Where to begin??
Have you heard of Age of Assassins? Surely you have, of Girton Club-Foot? You’ve heard of the antlers, yes? No? What rock have you been living under since last year? The same one I was instead of reading it, I presume…
Girton Club-Foot, apprentice to the land’s best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But his latest mission tasks Girton with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor. In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies, Girton will find enemies he never expected, friends he never wanted and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.
Enter RJ Barker, stage left. Way left. A breeze accompanies him, fluttering his luscious locks; it’s a breath of fresh air. Although it smells faintly of chocolate-limes.
The debut-class of 2017 just won’t quit, and Age of Assassins is no exception. The “whodunnit set in a fantasy world” has been nominated for everything (ok specifically, The Kitchies, The Gemmells, The British Fantasy Awards…)
So, as ever, what makes it so good?
For me, it was Girton. And Xus. Or Master, I really liked Master too. But I liked Girton more. Or Xus. Although Master was sarcy AF…
Look, the characters, ok? If you’re a regular reader of my reviews then you’ll know I’m a bugger for getting attached to characters. Age of Assassins is first person (what?! First person? How gauche!) so of course we’re right up there in Girton’s thoughts (and dreams). He’s a teenage boy (don’t worry, it doesn’t ever get weird) and his vulnerability is achingly sweet. Barker has created a deadly assassin that glows with innocence. He’s a walking oxymoron. Reading the story from his perspective was very satisfying; he is clever, he is astute, but there is still so much he misses. And riding along in his conscious we don’t even see it until, aptly enough, Master enlightens us; he’s not so much an unreliable narrator (Beth Bingo) as he is a naive one.
But seriously, fantastic cast of characters that are developed exceptionally well. First romances, first friendships, characters to respect and distrust and mislead. Wonderful nuances to dialogue that really cement figures in your imagination and bring them to life (for example, one of them used the word mardy. I love colloquialisms in fantasy – more colloquialisms!)
I feel I should address the whodunnit aspect of the book? So, you know, the plot? I’m not a fan of murder mysteries. I spend all my time trying to work out who the culprit is, it sends my head around in so many circles, that the whole experience just becomes unpleasant. I find myself not enjoying the book – and that is just very very wrong. However, this balanced out quite nicely; I was trying to guess the end pretty much straight away, but it wasn’t the only thing I focused upon. There is so much more going on, wider politics and secrets and betrayals; it was a more rounded story than your straight up murder mysteries usually provide. It features the classic “big reveal” at the end, typical of your Agatha Christies (apparently; having not read any Agatha Christie I was reminded more of the seminal Scooby Doo), which may have flirted with cliche but the excellent writing style brings it back just in time. And again, Barker does an excellent job of satisfying the reader; I was pleased to have confirmation of things I’d suspected but there was plenty I hadn’t (hadn’t even come close to), and so you’re left feeling it was neither too convoluted that you didn’t understand nor too simplistic that you’re frustrated the characters couldn’t see it. This Goldilocks declared it just right.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t touch upon writing style (Beth Bingo), again, another important aspect of any book for me. Without specifically being able to put my finger on why, Barker’s writing style felt different. The narrative voice felt so fresh, paired with an exposition-light descriptive-rich style; it worked perfectly. There are hints that this is a wide and well-developed world building – Barker recently said in a panel event that this story began with the idea of the “Tired Lands” – but we only get hints. We’re not told very much about it. We can piece together what we need to from what Girton decides to reveal on the way. Until suddenly you have a succinct notion of this world, subtly coloured by Girton’s emotions. For a while I was confused by the descriptions of the castle, frustrated in my inability to picture it… until I realised I was trying to fit the descriptions over my internal template of a castle (Norman) instead of actually listening to what I was being shown (not Norman). A lot more things fell into place once I lifted my Western preconceptions and it’s one more thing that adds to the general sense of uniqueness.
Suffice to say I absolutely loved Age of Assassins. And Girton. It’s a book I can see myself coming back to again and again; I’m fortunate to have been able to dive straight into Blood Of Assassins (thank you so much for writing and publishing them so quickly RJ!) – I’m already dreading the book hangover to come.
Oh P.S – if you ever have the opportunity to attend a reading by RJ Barker do – it’s a wonderful experience and he’s missed his calling on the stage.