Book Review: Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Wounded Kingdom
Publisher: Orbit (August 1, 2017)
Length: 408 pages
Okay, I’m seriously impressed. Orbit is really killing it with the 2017 debuts (no pun intended), releasing yet another winner in Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker. Though this book had caught my attention earlier this year with its Assassin vs. Assassin premise, I still found myself unprepared for just how enjoyable and addictive it was.
“To catch an assassin, use an assassin…” This is the situation Queen Adran has found herself in when she discovers a plot to murder her son, the royal heir Prince Aydor. But rather than showing her hand, the queen has decided to handle the matter quietly, privately seeking out the services of an expert in the field. Setting a trap, the queen lures her old friend the accomplished killer-for-hire Merela Karn to Castle Maniyadoc, tasking her to root out the would-be assassin and report any conspiracies she finds directly to Adran.
Enter our protagonist Girton Clubfoot, who is Merela’s young apprentice. Pretending to be a squire while his master dons the guise of a traveling jester, Girton is put through combat training with the other castle boys to maintain the deception. Hiding behind a mask of clumsiness and ineptitude, he begins to ingratiate himself with the other noble sons, when all the while he is actually keeping his eyes and ears open, discreetly gathering information that would help them discover who might want Prince Aydor dead.
The answer, as it turns out, is a lot of people. The heir is a contemptible and loathsome creature who will be a terrible ruler one day when he takes the throne, and it seems like everyone has a reason to want him gone. To make matters worse, Girton’s mission is further complicated by castle politics and scandal, even as his and Merela’s list of suspects grows and grows.
From the start, I was drawn to the fantastic premise of Age of Assassins, and that was even before I learned all about the secrets hidden behind the walls of Castle Maniyadoc. Needless to say, I loved the element of mystery and the way our protagonist conducted his investigation, sniffing around the palace trying to shake loose even the slightest clue. While it’s true that the scope of the setting is somewhat limited and self-contained, the good news is, not once did I feel that it restricted the story or made it feel dull. A rich cast of characters helped with this, each keeping their own agenda tightly under wraps. Plots within plots ensured that that the drama and the tensions always remained high, and often I found myself barely able to put the book down because I was so desperate to find out what would happen next.
But without a doubt, the highlight of this novel for me was the bond between Girton and Merela. Certainly, there’s no lack of examples when it comes to masters and apprentice relationships in fantasy fiction, and yet there was something about this particular one that warmed my heart. Merela is almost as much a mother to Girton as she is his teacher, encouraging him to see past the disability for which he is named in order to reach his full potential. And like any young man coming of age, Girton can sometimes be blinded by his naïve idealism (not to mention an infatuation for a pretty stable girl), which causes him to clash with Merela. Still, the two clearly have something very special between then, and it’s really quite rare to come across a master-apprentice relationship that feels so genuine and developed. Plus, speaking as someone who generally dislikes flashbacks and other such devices, the scenes going back to Girton and Merela’s early days together actually turned out to be some of my favorites in the entire book.
Like I said, Age of Assassins is an exceptional debut, so well written and put together that I am shocked that this is the author’s first novel. R.J. Barker will be going places, that’s for damn sure! If you’re looking for a compelling mix of fantasy and mystery along with a bit of wisdom and heart to go with your deadly intrigue, then I strongly urge you to pick up this book as soon as you can. I had an immensely good time with it, and I can’t wait to continue with the next book in the Wounded Kingdom series.