Age of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom #1) by R.J. Barker

age of assassinsI loved Age of Assassins.  It’s simply my kind of book.  I enjoyed the plot, I became attached to the characters, the narration was clever, the world building subtle and it was a blend of fantasy and mystery that just compelled me to read the book at a foolish breakneck pace.

‘To catch an assassin, use an assassin” is the tagline of the book and is perhaps a little misleading – although personally I don’t really think so, not if you consider what is really being said.  I love books about assassins and this book has more than one but that doesn’t particularly mean they’re all plying their trade.  This is essentially a mystery.  It’s all about preventing an assassination and what better way to stop a killer in their tracks than to use a killer who can spot where those tracks will be made.

As the book begins we make the acquaintance of Merela Karn and her apprentice Girton Club-foot as they steal their way into Castle Maniyadoc.  Their invitation was a ploy used by Queen Adran to draw them into a trap.  The Queen fears for her son’s life and playing on a former acquaintance has lured Merela to the Castle to protect Prince Aydor.  And so Merela and Girton find themselves disguised as a jester and a squire, suitable cover to allow them access to people and places around the castle without causing suspicion.

I’m not going to go any further into the plot, this is a mystery that you can best discover for yourselves which leaves me plenty of room to talk about what else bowled me over.

It sometimes feels like I’m always banging on about great characters and how they really seal the deal for me but I can’t help it.  Good characters make me happy and they’re in abundance here.  And, to be clear, I don’t just mean the good guys, I want the bad guys to be credible too, particularly their motivations.  So, we have the Queen, who has ambition aplenty but also a mother’s love for her son – even if he is a raging bully and very unpopular with virtually everyone else.  Then we have Merela who is a fantastic character in herself (and let me state for the record – I would read a prequel about her life story at the drop of a hat, just saying).  She’s such a cool character to read about, not just her ability as an assassin but her thought processes and the way she comes across as a mentor.  The relationship that she enjoys with Girton is surprisingly motherly and they clearly share a firm bond – which, as assassins, does leave them vulnerable in some respects.  It also means we have a motivation for Merela to serve the Queen.  Both of them have somebody they would protect at all costs.  Girton is also great to read about.  He’s spent the majority of his life following in his master’s footsteps.  This is no ordinary childhood and that particular aspect really comes across here.  Girton’s difficulty in making friends, his awkwardness in regular situations but more than that the realisation as it dawns on him that he has missed out on things that regular people take for granted is wonderfully played out here.  It was really quite touching to see him making friends and even striking up a flirtation and it was also touching to see Merela realise much the same thing herself and second guess whether she was really doing the right thing by him training him to become an assassin.

On top of this we have a selection of other characters. Prince Aydor and his pals are the bullies of the piece, never missing an opportunity to taunt Girton who, in his role as squire, has to downplay his own abilities and appear to be clumsy and useless with a sword.  There are other squires, with two fairly opposing factions already in place, then we have Rufra, another outsider who manages to find friendship with Girton.

As an aside I have to give a shout out for Xus – what a stunning creature.  I have massive envy and want my own fearsome mount.

The world building is very subtly done.  Castle Maniyadoc lies within the Tired Lands.  This is a rather bleak setting with much of the land being soured by sorcery.  Basically the magic in this book comes with a price, it draws the lifeblood from the land killing everything and creating a barren wasteland.  Sorcery, as you can imagine therefore, is abhorred.  Suspected sorcerers are hunted down and killed by the Landsmen, their lifeblood spilling into the soil from which it came.  The people of the Tired Lands believe that all but one of their Gods have died.  Xus, the God of death – who is never short of work or worshippers.  They believe that their Gods may one day return and still follow the priests of whichever God they worship.

That leaves me with one more thing to gush about.  The writing.  The story is narrated by Girton and his chapters are interspersed with interludes involving dreamlike sequences.  To be honest, I’m not fond of dreams being used in books and yet here these interludes just worked for me.  I don’t know why, I can’t explain it really, and I don’t want to come across as just prepared to love everything unconditionally, because that isn’t really the case.  As a rule these chapters would normally annoy the socks off me.   That they didn’t is a really happy surprise.  The writing is really good.  A perfect balance of storytelling, humour and detail.  It almost feels simply done – not simplistic – just that everything comes together like a series of steps in a dance.  Everything falls into place.  Strangely enough the writing is peppered with dance moves that make up the strange trance like fight sequences that Girton falls into.  All I can say is that this all just works perfectly.  A stunning debut, an engrossing story, a mystery with plenty of red herrings and a young boy and his mentor that make for fascinating reading.

 

I loved it.  That is all.  My sincere thanks to the author.

Where I received a copy: bought.