Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF ASSASSINS (The Wounded Kingdom #2), by R.J. Barker

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

In 2017 I placed the first volume of this trilogy, Age of Assassins, among the best debuts of the year and also my favorite reads, so I had great expectations for this follow-up novel: let me say up front that those expectations were more than exceeded by Blood of Assassins, that is not only a worthy sequel but also an amazing story on its own.

Five years have elapsed since the end of the first book, and they have not been easy years either for the world or for assassin-in-training Girton Clubfoot: the political situation has degenerated into all-out war between the three pretenders to the throne of the Tired Lands – Aydor, the former queen’s son, ousted by young Rufra, Girton’s friend, and finally pretender Tomas.  War is never good news, but in a land still suffering from the sorcerer-enhanced conflicts of the past, that brought great devastations with them, this new war is adding a further layer of misery to an already grim situation.  Girton and his master, Merela Karn, have fared no better: to escape from the bounty hunters set on their tracks, they have been forced to abandon their trade and attach themselves to mercenary bands, where Girton’s exquisite skills as an assassins have been replaced by a more brutal approach to killing, namely the use of a war hammer.

Ambushed by a band of savages, the two barely effect an escape toward Castle Maniyadoc – theater of Girton’s previous adventures – but Merela has been poisoned and hovers on the brink of death, leaving her apprentice bereft of her balancing advice and cooler thinking.  What’s worse, Girton’s ability to wield magic – a dangerous skill in the Tired Lands, one that could sentence him to death – is growing stronger, and the scars that Merela tattooed on his skin to keep them at bay are not working as expected, so that the young man must battle daily against the impulse of unleashing such deadly power.

Reunited with his friend Rufra, now King, Girton has little time to enjoy the meeting, because he learns of a plot to kill his friend, orchestrated by a spy that must have worked its way among Rufra’s closest advisers: tasked with this apparently impossible job (Rufra does not seem to worry too much about the possibility of treason), and in constant worry about Merela’s chances for recovery, Girton faces the most difficult time of his young life, one where conflicting emotions and needs threaten to overwhelm him and make him lose everything he holds dear.

Blood of Assassins is a deeply compelling story, one where the details we previously learned about this world fall into a wider and more fascinating context: we come to understand that the central power, the one held by the remote figure of the High King, could not care less about what happens in the outskirts of the realm, where wars are fought, won and lost while the supreme ruler prefers to wallow in his court’s more or less dubious pleasures.

There is a definite sense of lawlessness in the Tired Lands, of the rule of the strongest, that makes the suffering of the peoples dwelling there all the more poignant: the Landsmen, that could be compared to a sort of official army, are more interested in rooting out sorcerers – be they real or simply imagined – and their allegiance often hangs on the whim of their current leader.  The recent turmoil has given rise to a peculiar band of outlaws, calling themselves the Nonmen, who delight in berserker attacks and in the vicious torture of their victims – and sometimes of their own members, with a sort of reckless, bloody abandon that speaks of madness, and worse.  And last but not least the priesthood, that already did not come out with shining colors in the previous book, here looks like an added complication – both moral and political – to a very dire situation.

All this comes together in a story that kept me on my toes for the whole length of the book, among unexpected twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, and a final battle that left me literally breathless with suspense. Add to that a powerful writing that manages to remain almost lyrical even while describing bloody skirmishes or to-the-death duels, and you will understand why I found this book so enthralling.

As fascinating as all of the above is, the focal point of Blood of Assassins remains Girton: he is a very different person from the one we left at the end of Book 1, and to say that here he’s in a bad place would be a massive understatement.   The five years spent as a mercenary (and with Landsmen, no less, with all the added dangers that his potential for sorcery entails) have both hardened and unraveled him, taking him away from his training as an assassin and teaching him far too much about brute force.  His relationship with Merela has changed as well: there is a thread of resentment toward her, that remains however mostly unexplored due to the fact she’s out of the picture for most of the book, and that comes from the necessity of the scars she must carve on his body to keep the magic at bay. This necessity seems to have placed some cracks in their mutual trust and generated a deep conflict in Girton, who still feels the strong pull of his loyalty – his love – for Merela, while battling with the impulse to rebel against all she taught him.

Losing Merela’s support so early in the story proves almost catastrophic for Girton: she is not only his teacher, his surrogate mother and the only person he used to trust implicitly, even before himself, she is also the one who guides his logical process, and his moral compass, so that her absence makes itself dramatically clear in the sequence of bad decisions Girton takes while pursuing his task for Rufra.  Seeing him so unhinged is a painful experience, because if sometimes I felt like shaking some sense into him, my prevailing emotion was compassion because I could not forget the heavy amount of damage he had to go through in a relatively short life.  And what further damage might be visited on him in the course of the story: as with the previous book, we are given to understand here that we are reading an older Girton’s memoirs, and given as well a few hints of more tragedies to come.  As harrowing as that might be, I know I would not give up this opportunity, because I’m deeply invested in this character and his journey: at the end of this book I saw that the third and final volume already has a title – King of Assassins – and that GoodReads shows its cover, so I imagine my curiosity will be satisfied before long.  Still it will feel like a too-long wait….

