Age of Assassins by R J Barker

August 3, 2017

Girton Club-foot, apprentice to the land’s best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But their latest mission tasks him and his master with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone, or many someones, is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder.

In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies Girton finds friends he never expected, responsibilities he never wanted, and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.

When it comes to genre fiction I’ve always thought that fantasy lends itself particularly well to tales of political intrigue and Machiavellian power plays. Age of Assassins by R J Barker focuses on the people who are used to ensure these schemes come to fruition. Kings and queens, politicians and priests may dream of power, but it is the assassins who make these things happen. They are the ones who are responsible for shaping nations and toppling dynasties.

At first glance, Girton Club-foot is exactly what you would expect from a teenager, all conflicting emotions and uncertainty. The problem is that he has had many years of rigorous training to become an assassin. The strict regime of learning how to deal death is at odds with his raging hormones. Working undercover Girton has the opportunity to witness all the things he has missed out on. Friendships, stability, even routine, are all new to our hero. In many respects, killing aside, he is quite the innocent. Even though there is often hardship in his new role, Girton the assassin is almost subsumed by Girton the squire. Ironically, with the exception of murderous destruction, Girton is actually quite a likeable sort. He has a strong sense of justice and he sees the role of an assassin as a valuable tool in any nation’s statecraft. His inquisitive nature and drive to do what is right making him a fascinating character to follow. He starts to relish this new life and the benefits that come with it. An internal conflict develops within as he struggles to reconcile his place in the universe. On top of all that there is another, far more destructive secret that Girton learns that will prove to be life changing.

The other main character is Girton’s master, Merela Karn. Many years of work has shaped her world view, and her sense of weariness feels palpable. You get the feeling she has become emotionally closed off and ground down by seeing the worst in humanity. Her true self remains a bit of an enigma for the majority of the narrative, but in hindsight, I suppose that is exactly what you would expect from a master assassin. All those deliciously dark secrets and what have you. There are a few tiny reveals but for the most part she is shrouded in mystery. I suspect her history is more than a little colourful. This is something that I would love to see explored further and expanded upon in future volumes.

One of the novel’s many highlights is the way Barker describes how the assassins ply their trade. When they are forced into a situation that requires fighting, there are a series of forms they use to take out an opponent. I loved this, it reads almost like an intricately choreographed dance. Each step or sweep of the arm is deliberate, measured and purposeful. I was reminded of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Those wonderful scenes where Holmes uses his years of accumulated skill to destroy an opponent in a fight while at the same time detailing the individual steps taken to achieve that goal. Of course, it’s not all about fighting. There are other skills an assassin must learn to master. One of my favourites was the ability to communicate discretely to one person, irrespective of how many others are close by. There are other more traditional abilities as well, blending seamlessly with the shadows, impossible feats of balance and climbing, killing with a single blow. Barker has a real gift for making all the action in the narrative come alive.

There are a handful of interludes dotted throughout the novel that explore some of Girton’s history. These insightful vignettes act as a perfect counterpoint to the main story. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad while in other instances joyous happy. I enjoyed these little moments, they feel like the perfect addition to an already near perfect cake.

The ultimate payoff to Age of Assassins is extremely satisfying. The final fifty pages hurtle along as all the players in the struggle for power in the kingdom are finally revealed. The mayhem ramps up to a fever pitch and Barker deftly draws together the various threads of the plot. As I read I had to keep reminding myself that this is a debut novel. There is a confidence to the writing that shines through. Age of Assassins is a riveting tale that never fails to disappoint. I’m calling it now – if you’re a fantasy fan, then R J Barker is an author you need to be paying serious attention to. The first book in The Wounded Kingdom series is absolutely aces, I cannot wait to read more. The good news is that I’ll be able to do just that in the future as a sequel, Blood of Assassins, is set to follow. How very splendid.

Regular readers know I like to suggest music to accompany the books I review. What you won’t know is that there is a very select group of special soundtracks*, ones that I listen to all the time, that I keep in reserve for when the perfect literary companion comes along.  This is one such instance. The soundtrack to Leon – The Professional by Éric Serra is close to musical perfection in my opinion. It has long been a personal favourite. Tonally, it’s a good match for Age of Assassins. I found it easy to visualise individual scenes that dovetailed nicely with the different tracks. Starting off slowly the music builds momentum towards a shattering finale, much like the book. It seems only sensible to me that a novel featuring an assassin should have a suitably epic, assassin based, soundtrack to accompany it.

Age of Assassins is published by Orbit and is available now.

*One day I may even reveal that list in its entirety.

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