Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, mystery
Published: 1st August 2017 by Orbit US & 3rd August 2017 by Orbit UK
An excellent debut, Age of Assassins was a well-crafted and compelling coming-of-age tale – one that’s not exactly what you expect a typical assassin story to be.
It’s the story of Girton, a club-footed orphan who became the apprentice to a master assassin, Merela. While there may be echoes of the orphaned apprentice and master trope, there is nothing derivative about it. Similarly, even though there were familiar and well-used concepts of coming-of-age stories with Girton being the subject of bullying, finding friendship in another outcast and unexpected love, the story was delivered in a manner that felt fresh.
The highly character-driven narrative is written in the first-person point-of-view of Girton Club-Foot. I found his characterisation to be realistic, endearing and compelling, which was further augmented by solid supporting characters. Girton’s relationship with his master, Merela, was one of the highlights of the book for me as it was moving. Occasional flashback interludes provide the much-needed backstory of how Girton came to be her apprentice and why their relationship is so strong.
The plot is straightforward simple with Girton and his master being tasked to uncover the identity of the person behind the plot to assassinate the heir to the throne. This placed him in an undercover role as a lowly squire-in-training in the castle where he was then subjected to the usual problems when young men form cliques and bully the misfits. As tropey as this may seem, I’ve always enjoyed its inclusion in such coming-of-age stories as it is very much a fact of life, whether in medieval or modern times. Provided, of course, that the bullies received their well-deserved comeuppance; the feeling when that happens is usually pretty glorious.
I loved the component of mystery in this novel, which to my delight is superbly executed and kept me guessing right until the end. The heir is quite a despicable person, and with all the political and courtly intrigue that is gradually revealed, it just appeared that a whole of people wanted him dead and for valid reasons. How does one uncover the real mastermind under such circumstances?
As with stories involving assassins, readers will want to be shown and not told that so-and-so is a badass killer, etc. There is definitely sufficient showing in here, demonstrated in a fascinating fashion. Almost like a dance, Girton and his master performed iterations with names like “the Precise Steps”, “the Placing of the Rose” or “Boatgirl’s Dip” while fighting. Unlike one popular epic fantasy series which utilised stylistic terms to describe sword forms, these iterations were actually explained so that I understood the movements it entailed.
The world that RJ Barker created fits the title of the series most aptly. The Tired Lands is bleak and scorched by magic, and as such, sorcerers deemed as abominations that need to be exterminated. The people are classified into three different classes, and there is a pervasive feel of a very broken kingdom. While the in-world mythology and its unusual terms took quite some time to unfold and be understood, it was delivered quite seamlessly into the story without disrupting the flow.
Barker’s writing was also highly accessible – it reads and flows really well, driving the narrative forward without unnecessary embellishment. The pages turned quickly, and with its engaging storytelling, I finished the book in merely two days. Even though I picked this up expecting the more usual vein of assassin-type of story, I actually found myself enjoying it even more when it turned out not to be so. I guess that’s also because I’ve always had a weakness for well-crafted coming-of-age story, and it’s particularly compelling when the main protagonist was not your typical heroic figure.
Updated review, originally written in 2017.