King of Assassins by R J Barker

August 9, 2018

Please note, King of Assassins is the final part of a trilogy and should be treated as such. If you have not read this novel’s predecessors then this review will contain minor spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of twenty years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

The last book of The Wounded Kingdom trilogy has arrived, and the good news is that our assassin’s story ends with a bang not a whimper. Strap yourselves in, things are going to get emotional.

King of Assassins begins with a significant time jump. Though he still accompanies Merela Karn, Girton is no longer an apprentice. In the service of his childhood friend Rufra ap Vythr, he has grown to become a master of his chosen craft. The High King’s succession was always going to bring out the worst in people so it’s no surprise that everyone is scrambling around, trying to grab onto as much power as they can. There are a whole host of factions who will gladly do anything they can in order to achieve their aims. Death, blackmail, conspiracies and uprisings abound. Politics and religion are at the fore and it is up to Girton to assist Rufra in navigating this minefield. The big question, how far are people prepared to go in order to become first among equals?

Hands down, the thing I like most about R J Barker’s writing is how he deals with the relationships between his characters. Girton and Rufra are a good example. The dynamic between these two has constantly shifted. Both men have a very specific station in life and the simple friendship they once enjoyed, and still crave, has evolved dramatically. Rufra uses Girton when it is politically expedient, but you can sense how conflicted he is about it. Over the years both men have become stubborn and unyielding, neither is able to talk to the other plainly. Where once there was friendship, there is only bitterness and regret. Barker infuses their relationship with an ever-growing sense of tragedy.

The interactions between Girton and his master, Merela Karn, are also perfectly pitched. A handful of short interludes weave in and out of the main narrative exploring Merela’s origins. We finally gain real insight into her previously enigmatic character and this further informs the nature of her relationship with Girton. It’s impressive how emotive these moments turn out to be.  

One of things that has surprised me most in this series is the character of Aydor ap Mennix. His evolution is wonderfully judged. I’m always in awe of any author that manages to elicit strong feelings about any of their creations. My opinion of the character has done a complete one eighty since book one. Aydor has certainly became a personal favourite. As with all the other characters in the novel, Barker has created a multi layered individual who feels fleshed out and real. I’ve read other reviews and I don’t think I’m the only person who has picked up on how well this has been executed. 

So much has happened over the years and no-one person has been left unscathed. It struck me that all the characters are imbued with an inherent sadness. It makes every action and reaction seem that much more painful. Driven by expectation and social standing, characters are forced to take actions and make decisions that are completely contrary to how they truly feel.

In all honesty I think I could wax lyrical about how much I enjoyed King of Assassins all day, you can probably tell. I think my gushing is entirely deserved. It turns out there has been some sublime misdirection going on since the very beginning of Girton’s story, and when the penny finally drops, events all fit together beautifully. Well played Mr Barker, well played. You made me care, damn your heart! I both love and hate you in equal measure*.  

The book’s final denouement is truly masterful storytelling. Enthralling and heart-breaking in the same breath. The novel ends a bittersweet note that is just perfect. The Wounded Kingdom is a superior trilogy from the very first page and I can heartily recommend everyone should read it. I’m genuinely going to miss this series, and these characters. R J Barker had better be working on something new right now. The concept of withdrawal from his writing does not appeal in the slightest.

My musical accompaniment for this novel is a movie soundtrack called Cold Skin by Victor Reyes. This subtle, mournful music is an ideal fit with King of Assassins emotive tone.

King of Assassins is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended. In fact I’ll go one step further, if you haven’t already discovered books one and two go and seek them out. Do yourself a favour and read the whole damned thing. Fantasy fiction really doesn’t get much better.

*For the record the love is platonic in nature whilst the hate is a rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns. Just so you know.

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