 

 

My Rating:   

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Reviews

Review: THE TETHERED MAGE (Swords and Fire #1), by Melissa Caruso

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Lately I have been particularly lucky when choosing debut novels to read, and The Tethered Mage was one such great find: the story is set in what looks like an alternate version of 18th Century Venice, with the city of Raverra and its canals and waterways as the playing field; my past visits to the real Venice helped me to see the city being described here, adding to the enjoyment of a well-painted background. Raverra has extended its influence over the surrounding countries, particularly the neighboring city of Ardence, whose restless nobility feels the ever-increasing need for more independence, the fires of freedom further kindled by the powerful realm of Vaskandar whose ambitions are equal only to its ruthlessness. Raverra, however, has been able to maintain its standing thanks to the strong politics of its Council and ruling Doge and to its ability to exploit the magic of gifted individuals.

And it’s indeed with the magic system that this novel forges an interesting path, because the rare and precious mages that are Raverra’s strength and deterrent are carefully screened since infancy for the tell-tale colored ring around their irises, and once discovered are corralled to the island enclave of the Mews, where their powers are harnessed through a bracelet called jess. The jess tethers each mage (or Falcon) to their handler the Falconer, in a partnership that only death can dissolve: according to a person’s point of view, such an arrangement can be seen either as slavery or symbiosis and that is one of the story’s main themes, the ethics of channeling useful or potentially dangerous abilities by effectively placing a gifted person under life-long tutelage.

Zaira is a formidable and quite unique fire mage, the most dangerous kind, and she’s been able to move under the Falconers’ radar for a long time until she’s forced to unleash her powers in self-defense: that’s when Falconer captain Verdi enrolls the help of a young woman to put a jess on Zaira, not knowing that his improvised assistant is Amalia Cornaro, heir to the most powerful woman in the Raverran council. Amalia finds herself saddled with the responsibilities of a Falconer, a duty that clashes with those imposed on her status as The Contessa’s daughter, and what’s more her Falcon deeply resents her both as a Falconer and as a representative of the pampered ruling class.

The dichotomy between these two young women, so very different in origins and character, is one of the supporting themes in The Tethered Mage and makes for a very interesting journey in which both of them have a great deal to discover by getting to know each other, overcoming diffidence and prejudices: the trope of very different people thrown together by fate and having to learn how to cooperate is one I’ve always found interesting, and in this case I appreciated it even more because it avoided the clichéd pitfall of the man/woman pairing that turns from hate to love. By linking these two girls and having them cooperate through a crisis, we learn more about the society they live in and at the same time we get to know and like them as characters – with the added bonus that the increased understanding of each other does not change who they basically are but more simply the way they perceive their counterpart.

I found Zaira to be the most fascinating of the two – not least because there is so much about her that is barely glimpsed, leaving a great deal of mystery about her past: she’s strongly independent, although the choice of keeping apart from others stems from some dark, dramatic roots, and she’s also brash and outspoken, and quite proud of that – to the point that contact with the higher strata of society fails to compel her to soften that approach, with quite amusing results. On the other hand Amalia, despite being the first-person narrator, comes across as slightly less interesting because of the shades of predictability that weigh on her character: if I liked the fact that she’s what we would nowadays call a “nerd”, due to her preference to magical and technical studies over politics or fancy parties, I felt that part of her journey was overshadowed by the required romantic entanglement and her role as the problem-solving heroine.

What makes Amalia stand out, however, is the relationship with her formidable mother: the two women are often in disagreement over Amalia’s life choices and her mother’s need to groom her as a successor, but instead of taking the path of all-out conflict they bridge their differences through mutual respect and a deep love that comes across quite strongly even if it remains mostly unexpressed. If anything, this novel is a showcase for strong female characters that know how to work with difficult situations and overcome many obstacles: as I said, Amalia is less effective in this field if compared with her mother or Zaira (or the Contessa’s right-hand helper Ciardha, a character I hope will get more narrative space in the next novels, because she’s beyond intriguing), but her willingness to put herself to the test and not give up, even in the face of unsurmountable odds, more than makes up for that.

