It’s been five years since Girton Club-Foot was last in the kingdom of Maniyadoc, when he and his Master, Merela Karn, were tasked with untangling a royal web of plots, lies, and murder in R.J. Barker’s debut novel Age of Assassins. Now, terrifying Nonmen prowl the yellowed lands spreading chaos and anarchy, Girton’s friend Rufra is king of Maniyadoc, and both Aydor and Tomas have set themselves against Rufra in an effort to claim the kingdom for their own. Someone in Rufra’s inner circle is a spy and an assassination plot is in the works, but having been away for so long, Girton is at a complete disadvantage: he has no idea who to trust, Rufra himself has grown distant and hard during his kingship, Rufra’s forces are fighting an uphill battle against Tomas, and Girton’s Master is badly poisoned in the very first chapter of Blood of Assassins (2018).
Alone despite being surrounded by thousands of people, Girton must rely on his training and intuition to save the lives of his Master and his friend, but his own prejudices and insecurity threaten to ruin everything these people have worked for. Among Rufra’s allies are the Landsmen, whose sworn duty is to kill magic users (and spill their blood where it will rejuvenate the sickened land) and who Girton must stay away from for reasons first mentioned in Age of Assassins, but which become even more pressing in Blood of Assassins. That their campaign of murder/sacrifice hasn’t stopped people from being born with magical talents only strengthens their fanaticism to their cause, and puts at risk anyone born with a deformity or who lives on the outskirts of society. Girton sees the danger in allying with these people, alongside the danger in allying with various priests of dead gods and their own fanaticisms, but Rufra’s idealism seems to blind him to all but a person or group’s best merits.
I noticed some Arthurian-figure qualities to Rufra in THE WOUNDED KINGDOM’s first book, and those qualities have only become stronger in the second: he brings disparate factions together in service to his goal of uniting the people, he desires a stronger presence of law and order with an emphasis on justice, he has an uncanny ability to compel loyalty from people who should be his enemies, and he seems predestined for greatness. Thankfully, Barker’s choice of protagonist is a young “mage-bent” man whose friendship and deadly skills also seem predestined to assist Rufra’s climb to greatness, and whose assassin training allows him to move among people and gather information which would be inaccessible to Rufra. There are more than enough Chosen One narratives littering the Fantasy genre — I’d much rather read a story about people like Girton, who have to overcome impossible odds and deeply personal struggles without seeking personal glory or high stations of power.
Girton’s Master, and his complex relationship with her, take a bit of a backseat in Blood of Assassins — she’s incapacitated to some degree or another for a great deal of the story, though her presence is a constant echo in Girton’s thoughts and one of his primary motivators (for good and for ill). Though he’s technically a man in his society, and a battle-tested assassin, Barker isn’t afraid to show readers how fragile and damaged Girton is by his life’s experiences, and the ways in which his selfishness and apparently-good intentions can lead him equally astray. Nor does Barker sugar-coat the consequences of Girton’s actions, to the point where lives are irrevocably changed or ended due to his lack of maturity. I wouldn’t call THE WOUNDED KINGDOM grimdark, necessarily, but it is quite realistic in many aspects.
The next book in the series is King of Assassins, currently expected to be published in August 2018. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Girton better and watching him grow, both as an assassin and as a person, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what happens next in his story.