A highly enjoyable debut; I finished Age of Assassins in less than 24 hours.
I think people need to set their expectations right when they’re going to read this book. If you expect this to be an Assassin’s Creed type of story where the assassin goes on full throttle killing mode or be involved in a battle against another assassin for the majority of the book, you’re most likely going to be disappointed. I came into this expecting it to be something along the line of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and with that mindset, I had a fantastic time with this addictive debut.
Age of Assassins is the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy written by R.J. Barker. Honestly, Age of Assassins has been recommended to me several times since its publication; it’s one of the standout fantasy debut of last year and plenty of readers/reviewers have asked me to give it a go and review it but somehow I never got around to it until yesterday; I’m really glad I gave it a go because this turns out to be a great debut.
Told in first person narration, the story centered on the fifteen years old assassin with a disability, Girton Club-Foot. Girton is an apprentice to Merela, one of the best assassins in the Tired Lands and they’re tasked to uncover who’s the traitor that’s going to kill the heir to the throne. I will say this, fantasy enhanced with mystery elements makes a great combination. I’ve read some fantasy books that have mystery elements implemented into their story (few examples: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson, City of Stairs by Robert Bennett, etc.) and I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s one of my favorite hybrid genres. Let’s get this straight once again, Age of Assassins is not an action-oriented book; it’s character-driven and it has a lot of similarity with Assassin’s Apprentice. Other than the majestic Mounts, there may not be something new in this book, if you’re looking for something revolutionary for the genre, look elsewhere. That said, just because there isn’t something new instantly equal to the book is bad because guess what also isn’t new? Almost every fantasy book now; what matters to me is that the story, characterizations, actions, and world-building were well-told and Barker did it wonderfully with his debut.
I loved the characterizations of Girton Club-Foot that reminded me a lot of Fitz Chivalry; both being an assassin’s apprentice at a young age, the blessing and predicaments they had to deal with were similar. Finding friends in an unlikely situation, having a loyal animal companion, being bullied, learning to cope with responsibilities, and whether it’s the struggle of juggling the life of being an assassin and the longing of wanting a normal life; all were similar and honestly? I absolutely enjoyed them all. Girton’s personalities and development felt realistic to read due to the well-written characterizations and he became a character that’s easy to empathize with. Although the exploration of the bond between an apprentice and their mentor is something very common in the fantasy genre, it’s quite surprising to me that I found Girton and Merela’s bond to be one of the main highlights of the book; it was heartwarming. Plus, the short interludes—told in third person narrative—that served as a flashback sequences that explored the meeting and relationships between Girton with his master effectively displayed why they became so close. Like I said before, this is a character-driven story and most of the time you’re going to be reading the daily life of an assassin’s apprentice and his struggles instead of reading him doing actual assassin stuff. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re not going to see any assassin actions at all like you experienced in the majority of Robin Hobb books, Girton is so much more capable of being an assassin than Fitz and you’ll get to see him in action sporadically and at the last section of the book.
Although actions weren’t the main focus of the story, the action sequences were really great and can be surmised as an evolution from dancing to killing techniques. Check out this passage:
“First iteration: the Precise Steps. Forward into the range of his weapons. He thrust with his stabsword. Ninth iteration: the Bow. Middle of my body bowing backwards to avoid the blade. With his other hand he swung his club at my head. I ducked. As his arm came over my head I grabbed his elbow and pushed, making him lose his balance, and as he struggled to right himself I found purchase on the rim of his chest piece. Tenth iteration: the Broom. Sweeping my leg round I knocked his feet from under him. With a push I sent him flailing into the hole so he cracked his head on the edge of it on his way down.”
The elegant killing moves displayed through dances (iteration) that made them look like a form of art; don’t worry about not understanding the term too because as you can see, Barker explained the actions behind each iteration rather than leaving it to readers’ interpretation on what the term supposed to mean.
I found the simplicity and the flow in Barker’s prose to be immensely enjoyable to read. Although there were a few typos and repetitive sentences, I didn’t find them distracting to the flow of the story and the pacing was very well-paced. I’ve been binge reading Malazan Book of the Fallen series for the past month that reading simple prose starts to feel like finding an oasis while being stranded in a desert; not saying bad things about Erikson’s prose or the series but that series can be exhausting for the brain to read at times. Also, I would like to mention that the world-building was gradually implemented without any form of info-dumps. In fact, I found the history of the Tired Lands and why magic/sorcerers became an abomination to be superbly told; especially the section on the history of the Black Sorcerer. I do however wish there were more exploration on the world-building and the great action sequences because I think they were some of the main spotlights of the novel; I’ll most likely get to see them in the sequels and I will find out really soon.
Overall, Age of Assassins was an impressive and stunning debut. I can’t believe it took me this long to finally get to this debut, especially when I’ve reviewed half of the standout debuts from last year. On the other hand, I’m also glad I waited because Barker has finished writing an entire trilogy within a year and now I have the entire series to binge read. Onward to Blood of Assassins! Thank you and well done, R.J. Barker!
You can order the book HERE!