Apart from the characters’ journey, The Tethered Mage is enriched by the fascinating power plays that constitute its backbone, a complicated dance of political expediency, back-room plotting and outright betrayals that speed up the pace in the second half of the novel and that kept me glued to the pages until I reached the resolution. And if the “bad guys” sometimes feel a little over the top (especially when they tend to explain their dastardly plot to a soon-to-be-killed-captive, as in the oldest narrative tradition), or if their identity is too easily gleaned, the story is so exciting that it’s not difficult to put the Inner Critic to sleep so that we can lay back and enjoy the adventure, one that I will be happy to follow in the next installments.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PERSEPOLIS RISING (The Expanse #7), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this new installment in my very favorite space opera series.

Apart from a brief synopsis of the story, something you could find on GoodReads or the back cover of the book, there will be no spoilers in this review: more than any other, this is a novel that must be enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, as many narrative threads seemed to have come to a conclusion, I wondered where the authors would next take the story, and after reading the novella Strange Dogs I had an inkling that the focus might be shifted toward the colonies established in the worlds beyond the alien portals accessed through Medina station. In a way, I was both right and wrong: the colonies – or rather, the world of Laconia, which figured prominently on that novella – are there, but not in the way I imagined.

For starters, the action takes places some 30 years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, showing how the balance of power and the political landscape have changed in the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ faction’s attack on Earth: the home planet of humanity has recovered from the massive upheavals caused by the asteroid impacts, but its influence has somewhat lessened and is now shared between the inner worlds and the Transport Union, the successor of the OPA, now a legitimate association that monitors traffic to and from the colonies beyond the portals, with Belters having finally reached equal status with the rest of the system. The social and political balance might not be perfect, but they are certainly better than they were in the past.

The crew of the Rocinante has gained two permanent members, ex marine Bobbie Draper and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, once their adversary and now Amos’ engineering buddy. Through the years in which they worked for the Union the six have coalesced into an easy family, so that Holden and Naomi’s announcement that they are going to retire, and leave the ship to the others, is received with a mix of happiness for the couple and the well-deserved rest they’ve earned, and sadness at the loss of a piece of their group.  It was something that troubled me, as well, because I wondered how removing these two from the equation would change the dynamics aboard the ship – and the narrative as well.

A worry quickly forgotten, though, since the Solar System finds itself faced with an unforeseen menace: in the decades since he carried a third of Mars’ naval forces (and a protomolecule sample) through the Laconia gate, former Admiral Duarte – now self-elected High Consul – has created a powerful empire that he means to extend to the rest of the explored worlds, starting with the Sol system through a surprise attack on Medina station, with a giant ship that’s a hybrid between Martian technology and applied protomolecule tech.  What follows is a huge game change, a series of events that transform the face of the story as we knew it until now: if, in the tv series inspired by these books, the dividing line between the events of books 1 and 2 was titled “Paradigm Shift”, here we encounter another shift, one of massive proportions that will in all probability encompass the final two volumes of The Expanse.

Change is indeed the focus of the story here, and primarily the changes in the characters: the people of the Roci have grown comfortable with each other, and of course they have grown older, so that a good portion of their thoughts or good-natured exchanges focus on the small indignities of advancing age that seem to afflict both people and ship, as if they were one and the same.  Seeing them affected by the passing of time was something of a surprise for me, because we tend to think about characters as somewhat physically immutable, but these people accept it with equanimity and with the awareness that they can overcome anything as long as they keep taking care of each other and of the Roci, because – as a bulkhead plaque reminds them – doing that will ensure that they will always come home.  It was the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood that accompanies these first glimpses of the Rocinante crew that made me realize how fond I’ve grown of them, how they have become real to me, not unlike flesh and blood people, and how much I care about what happens to them. And trust me, here a LOT happens to them…

However, the original crew does not enjoy the spotlight here, at least not all of the time, since the point of view shifts between them and some new characters, most notably Drummer and Singh.  The former we already met as second-in-command to Fred Johnson at Tycho station, while here she’s the president of the Transport Union, a very influential woman facing some hard choices once the Laconian invasion starts.  I quite liked Drummer, her no-nonsense approach to power that comes both from her origins as a Belter and her past as an OPA operative, and I felt for her when she had to compromise some of her hard-won principles for the greater good.  For Drummer, the only bright light in this gloomy situation comes from the shrewd advice of a greatly beloved character who manages to steal the brief scenes where she appears, her keen intelligence and foul-mouthed expletives undimmed by age: the verbal confrontation between the two women, different in age, background and political views are nothing short of delightful.

Colonel Singh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Expanse’s cast: a bright young Laconian officer on the rise, he’s sent to Medina to act as governor and facilitate the “transition” in government.  He’s a very interesting person, mostly because of the dichotomy between his kindness as loving husband and doting father and the hardness he needs to exert as a soldier of the conquering empire.  His story-arc brought me to alternate between compassion and hostility, even though I understood that the less savory aspects of his personality were the product of his indoctrination.  In this he’s very much like the other Laconians, not much different from anybody else on the surface, but dramatically so in outlook and psychology: the few glimpses of the society built by Duarte on Laconia offer a quite chilling context for the way these people think and act, for the deeply rooted certainty they harbor about being right, about being able to win over the rest of humanity to their way of seeing things.

