Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you’re a fan of Robin Hobb’s REALMS OF THE ELDERLINGS — in particular, the FARSEER SAGA and FITZ AND THE FOOL books — as many readers are. Naturally, with Assassin’s Fate bringing the grand tale of Fitzchivalry Farseer to a close, you might feel a bit cast adrift, wondering where you might get your fix for “young assassin’s bildungsroman” paired with a deadly mentor and spycraft-disguised-as-theatre in an epic fantasy setting. And if that’s your thing, then R.J. Barker’s Age of Assassins (2017) is sure to scratch that itch.
Girton Club-Foot is, as his name implies, a young man with a lamed leg; his apprenticeship to the great assassin Merela Karn has been more difficult as a result, but his Master is remarkably kind and patient. Under her tutelage, Girton has learned to scale walls, ride her magnificent horned-and-furred mount, Xus, and myriad ways to kill. As one might expect, their story begins on their way to a job inside Castle Maniyadoc, but the contract is a ruse, meant to bring the pair into Queen Adran’s clutches so that she can offer them a very different kind of job. She’s been maneuvering her son, the insufferable Prince Aydor, into a position where he can marry above his station and become High King, but someone wants him dead — so Merela and Girton are hired to find and stop the other assassin. If they fail, the Queen will destroy Merela’s cover as a wandering Death’s Jester, and all other jesters in the Tired Lands are sure to be killed in case they, too, are disguised assassins. If they succeed, the Open Circle of Assassins will not look kindly upon their interference with another assassin’s contract.
So Girton, disguised as the little-known teenaged son of a distant lesser noble, is stationed among the squires in training, in the hopes that he’ll come across information that will lead to the other assassin. Merela, wearing her Death’s Jester greasepaint and costume, will take advantage of the anonymity and indifference granted to her assumed identity, and gather gossip and other clues as she can. It rapidly becomes obvious that the number of people who don’t want Prince Aydor harmed is much smaller than the number of people who do, but determining who would gladly take advantage of his death and who actually wants to kill him is a difficult task. Meanwhile, Girton experiences the tribulations of first infatuation, tries to make friends with boys his own age, and takes far more than his fair share of knocks in the training grounds. Merela and Girton share the investigatory burden, but it’s Merela who gets to enjoy the grand reveal in a dramatic scene that displays Barker’s love of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
While some of his ideas dip from a familiar well, Barker spruces up Age of Assassins with fascinating world-building, like the enormous traveling city of Festival and the mythology of how the Tired Lands came to be, including the deaths of their once-living gods. The very land itself is sickened by use of sorcery, to the point where the entire sky is yellowed and the only way lifeless earth can be made fertile is by shedding the blood of magic users. Those magic users are hunted mercilessly by green-liveried Landsmen and sometimes killed swiftly, sometimes bled out slowly over an agonizing period, but always where their blood might spill into the ground and do the most good.
Age of Assassins is the first novel of the WOUNDED KINGDOM series, and its sequel is currently scheduled for publication in early 2018. So much about this novel intrigued me, from the magic system to the characters to the ecology itself, that you can bet I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for Barker’s future work.