is a clear hindrance to him, and needing her to literally cut his flesh to keep his magic at bay is telling.

I was about to write that I feel the ending came too quickly, with little of the big reveals held until the very end. Then I went back to check to make sure this was right only to find I had simply plowed through the last hundred pages in a short time, and it only seemed that way! That might be the best recommendation I make make, and I already have the third and final entry in the series, King of Assassins, queued up. Then on to The Bone Ships!

 

Review of Age of Assassins

RJ Barker’s website: RJBarker.com

 

Pairs well with: Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale

 

Well it’s that time of year again, when IPA hounds wrinkle their noses and complain about pumpkin ales for three months. I enjoy them when they come out, and by the time I get sick of them the season’s passed. Night Owl from Elysian Brewing actually stands a bit above the rest with its balanced, rounded taste. It pours hazy orange with medium carbonation and only a slight head that dissipates quickly. It carries pumpkin and spice aromas, obviously, and the same flavors. But it’s not heavy or cloying as some pumpkin ales can be. There’s no bitterness, with only 18 IBU. The typical cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger and allspice is balanced but not overpowered by brown sugar sweetness. It also has lots of actual pumpkin (“150 pounds of pumpkin in each batch!” says the marketing) flavor throughout and especially on its long finish. This is not just a PSL with 6.7% ABV. It’s unfiltered, but the sediment is undetectable except by eye, and doesn’t detract from the flavor. This fall beer fits well with Girton’s tired, dying world, and in both cases the flavor lingers long after you’re done with it.

 

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