I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
King of Assassins is without doubt the best installment in a trilogy that was both an amazing discovery and an engrossing read from the very beginning, although it saddens me to acknowledge the fact that there will be no more stories about Girton Clubfoot and his journey.
Looking back, I now see how each book gave us a different version of Girton in his evolution as a person: at first he was an almost innocent boy, schooled in the subtle ways of the assassins, granted, but still very naïve where interactions with other people were concerned, and I warmed instantly to him, particularly in light of the flashbacks to his early childhood; in the second volume he was more of a sullen teenager, the weight of his nature keeping him apart from others and adding an unwelcome surliness and a stubborn streak that often made me want to slap him; and finally, in this last book, he’s a grown man, more at peace with himself and the magic abilities he must hide, but at the same time very world-weary and burdened by a veneer of sadness that I found quite touching.
Set several years after Blood of Assassins, the story opens with the preparations for the assembly that will decide the coronation of the next High King, after the death of the former ruler in the aftermath of the Forgetting Plague: this scourge left a further painful mark on the Tired Lands, so that tensions run high due to the political infighting between the contenders and the rise of new powers that threaten the already fragile equilibrium of the land. King Rufra intends to gather his allies and make his play for the seat of the High King, convinced that the reforms he was able to effect in his own realm must be extended to everyone, but knows he’s walking on an uphill road, since not everyone is onboard with his new course. Moreover, the years have not been kind to him: his first wife died in childbirth, and even though a new spouse just gave him another heir, he’s suffering from that loss, the physical injuries sustained in battle and the weight of his office.
Once more, Girton finds himself torn between his loyalty to Rufra, his duty as the king’s heartblade and assassin, and the need to keep the magic inside himself concealed even when he chooses to use it: it’s not an easy balancing act, especially since the dynamics between Girton and Rufra have changed, and not for the better. Already, in the previous book, I was able to observe some distance growing between the two friends, mostly due to some misunderstandings and Girton’s morose attitude, but here it’s something deeper and far more damaging for the friendship that bound these two people since their youth. If Rufra’s duties require that he keeps himself aloof even from his most trusted advisers, the way he relates to Girton makes it plain that there is more than the need to be king first and friend second: it’s plain that there is a form of resentment there, poisoning Rufra’s mindset, and it seems to come from acknowledging his need for Girton’s assassin skills while begrudging this very necessity because it runs contrary to his principles. This comes to light quite clearly when Rufra requires that Girton act as he was trained, but does not openly ask for that, maybe as a form of plausible deniability, granted, but also because he hates himself for needing that kind of intervention, and therefore places the loathing for it on the man who executes the unspoken orders rather than the one who issued them. It’s all very convoluted – and very human – but still it hurt me to see how their friendship is soured by this necessity, and even more seeing how Girton acknowledges this with sad acceptance.
The coldness in the relationship with Rufra is however balanced by another reversal in behavior, one that started in the previous book and here reaches its completion: Aydor began his journey as the heir of Manyadoc’s ruler, an uncouth, cruel bully who delighted in inflicting pain and humiliation on others, but after being ousted by Rufra he changed and slowly but surely transformed into an ally. In Blood of Assassins, Girton was wary of this transformation, and kept Aydor at a distance, but in this last book the intervening years have changed that, and theirs is a friendship based on trust, on shared dangers and on Aydor’s boisterous geniality that acts as a wonderful counterpart to Girton’s surliness. I was surprised at the depth of my sympathy for Aydor and even more at the ease with which the author was able to change my feelings for this character while presenting his evolution in a believable, organic way: it’s far from easy to effect such a transformation with plausible effectiveness, and R.J. Barker managed the feat with admirable skill, as Aydor’s segments of the story ended up being like the proverbial rays of light in a dark, stormy background.
And this time around the main narrative thread is indeed darker than usual: in the aftermath of the High King’s death there is not just the customary unrest due to the disappearance of a ruler, nor are either the political maneuvering or some of its bloodier applications anything new or particularly shocking; what’s really troublesome is the feeling that some sinister forces are at play here and that their success will plunge the Tired Lands into an even worse situation than the one they are already suffering from. Girton’s job appears more difficult than before, and the price to be paid for any mistake far higher than it could have been before, which makes for a quite compelling reading until the very end, where some unexpected revelations shed a completely different light on past events.
There is another element that captivated me deeply, and it’s Merela’s back story, given in bits and pieces in the customary interludes between chapters: one of the reasons for my fascination for her character was the aura of mystery surrounding her, and here we are finally afforded a look into her past and a better understanding of the person she became, both as an assassin and as Girton’s mentor. Placing this information here, at the end of the series, makes some of the events take on deeper meaning and it’s also the source of the most emotionally wrenching moment of all three books: just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not usually prone to crying…
Despite the heartache, and the sadness I already mentioned for the end of the series, this was an enormously engrossing read, and one I cannot recommend enough to all lovers of fantasy.