Interview with RJ Barker
RJ Barker is the author of the epic fantasy trilogy The Wounded Kingdom, beginning with Age of Assassins.
He lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for.
His next book, King of Assassins, will be released in August.
Hi RJ! For those that haven’t heard of you, pitch Blood of Assassins (BOA) in 50 words or less. Here’s your microphone…Away. You. Go!
A good king is on the verge of decisively winning his crown, but the assassin, Girton Club-Foot is warned that a traitor lurks, ready to strike at the king’s greatest triumph. So it’s up to Girton to stop it happening. But can he trust his source, in fact, can he trust anyone?
And a lot of people die.
Blood of Assassins is the second book in the Wounded Kingdom series, picking up several years after the events of Age of Assassins. Partly because of this, readers could start BoA without reading AoA first, but in my opinion they’d be missing out on a fantastic read, and not enjoy BoA to its full extent.
Was writing BoA as a ‘semi standalone’ intentional, or a coincidence?
I’m quite heavily influenced by modern crime writers who write a series of standalone books but there is an ongoing story going on in the background, but not usually one intrusive enough to stop you picking up any book. I wanted to write a fantasy version of that so, in theory, you could read any of the Wounded Kingdom books and get a complete story. Though if you read all three in the correct order I think you’ll find it more satisfying and you’ll get more out of the books, especially the final one.
BoA is a very different book to AoA – it’s grimmer and darker (but I’d argue not grimdark, as it’s something more than that), it’s mature, worldly, brooding and raw; all of which reflects the outlook of main character Girton Clubfoot, who is older, but not necessarily wiser than his younger self.
With this in mind, did you approach writing Blood of Assassins differently to Age of Assassins?
I did less planning! That sounds terrible doesn’t it? I don’t do a huge amount of planning when I write but I had a rough idea for Age of Assassins and far less of one for Blood of Assassins and barely any for King of Assassins. I had an overarching idea for BoA which I followed through on, even though it made me quite nervous prior to release cos I was aware one of the things people liked about the first book was that Girton was really quite likeable, and I knew I was going to spend a lot of that goodwill in BoA. But part of the theme in the books is that Girton is growing up and we all go through that stage where we think we know best and we have to find out that, maybe, that’s not the case. I also liked the idea that for -reasons- everyone Girton knows has grown and changed in the five years he’s been away but he hasn’t really been able to. So he’s found neither the world nor the people he’s imagined and he’s very much feeling like an outsider again.
In Blood of Assassins, your characters go through some surprising revelations and developments (beyond that of the ‘whodunnit’ mystery reveal), which begs the questions: did you plan this or did the characters surprise you too?
I know why you are asking this… Mostly, I knew where it was going because I have that over arching story of people and how they work together in my head. BUT. One character in particular surprised me. There’s a scene, quite early on in the book, that just wasn’t meant to go how it did but I really liked it. And I saw possibilities in it and I’ve conversed with a few people as they read the book and asked them what they thought of this character and no one has been quite sure how it was going to go. Which is good, I’d love to claim it as skill on my part but the truth is until I wrote the payoff I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going to go myself. I think it went the right way though and it fit very well, thematically, with the book as whole.
Where did the idea for Girton Clubfoot come from? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: he is one of the most relatable point of view characters in fantasy. Ever. Which is rather odd, when you think about it. I mean, how can a crippled assassin be relatable? But he is – because of his humanity.
Had you planned his fate (and development) from conception?
His fate is inexorably linked with that of Merela and I’ve known how that works and changes from the beginning. And I’ve known that Girton, at least for the first two books, is someone who doesn’t feel like they fit into their own skin. I think that’s why he may resonate, because we’ve all been that person at some point. He’s less uncomfortable with who he is in King of Assassins while still being an outsider. But it was quite nice to write a book where I didn’t want to constantly slap him. So yes, I knew his destination but the route was never set.
What’s next for Girton Clubfoot? What can we expect from King of Assassins?
