I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.
Age of Assassins is a definite example of what I’ve come to call “book vibes”, that impossible-to-define combination of factors that draws me to a book on the basis of little or no information about it: over the years I’ve learned to listen to this subliminal urging (or its opposite twin that warns me about a book I might not enjoy), because 99 times out of 100 it proves absolutely right. When I glanced at Age of Assassins’ synopsis I felt that vibe, and after the first chapter I knew it had guided me well once again.
The story’s background is a fascinating one – even more so because it begs for more information about it, something that I hope will be offered in the next installments of this series: the Tired Lands, as the name suggests, are a place where farming and livestock raising are extremely difficult, because the soil has been depleted by the magic wielded by sorcerers during some brutal war. In this world, the use of magic requires that power be drawn from nature itself, draining it of its life force, so that now most of the places where sorcerers fought for dominance are either barren wastes or covered in yellowish, withered grass: this makes for a brutal, unforgiving land, one where anyone suspected of using magic is killed, their blood spilled on the ground as a form of compensation for what was taken from it. Breeding livestock is just as difficult as farming, since lack of pastures make the raising of cows quite costly, and people have turned to sheep, goats and mostly pigs – the latter far too often being fed the remains of caught criminals, or unlucky enemies.
Such a ruthless landscape makes for equally ruthless people, divided into three social groups – or rather castes: the Blessed, the aristocracy of the land, those who can wield their power unchecked and do so with cruel indifference; the Living, or the equivalent of a middle class, like shopkeepers and artisans; and the Thankful, who have really very little to be thankful for, eking out a meagre existence under the heel of their “betters” and the watchful eye of the priesthood. There are however people who don’t belong to a specific caste, moving free and unseen among the populace – they are the Assassins, skilled and highly trained killers for hire, as reviled as they are sought after.
Young Girton Clubfoot is the 15-year old apprentice of master assassin Merela Karn and we meet them as they are infiltrating castle Maniyadoc on the summons of Queen Adran, sneaking in rather than passing through the main door because their kind is not welcome, even when their skills are required. Soon Girton and Merela learn of their task: finding the assassin, and his employer, whose target is Ardor the queen’s son and soon-to-be king. An assassin’s skills are such that only one of them can catch another, and Adran needs to resolve this quickly: the old king is dying (not from natural causes, which comes across as hardly surprising) and the queen has a very detailed political scheme hinging on her son’s survival and ascension to the throne. Girton and his Master will have to blend in with the castle’s population to be effective, so that Merela poses as the court’s Death Jester, and Girton is sent with the other squires in training: day after day, the two assassins discover that there is much more than meets the eye in Maniyadoc, and that conspiracies can be more convoluted than they first thought. Navigating the court’s intrigues and many dangers will prove quite difficult, and young Girton will need to balance his devotion to his Master with the first signs of adulthood and an unexpected discovery about himself that will turn his world upside down.
Many are the themes explored in Age of Assassins besides the immediate mystery at the core of the story, that acts as a thread binding it all together: there is the coming-of-age premise, of course, that is not limited to Girton alone, but involves all the castle’s squires and embraces other topics as peer pressure, cliques and the universal delight in bullying the weaker that seems to be a constant wherever young males are grouped together. Besides being the newcomer, Girton Clubfoot – as his name indicates – is a cripple, and if this has not factored in at all in his assassin training, nor made him self-conscious about it, he needs to tone down his abilities and look as non-threatening as possible, so that he has to suffer the insults and the rough handling of the other squires, who delight in finding a new target. And no one is as determined as Ardor, a loutish, cowardly brute who is aware of Girton’s identity and purpose and wastes no opportunity to assert his power, as bullies are wont to do.
Still, such bleakness is relieved by Girton’s nature, which offers a delightful counterpoint to the story’s dreary background, because for the first time in his sheltered life he’s able to give in to the need for friendship and to savor the first flutters of young love: much as Merela offered him shelter and a way to forge his path through life, she kept him somewhat apart from the rest of the world and Girton had little or no opportunities to be a teenager and to enjoy both the good and the bad that his age entails. It’s here that we discover how his training has not hardened or soured him: yes, Girton is a very efficient assassin when need be, and we can often see how his Master’s lesson have borne fruit, but at the same time he is an innocent, and still able to look at the world with the kind of wonder that only the young can attain. The best, most fascinating part of the story is indeed this, witnessing Girton opening for the first time to the real world, and enjoying the new awareness that comes from growing up. This does not mean that the core mystery is less interesting, because it leads to some daring feats and a final showdown that often left me in doubt of the outcome, but all of this plays as a background to the young man’s discoveries – both the good and the bad ones.
As a series opener, Age of Assassins works beautifully in introducing this world and it’s a revelation on many levels, not least because it’s a debut novel: rarely I have found such skill and mastery of the story in a first work, and R.J. Barker is indeed an author I will keep on my radar – especially because I look forward to learning more about Girton’s journey.