Book Review: Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker.
The Good: A return to one of the most relatable POVs in fantasy, development that breathes life into characters-plot-and-world alike, more twists and turns than a maze of mirrors, with a heart at its centre that beats with the life of a full fleshed-out fantasy favourite for years to come.
The Bad: Struggling to put my finger on a ‘bad’ with this one, and the only thing I can come up with is that a few of the ‘reveals’ were ones I expected, however they also served as a double bluff of sorts in some instances, and even when I did see them coming they were so well written that I found myself swept up in the moment.
The Ugly Truth: Blood of Assassins picks up where its predecessor left off, whilst taking its own path in life. Not so much a coming of age as before, more a finding your place in the world kind of story, it explores the darker side of life, and how it takes dark deeds and decisions to survive – to live – in a dark world.
Review: We return to the Long Tides and Castle Maniyadoc at the same time as Girton-Clubfoot and Merela Khan, who have been absent a number of years since the events of ‘Age of Assassins’. In that time, much has changed; Maniyadoc has been ravaged by war as its three rival kings – Girton’s nemesis Aydor, his best friend Rufra, and Tomas – vie for power, creating something of a power vacuum between the old ways and the new, in which the sorcerer-hunting Landsmen and priesthoods of the dead gods use to further their own means.
Girton has grown too, older though not necessarily wiser, and so too have his sorcerous powers. He’s been changed by his time away; last we saw Girton he was hopeful for what the future might bring, a candle in the dark of shadowy conspiracy and the murk of betrayal – now, he is an ember, a husk of his former self, scorched down to a hard and bitter remains, and what little fire is left cannot light the way in a world darker than before, it can only burn what it touches.
And that not only sets the scene, but also the tone for the novel.
Blood of Assassins is a triumph in so many ways, but none more so than for its ‘development’. What do I mean by development, I hear you ask? EVERY development. Character development, plot development, world development, Blood of Assassins has it all. Don’t get me wrong, all the ingredients of the first book are still here – a medieval whodunnit in which danger and death lurks in every shadow, told through the eyes of a relatable first-person point of view – but they’re sharper, whilst at the same time blunted, straight to the point, like the blow from the flat of a blade to the face. Or, more fittingly, a warhammer, which tellingly Girton has traded his assassins’ stabswords for.
Girton was – and arguably, though in a different way, still is – one of the most relatable characters in fantasy. In book one, he was a character you could sympathise with, a crippled teen who had never had a friend in the world, apart from an assassin-come-mother-figure, who didn’t understand the changes happening to his body (sorcerous or otherwise). In this story, Girton isn’t someone you sympathise with or for, nor would he want you to, and it’s little wonder that he’s grown into the angry, untrusting, obsessive, and wholly ‘troubled’ young man that he is.
Which brings me to character development. There’s a lot of familiar faces in Blood of Assassins – Rufra, Tomas, Aydor, Neander, Nywulf, not to forget Girton and Merela Khan – as well as some new names – Crast and Neliu, Mastal, the Nonmen, Arnst and Danfoth, Areth, and more. Every single one of these has a development cycle in the story, some expected and some not, but each of them grows and changes in a realistic way. Why? Because they’re real.
Whilst a lot of reviews like to use the ‘the characters aren’t characters, they’re people, they’re real’ line, Barker has transcended this by not just making his characters real, but by injecting ‘real’ into his characters. Each character has a ‘personal side’ to them that we don’t always get to see in other books, almost like an NPC (non-player character in gaming), especially in fantasy where secondary characters are just ‘soldiers, sellers or sword-bait’. From Aydor’s personal demons, to the all-too real demons that haunt Girton, from the loss that Areth feels, to the at times loss of feeling by Rufra in pursuit of his goal. Without going into too much detail and risk spoiling it for you, it’s fair to say that favourite characters from the start of the story – and from ‘Age of Assassins’ – are likely to change by the end of the book.
And on the note of the end of the book, plot development comes thick and fast. Any good whodunnit needs to string the reader along, down the yellow brick road, lacing the way with breadcrumbs. But it’s only later, when you look back over the story, that you realise you’ve missed something, despite it all being laid out at your feet. There’s a number of reveals throughout the story, each bigger and bolder than the last, and whilst I saw a few of them coming, they were terrifically written – the last fifty pages or so in particular left me reeling, not so much in shock, but certainly in awe of just how good they were.
So last, and certainly not least, world building. The Wounded Kingdom went from ‘it’s just a flesh wound’ in Age of, to ‘walking wounded’ at the start of Blood of, and by the end it feels as if it’s walking to its own execution by the hangman’s noose. Like with everything else in the book, the world is darker, more dangerous, and its depths go further than we as the reader could have ever guessed. And what more could you expect from a world in which the gods are dead, sorcery scours and sours the land leaving barren blemishes on the very earth itself, and heresy, treason, and assassination are around every corner. Barker previously joked that he writes ‘glumdark’ not grimdark, but I disagree. In my opinion he writes whatever it is that he writes, there is no name for it, but no-one else can do it like he can.
On that note, I want to touch very briefly upon the writing style. Barker is a master of poetic purpose in his prose – simple, straightforward, strums-on-your-heartstrings…stuff, that resonates with the reader. And given that sentence, I’m sure he could put it better than I. One specific sentence, amongst oh so many, stood out for me:
‘Why?’ I asked. Stupid, time wasting words.
It’s often said: say more, less – and this is a perfect example of that. Other standout bits for me include the dream sequences, which, if you haven’t had the chance to see/hear Barker do a reading, roll right off the tongue. They’re not just prose – they’re performance. Barker brings out the ‘art’ in the art of storytelling.
Strictly speaking, you don’t have to read book one before ‘Blood of Assassins’, however you’d be foolish not to – there’s so much joy to be had in following the story of the characters and the world they inhabit. And there isn’t really an excuse not to – unlike many other fantasy epics (and I won’t name names) Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy will be released in just over a year, start to finish. You won’t have to way a year (or more!) between each book. Age of Assassins came out in summer 2017, Blood of Assassins is out now, and the series will culminate in King of Assassins in summer 2018. There are so many upsides to being able to read a full series as it’s released within such a short time period, and the only downside I can think of is that I’ll be at a loss when I have to wait for my next fix of Barker’s writing.
With ‘Blood of Assassins’ RJ Barker proved that the only thing difficult about ‘the difficult second book’ was putting it down – and I for one can’t wait for the third…an