King of Assassins comes out in August (in fact, I just got an ARC copy from my American editor, the lovely Nivia). It’s a bit more mystical than the others, I suppose. And, as I said earlier, we have a Girton who is more comfortable in his own skin and has come to terms with who, and what, he is and found a place in his world. And though we have a big break between BoA and KoA (sixteen years) you’ll see a lot of familiar faces although, again, people have changed and their relationships have changed – seemingly dramatically. Also quite a few people want more of Merela and I always planned for the last book to be her book, and it is in as much as it answers questions about her that were posed in Age of Assassins.
What’s next for RJ Barker? What can we expect from you?
Ships! I can’t say much else. I always intended to write three books in the Wounded Kingdom, series and they are done, then move on to something completely new and that’s exactly what I’ve done. In some ways what I’m doing now is more complex than the WK books in that it’s an entirely new world, and not set in a sort of semi-medieval setting, and in other ways easier as it’s not as plot heavy as the Wounded Kingdom books.
2017 was, in my opinion, ‘The Year of Debuts’ – and whilst 2018 is shaping up to be ‘The Year of Book Twos’ there’s still a lot of promise for this year’s newcomers. Is there anyone that you’ve recently enjoyed reading from the debutants of 2017/18?
Pete McLean sent me a copy of his Priest of Bones book and it landed on my mat just at the moment I wasn’t writing and I read the first paragraph and then couldn’t stop. It’s not strictly a debut but it’s Pete’s fantasy debut and he has done a cracking job. It reads like a book written by someone who knows they’ve hit upon something that really works for them, and I imagine it will also really work for readers. I have been terrible about reading my fellow debut books (they all make fun of me for this) partly cos I was on an accelerated release schedule, so my deadline’s were tight, and partly because I like to escape fantasy after a hard day..errr…fantasying. (I am addicted to Robert B Parker’s Spenser books, they are like sweets and I cannot stop)
Of the ‘Class of 2017’ debuts, if you were to have an Avengers-style crossover between the Wounded Kingdom world and that of another, who would it be and why?
Ooh, hard. I think possibly I’d go for Melissa Caruso’s Tethered Mage world because in many ways it feels quite refined and Girton and Merela are the sort of antitheses of that so it would create instant drama.
If you could have the Wounded Kingdom series produced in a different format (e.g. film, TV, game, theatre, comic etc.) what would you choose and why?
TV, I think. I wrote the book chapter by chapter so each one ends on a sort of cliffhanger (it’s a cheap trick but I’m a cheap date) which lends itself to an episodic format. And I think you in a film it’s often more about spectacle where a TV series allows you to explore character in a much deeper way. Any the Wounded Kingdom books are all about character.
And lastly, but certainly not least(ly), a bonus question of sorts…
Seeing as your book is centred on ‘assassins’ (judging a book by its cover, I know, but it does what it says on the tin…I mean, cover), if you were to ‘assassinate’ someone, how would you do it?
Well, obviously I can’t say what I would do, because a good assassin never gives away their methods but I would ideally want something that took effect while I was well away so I didn’t look suspicious. I’m not saying that those who cross me should watch what they eat and drink, but those who cross me should watch what they eat and drink…
RJ Barker is the author of the Wounded Kingdom series. Book three, King of Assassins, will be released on August 7th 2018.
 And who hasn’t heard of RJ Barker by NOW? Also, if you haven’t read an interview with RJ yet, you wouldn’t know that he is a prolific user of footnotes – and I mean prolific. Because of this, I am claiming the footnotes FIRST!
 See footnote 3 – I could explain the need for this footnote here, but in true RJ Barker fashion I’m sowing confusion by having you read footnote 3 to clarify footnote 2.
 Let’s not kid ourselves, RJ, you didn’t plan anything! Last time you tried to plan anything you ended up in the wrong hotel – right name, I’ll give you that – over an hour away.
 Except antlers – because we don’t just expect antlers any more. We demand them. But keep your chocolate limes, you monster!
 For those readers who haven’t managed to attend one of RJ’s ‘readings’ from his books – do! He’s a fantastic performer, and it’s a joy to not only listen but also watch him work.
 ‘With chocolate limes’ doesn’t count as an answer, though they are deadly.