King of Assassins by RJ Barker

King of Assassins by RJ Barker

age of assassins blood of assassins king of assassins rj barker the bone ships the heron kings eric lewis fantasy grimdarkJust in case anyone thought I didn’t also own a katana.

King of Assassins is the explosive concluding volume of RJ Barker’s epic Wounded Kingdom trilogy. Whatever you were expecting from this climatic book, I think it’s safe to say you’re going to be getting much, much more than you bargained for. This is a masterful conclusion to a thrilling series, tying in threads of plot and character from the two previous books you might’ve thought long forgotten, and showing the sting of betrayal from both sides.

Girton is now a man entering middle age, no longer moody and sullen yet taking on the sense of world-weariness that grips all of us eventually. This makes him more relatable, but not to the point of excusing his role as someone who commits murder, however reluctantly, for his king or his hypocrisy in raging when the violence turns against his own. The Tired Lands are a cruel place blighted by the scourge of magic that Barker has painted with colors at once dark and vivid. The setting by now feels familiar and lived-in, which was by necessity not the case in the previous volume, Blood of Assassins. This lets us delve right into the plot without having to be reoriented in the world. I generally appreciate inciting incidents happening as close to the beginning as possible, and here the book doesn’t disappoint.

Our old friend King Rufra, now older but no longer quite as friendly as kings tend to get, is making his bid for the high kingship in order to bring much-needed reforms to the whole of the Tired Lands. But in the vicious, decadent capital Ceadoc, his royal entourage seems out of its depth with a new level of byzantine threats and plots around every corner. When Rufra’s family is attacked by an unknown assailant, Girton vows to discover the killer and avenge fallen friends. What seems at first a straightforward election campaign among the powerful claimants becomes a web of murder and intrigue where old friends and enemies switch places with frightful ease. Or maybe it’s just that old enemies are replaced with bigger, worse enemies. Girton’s skills are stretched past their limits, and he must increasingly risk discovery of his taboo powers through use of magic to survive attack after attack. Old foes are back, along with new ones who would like nothing more than to eliminate the famous assassin.

As with the setting, the great thing about the final book in a series like this is that the characters are already fleshed out, and you can focus purely on development rather than establishment. There are new characters introduced here, sometimes at a rapid pace that one might struggle to keep up with, but they are just as rapidly built up so that their personalities, if not their true intentions, are realized. We also see the end result of several long-term relationships: Girton’s disappointment at the decayed relationship with Rufra, his master Merela Karn’s slow decline, and the surprising closeness with his old enemy Aydor. There are others, but they veer into spoiler territory. It’s an interesting study in parts on how, though people might fundamentally not change at their core, the way people relate to each other over time nevertheless can. It’s positively sad to watch Rufra rage at Girton, who has done such dark things in his service, and cautiously encouraging when a rival for the throne turns on a dime to become a most ardent ally.

Although the world as a whole is familiar, the massive castle Ceadoc feels alien and threatening, almost like a great, silent, Lovecraftian character unto itself, with tension lurking everywhere. I got a sense of claustrophobia at times, usually just before some corridor-clogging attack. In contrast to the many outdoor settings of the previous book, this lends an appropriate foreboding quality to the story. Girton’s fear of drowning in particular becomes relevant and is used effectively. There comes a point, during a seemingly neverending parade of atrocities encountered here, where I begin to think, where can you possibly go from here? Oh, don’t worry sweeties, there’s always plenty more where that came from. It’s emotionally draining at times, but never in a way that makes the reader want to put the book down for long.

As with the previous entries in these mystery-within-fantasy stories, the reveals are rather back-loaded, so one might feel the pace begin to drag a bit in the middle. But this just sets up a rapid-fire of plot and action in the last hundred pages or so, which I read in one sitting here as with Blood of Assassins. In some small ways it returns to the dynamic of the first book, Age of Assassins, in which magic is both an antagonistic and protagonistic (is that a word?) force, and knowledge of its use is a weapon itself.

I hope I can say I’m not sorry to be leaving the Tired Lands after this; this is a world realized sharply enough to know that I’d never survive in it. I can’t describe the rest of the plot too much without giving it away, as one might expect in the final volume, but I can say that there is one climax that could only take place in this world.
…..…and then there’s another one, which will rip your heart out.
……….…and then there’s another one, which will stomp it into a slushy, purplish paste on the ground. You are a cruel, cruel man, RJ. In this genre, that might be the best compliment one can give.

 

Review of Blood of Assassins

RJ Barker’s website: RJBarker.com

 

Pairs well with: California Cider Company ACE Perry Cider

 

Not too much to say about this one. Seems the weather’s warmed up permanently, or at least for the rest of the season, and if you’re in the mood for something sweet and somewhat different, try out this “perry cider.” I was disappointed to learn that it’s not real perry (I really tried to find some, honest!), just cider with pear juiced added after fermentation. It’s not bad though. It’s sweet but not overpoweringly sweet, with a tartness alongside and a kind of candy-like vanilla undertone. At 5% ABV it’s easy drinking, maybe too easy to be frank, as it does down just like fruit juice. But it’s a good thirst quencher on a hot day. Perry is the drink of choice in the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, so it’s appropriate here, and really, the Tired Lands could do with a touch of sweetness now and then.

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