Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker
The Good: Loveable first person POV, worldbuilding that weaves into the plot and the systems within the story, plenty of twists to keep you guessing, a grand reveal in the finale, and an intriguing combat style that in the hands of another would probably have fallen flat but RJ makes it dance like everyone’s watching.
The Bad: Despite being tagged as ‘to catch an assassin, use an assassin’ there are no fancies & flips assassin vs assassin face offs. To me, this isn’t a bad thing as the book was phenomenal, but if you’re expecting Assassin’s Creed type of duels, leaping from rooftops and planting double footed kicks and hidden blade strikes, then you won’t find that here.
The Ugly Truth: Age Of Assassins (AoA) is an Assassins’ poison-store of fantasy and murder-mystery, with a touch of tainted coming of age. I definitely agree with the ‘For fans of Brent Weeks and Robin Hobb’, but Girton Clubfoot stands proud on his own two feet, club foot or not.
I like assassins. Assassins are badass. Girton is an assassin. But is he badass? No.
He’s more than that.
And I love Girton Clubfoot for all that he is.
Think assassin and fantasy, and you think Brent Weeks’ Night Angel series, Robin Hobb’s works, Kalam from the Malazan books, and the assassins from the infamous Assassins Creed. Think assassin and history, and you think John Wilkes Booth, (et tu) Brutus, and the eponymous Hashshashins (sometimes written as Hassassins).
But Girton Clubfoot from Age Of Assassins? He’s different. And no, I’m not referring to the fact that he is disabled as being different. In the author’s own words: ‘He is not his disability; it is only a part of him. He does not let it stop or define him.’ Girton is different because he has a whole lotta heart, hope, and with these goes hurt, hand in hand.
Girton is the apprentice to Master Merela Khan, an assassin who saves him at a young age and raises him as an assassin. But rather than raise him in hardship and in harm’s way, Merela has raised him with love and care. And this can be felt throughout the story.
We join Girton and Merela as they sneak into a castle upon invite – yes, sneak in, upon invite. Assassins aren’t overly welcome in the Tired Lands, and their host wants their presence to remain unknown. No sooner than they arrive, they find themselves trapped, taken captive, and tested, before their real task begins – to catch an assassin who has been hired to kill the heir.
And so, the tag line comes into play – to catch an assassin, use an assassin.
The story plays out as, again, in the author’s own words: ‘a whodunnit with a bit of swordfighting and magic in it.’ But there’s a lot more to it than that. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, there’s a whole lot of heart in this book. And whilst by no means is it YA or epic fantasy of the noblebright, it is neither grimdark. It’s a coming of age story told from the first person POV, that person being an old head on a young man’s body. It deals with such themes as acceptance, bullying, the ‘isms’ of diversity, love (both romantic and familial), friendship and growing up.
It’s both this mix of old wisdom/youthful wonder, and the fact that Girton is a professional guised as an amateur that makes this so intriguing. In disguise, Girton has to pretend that he is a clumsy, unskilled cripple, when in fact he is a trained assassin, who can more than handle himself (and others).
That brings me nicely to the fight scenes, which harks back to the ‘swordfighting’ above. Anyone who has read enough fantasy will recognise the comparative draw between swordfighting and dance in fantasy books, or ‘names’ for certain moves e.g. the Eagle Stance. AoA draws these two together, the dance and the ‘moves’, and combines them to create the Assassin’s ‘iterations’ – a repertoire of drilled-into-you- until-they’re-instinctive dodges, grapples, defences and attacks. Something like this can either work or fail (big time), but I’m glad to report than the author introduces and interweaves then in such a way that reading and recognising them becomes instinctive, and because of that, the combat is more alive for it.
And to tie-up the other aforementioned loose end – magic! When a sorcerer uses it, she/he/they draw upon the life around them to wield their power. This ties into the world building AND the plot, which brings the whole world to reality, rather than just a ‘oh, I need magic, here have a spell book’.
I’d like to highlight the tag line again, but this time to dispel any determinations. AoA is not an assassin story of leaping from roof tops, hidden blades in gauntlets, garrotte wires in throats, and cold-blooded murder. And if that’s what you came looking for, you’ll be disappointed. But if you came looking for something more…then welcome to team Girton!
CONCLUSION: Before I close out, I’d like to say one last thing about Age Of Assassins and its author, the wonderful RJ Barker. When I read a book, I like to look for the little bit of the author left behind. The best books, or so I believe, are the ones that the author puts themselves into. AoA is one of those books. Whilst I won’t labour the point, because RJ said it himself (‘He is not his disability; it is only a part of him. He does not let it stop or define him), I would just like to say that RJ Barker might just be one of my new favourite human beings – he IS different, in that he is eccentric, witty, fun, and full of life. Reading AoA, you can pick up on the hurt, but as I said above, it goes hand in hand with heart and hope.
I’m delighted to say that each of the 2017 debuts I’ve read this year have been as equally awesome as they are diverse. Looking to the future, and after THAT epilogue, I’m even more delighted to say that the future of fantasy is looking bright – and I for one am excited to see where Girton, and RJ, takes us next.
This review first appeared on Fantasy Book Critic.