This new story-arc in The Expanse series promises to rise in intensity far above the previous ones, and considering how outstandingly amazing they have been so far, we are in for a remarkable journey: given the total, not-coming-up-for-air immersion I enjoyed here, I know the remaining two volumes will prove even better.  And I can hardly wait…

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom #1)

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.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: FIRST WATCH (The Fifth Ward #1), by Dale Lucas

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

The theme of the more seasoned cop being teamed with a rookie he can’t initially stand is one of the main staples of detective literature, movies and tv series, but no one had so far tried to translate it into a fantasy background, and First Watch is probably the first example of this mashup, one that works well exactly thanks to its unusual setting.

Rem is a young man of noble origins who was feeling constrained by his pampered life, and therefore decided to seek adventure out in the big, unknown world: he ends up in Yenara, a colorful city rich with possibilities – and dangers.  Finding himself almost destitute, and incapable of landing any kind of work, Rem wakes up in the city’s jail after a drunken brawl: a series of bizarre circumstances leads him to his enrollment in the Wardwatch – the local version of a police force – and teamed up with veteran Torval, a grizzled dwarf Warden whose partner was recently murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Yenara is a bustling city filled with many kinds of creatures, as humans of various races, orcs, dwarves and elves coexist more or less peacefully in its streets where crime and honest business rub elbows, and despite his privileged education Rem is poorly equipped to hold his own, as testified by his imprisonment.  Even though he’s still guilty of a measure of naiveté, he’s also quick on his feet and this helps him gain some points with Torval, whose irritable demeanor hides a good, honest soul, and a person ready to grant his new partner some slack.

The two start their association by investigating the murder of Torval’s former mate, and in so doing they gather some unexpected clues concerning a series of disappearances and killings that might be related: it’s quite amusing to observe how bureaucracy and territorial politics are a constant, no matter the time period or the place.  As we are used to seeing in modern police procedurals, there are rules and limitations that hinder an investigation and sometimes force an officer of the law to go against them, ruffling a few feathers, in order to see justice done, and in this First Watch is no exception.

As the two unlikely partners move across the city in search of answers we learn much about Yenara, which appears like a crucible of races and customs that come together in a sort of free zone where everything is possible, everything is allowed (if you hold the right license…), making the inevitable parallel with modern New York – the city that more than any other one is the perfect place for a police story – quite clear.    The pace is fast and the story moves along between brawls and fights to the death, with a few sidelines of attempted murder on the two partners, rolling nicely toward the final showdown, one that however promises more adventures for the two unlikely – but by now well adjusted – partners.

If I enjoyed this story, and found myself often smiling at Rem’s and Torval’s antics, still I could not avoid finding a few details that spoiled the overall flavor of the novel.  My main point of contention is with the descriptions: the author is quite fond of adjectives, indeed, never employing just one where two – and sometimes three – can be crammed in to sketch any given person or object.  So you are not simply told that someone looks despondent, but rather that he sports a sad, mournful, desolate face; or a shady character might look hostile, aggressive and pugnacious, instead of simply truculent (the examples are mine, not directly drawn from the text, but can give a good idea of what I found).   Such… richness of detail is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s constantly repeated with every instance in which a description is required, it becomes distracting and ultimately slows the narrative flow down.

Something similar happens every time Rem sees someone, or witnesses an event, because in his mind he sort of makes up a back story for the action being shown, with no clues whatsoever about where it all came from: if he sees someone hurrying along with a worried face (again, the example is mine), he thinks it might be a clerk who has forgotten to run an important errand for his master, and is afraid of the consequences.  Since none of these flights of fancy are useful to the economy of the story, are not substantiated by the narrative, nor are they of any interest to the readers since they concern the story’s… extras, they are more distractions than background features, and the sheer repetition proves more bothersome than helpful.

And last, the final revelation – while interesting and bolstered by a quite epic battle between the Wardens and their quarry – is offered through lengthy explanations by the bad guy in chief, a method I always found mildly annoying, not unlike the main staple of many B-movies where the Evil Mastermind illustrates his Dastardly Plans to the captive hero before killing him – which never happens because the hero always  manages to even the odds.   Finding this narrative device here damped a little my enjoyment of the story and somehow ended it on a less than enthusiastic note.

Nevertheless, these are all personal considerations and should be taken as such: on the whole, First Watch is an entertaining read whose best feature is the relationship between two polar opposites, whose differences give origin to an engaging story that will put a smile on your face. And sometimes this is more than enough…

 

My Rating: