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The Fantasy Assassin

Assassins seem to have been steadily rising in popularity, wrapped in dark hooded cloaks and lurking in the pages of sword and sorcery, epic and urban fantasy, and YA, as well as plenty of fantasy games. With the moral reprehensibility or grey area of their profession, as well as the ability to take out enemies with minimal collateral damage, they offer a perfect opportunity for introducing an anti-hero or sympathetic villain, a master puppeteer, an honourable character who nevertheless must do what needs to be done, or simply a very chilling antagonist. Sneaky and skilled, poison-master or magic-user, or blood-thirsty butcher; there’s something strangely fascinating, as well as disturbing, about these people who operate in the shadows.

The Assassin’s Roots

Assassination of Nizam al-MulkThe word ‘assassin’ is generally believed to come from ‘Hashshashin’, a word used to describe Hasan-i Sabbah’s order of Nizari Ismailism. His group, active in Iran from the 8th to the 14th centuries, killed members of the elite for political reasons. A widespread belief stated that this group was under the influence of hashish during training and indoctrination, when their leader supposedly drugged them into thinking they had been transported briefly to paradise (and would be again if they offered their skills to his cause). This is now believed to be false, and it seems likely that drug-taking actually had nothing to do with the name. Instead, it seems to have been a pejorative term applied by the order’s enemies.

Assassins have existed for much longer than the word, with politically and religiously motivated killings going back as far as written history. The Old Testament tells of assassinations, as do other ancient texts around the world. Ancient methods involved anything from stabbing, strangling and poisoning to hiring mobs to beat the victim to death. Over time, ranged weapons, guns, bombs and more intricate ways of poisoning the target have been added to this list.

Assassins, operating alone or in small numbers, and yet potentially able to influence events that shape whole countries, have long been romanticised in fiction. In fantasy, in particular, there are several types that we commonly encounter.

The Professional Assassin

Thief's Covenant by Jason ChanTrained, perhaps since childhood, and highly skilled, these assassins are contracted to kill, and see assassination as a job. They are most likely to kill for money, and may be persuaded to change sides if offered a higher fee. They may belong to a guild of assassins, and so will have to follow certain rules of their organisation. They typically reject traditional morals and don’t care who they kill, as long as they are getting paid. They may take huge pride in a skilfully or silently executed mission. This type of assassin is more likely to be the ‘stone cold’ type, though they are sometimes portrayed as being deeply caring when ‘off duty’, or even quite agreeable people who see themselves as just doing a job.

This is probably the most common type of assassin found in fantasy, with many fictional assassins beginning in this category but ending up as either moral assassins or puppet-masters. My favourite example of professional assassins is the Assassin’s Guild in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The assassins appear in many books, but Pyramids focuses more heavily on them, which also uses the idea of the reluctant assassin (see below). Even the powerful Vetinari was once a member of the Assassin’s Guild, which presumably instilled in him his cold detachment and incredible patience when dealing with his enemies. Another well known example of this type is Hugh the Hand, from Weis and Hickman’s The Death Gate Cycle.

The Reluctant Assassin and the Inept Assassin

Ambush by sinakasraThey may have been sold or forced into this line of work, or perhaps they chose it because of the money, prestige, power or benefits it offers. Only, there’s a problem. They either hate killing, or they are completely useless at it. They struggle through, maybe getting lucky, or maybe aided by a more skilled companion. Eventually they will most likely find a way out, slide into a different career or life path, or manage to save the day through non-violent means.

Interestingly, the path of the reluctant assassin is also presented as an option in Dishonored, a game built around the idea of playing as an assassin. If you prefer to play a reluctant killer, there is always a convenient alternative to assassination, and it is possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone (though the alternative options are sometimes just as morally ambiguous).

The Honourable Assassin

Arabian Assassin by KamikazuhThe honourable assassin sees being an assassin as a kind of calling or duty, and their contract, once made, is binding – a matter of personal honour. The contract may, perhaps, be broken if a matter of higher honour intervenes, such as if the target saves their life. These kinds of assassins may exist separate from the rest of society, most likely as one of an order, perhaps with religious undertones. Alternatively, they may be part of a government. For these kinds of assassins, money may not even be required to form a contract, but if it is, it will not be the highest consideration. Contracts will be chosen carefully and may be rejected if the death seems ‘beneath them’.

Honourable assassins are not necessarily moral assassins (see below), as they may not care for the ‘goodness’ of their target, perhaps seeing such matters as below their concerns. An example of a group of honourable assassins can be found in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, in which one of the Kanlin (assassins and bodyguards for hire) is honour-bound to protect the main character Shen Tai.

The Moral Assassin

Princess by rollingrabbitThis may seem like a variant of the honourable assassin, but they’re actually very different. For the moral assassin, killing is a means to a greater end, and they will not assassinate someone they believe to be innocent or undeserving of death. For the honourable assassin, killing is an end in itself, something almost beautiful, and a contract cannot be easily dismissed once accepted, even if the target is discovered to be innocent after all.

Moral assassins may work as part of a group or order, for themselves, or as part of a government. This kind of assassin tends to be easier for the reader to sympathise with, and so many assassin characters, even if they begin as the other types, may find themselves ending up here. However, though they may be working under a strict moral code, their morals aren’t necessarily the same as the reader’s. It could be argued that many vigilante superheroes actually fit this category, and certainly some of their assassin nemeses who truly believe that they are working towards a greater moral good.

The Puppet Master

God of Deception by anndrUsually the assassin is the tool in a larger political game played by someone else. However, sometimes the assassins themselves are the string pullers. They may work quietly behind the scenes, or they may take on the appearance of the professional, pretending to have less power than they really do. These assassins are influencing events for their own purposes, perhaps out of love for a country or the desire to protect the common people, or perhaps simply to inch their own way towards ultimate power.

A good example of this kind of assassin, who seems to be merely a professional killer but who actually has more at stake, comes from Brent Weeks’ The Night Angel Trilogy, though it might be a spoiler to give away which character(s) is in this position!

wrecked by ultracoldThe Hunter

This assassin is trained to kill a specific kind of person or being, such as magic users or supernatural creatures. They are often solely dedicated to this cause. Whether a particular individual in this group is dangerous or not does not usually perturb the hunter.

Hunters can be found in a number of books, from the Blood Knives trained to kill the Aes Sedai of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, to the supernatural hunters of many urban fantasy novels and TV series. Perhaps the most famous is Van Helsing, who has taken on the status of ultimate monster killer in various works of fiction inspired by Dracula.

Solo by bad-bloodThe Psychotic Assassin

These are the assassins that have gone far past killing as a matter of making money, or bringing about a greater good, or maintaining their honour. These assassins love killing, and will take any excuse to do so. They may accept any job, or they may only find cruel enjoyment in the challenge of a difficult target. These are the truly terrifying assassins, and they tend to be the villain of the story. Drawing from Discworld once again, a fantastic example of this kind of assassin is Teatime, the killer hired to assassinate the Hogfather. How do you kill an abstract fairytale figure or personification? If anyone can find a way, it’s Teatime.

Fantasy Assassins

Want to find more fantasy assassins? Here are just a few suggestions of where to begin:

The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett (Pyramids and Hogfather in particular)
The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust
The Death Gate Cycle series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan
The Assassins of Tamurin, by SD Tower
The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore and Forgotten Realms (Artemis Entreri)
Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward
Poison Study by Maria V Snyder
Farlander by Col Buchanan
The Assassin’s Creed games
Dishonored (game)
The Elder Scrolls games

Who’s your favourite fantasy assassin, or what’s your favourite ‘type’ of assassin story? Leave some recommendations in the comments!

Title image by Jason Chan.

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15 Comments

  1. I think my favourite non-spec assassin story is the film Leon. I suppose he could be define as a professional who ends up moral.

    I have a supporting character who’s a kind of cross between moral and reluctant – a nearly (but not quite) pacifist who’s essentially doing the equivalent in his world of taking out the Nazi high command one at a time. He hates what he’s doing but is supremely good at it, and considers that he doesn’t have the right to refuse to use his talents for the cause. He was great fun to write.

  2. quillet says:

    Great article. You’ve covered my favourite Discworld assassins, so I’ll just add Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series, starting with SKINWALKER. Jane fits into the Hunter category, and she absolutely kicks butt. Tanya Huff’s Quartered series has Bannon and Vree, twin Professional Assassins (or at least that’s how they start…) starting in book two: FOURTH QUARTER. I highly recommend both series and both authors!

  3. Jezrien says:

    Cool article. I’m a huge fan of assassin’s in any form. There are some great assassin’s in the Malazan Book of the Fallen who play a major role in the series as a whole from the god of assassin’s Cotillion the Rope to the Empire’s own, the Claw. Many of the greatest scenes in these books envolved assassin’s, especially in the first book Gardens of the Moon.

    Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of King’s also starts off with a great assassin scene.

  4. Chris M says:

    Jaqen H’ghar and the Faceless Men (or the tidbits we have so far on them) – Song of Ice and Fire series. :)

  5. Joey says:

    FitzChivalry Farseer. The Farseer Trilogy is just amazing.

  6. C.Hill says:

    I’ve always like Dirty Ezio off of Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

  7. A.E. Marling says:

    Thank you for the black-cloaked recommendations, especially the game Dishonored. I was also pleased to see your mention of the assassins in Hogfather, my favorite Terry Pratchett novel.

    The protagonist in the Assassin’s Apprentice is very much a reluctant assassin. This enraged me, and I felt that I had been deceived with a false marketing pitch. Like discovering a box of cheesy puffs contain no actual cheese. It turns out, Robin Hobb’s title for the book was Chivalry’s Bastard, a more accurate representation of the fantasy.

    Also, I recommend Elder Scrolls assassin quests over the Assassin’s Creed series. Particularly in Elder Scrolls Oblivion, the assassin quests are masterful. In one, they set you up in a Clue-style mansion, where you’re the killer charged with isolating and slaughtering each of the other guests. Pure knife-point poetry.

  8. Pablo says:

    A highly enjoyable article!
    “Across the Nightingale Floor” (“Tales of the Otori”) features a reluctant assassin with some cool powers in a setting comparable to a 16th century Japan. You should probably start with “Heaven’s Net is Wide”, since it is the prequel to the first book in the series and makes you understand the first book a lot more.

  9. Incidentally, I remember reading a short story years ago (no idea who it was by) about an assassins’ academy, where you graduated by assassinating your teacher before s/he got you. I always felt the problem with that was that the teachers wouldn’t be motivated to train their students too well – and, if they did, the place would be chronically understaffed.

  10. Kate M. says:

    While it’s a cool illustration, the image under the “Professional Assassin” of that character (named Widdershins) is actually a professional thief belonging to the Thieves Guild. Anybody she’s killed has always been trying to kill her (such as thugs, demons, psychotic priests). So I’m not sure you can classify that as her profession, but as her general occupational hazards. Don’t get me wrong she’s a world-class thief, but hardly a professional assassin. Though you never know she may branch out someday. I think the image from Shadow’s Son (of Caim) would be more towards “Professional Assassin”.

  11. Tomasz Polanski says:

    Good article, however definitely missing a few good ones which are not mentioned.

    A DANCE OF CLOAKS by David Dalglish
    THE FALLEN BLADE by Jon Grimwood
    IN THE SHADOW OF SWORDS by Val Gunn
    THE LION OF CAIRO by Scott Oden
    SHADOW’S SON by Jon Sprunk

  12. Great article! I was particularly interested in the distinction drawn between Honorable and Moral assassins. This is a subtle line, but an important one.

    Love the bibliography, too. To add to it, another great fantasy assassin is Jay Lake’s “Green”.

  13. Matteo Bortolotti says:

    Well, my favourite fantasy killer has been already mentioned in the article: Teatime (and make sure to say it right), or, from the same series, if you want to look at it in that way, Death.

  14. Declan Barnes says:

    For a really cool portrayal of an assassin’s guild, I’d recommend Mark Robson’s ‘Imperial Series’.

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