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Tough Travels: Assassins

Back in 2014, Nathan Barnhart created a weekly feature called ‘Tough Travels’, which he hosted over on Fantasy Review Barn. Inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones – a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre – it would spotlight a different trope every week, and invite other bloggers to compile their own lists of examples. Despite being put to rest eighty-three (83!) weeks later, ‘Tough Travels’ was widely successful, with over fifty blogs participating at one time or another. On April 1, 2017, Fantasy-Faction received Nathan’s permission to revive Tough Travels once more . . .

Welcome back to Tough Travels! On the first day of every month, Fantasy-Faction will lead you (yes, YOU!) on a tour of the fantasy genre. From high to low, from classics to new releases, from epic to urban; each month, with the assistance of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones, we will guide you in search of a different trope, theme or cliché.

These tropes can appear in many guises, so to help us we’ve enlisted the help of our friends and travelling companions across the blogosphere. You’ll find links to their own lists at the bottom of this post – along with the chance to submit your own!

Last month, we looked at BEGINNINGS. This month, it’s ASSASSINS.

Assassins are ubiquitous throughout fantasyland. Sharp-eyed readers (or even dull-eyed ones) will notice that their hooded forms often adorn book covers, and that they frequently appear – rather improbably – not to mind being the sole focus of our attention. Whether they’re spotlight hogs or camera-shy and brooding, most assassins will have trained for years and are very, VERY good at their job (i.e. killing people for money).

Toll the Hounds (cover)COTILLION
(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

In terms of skill, achievement, and general assassin-ness, you won’t get much better than the Patron of Assassins. Cotillion – formerly known as Dancer, also nicknamed The Rope – is unequalled when it comes to the art of murder. Brutally elegant, this bloke is so efficient he can individually snuff out multiple opponents in the space of a single breath. Of course, honorable mention also goes to his protegee, Apsalar, onto whom Cotillion imprinted his skills and memories at the very start of the Malazan series, and who grows to be a kickass character in her own right.

The Bonehunters (cover)KALAM MEKHAR
(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

I know, I know – two entries from the same series! But I’m sure none will argue when I say that no list of fictional assassins is complete without a sentence of two about Kalam Mekhar, aka. one of the most badass characters from the thousands-strong dramatis personae of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen. What makes Kalam so special, you ask? Is it the fact that he’s survived for so long after turning his back on the Empire? That he re-enlisted once more as a Malazan soldier years after switching sides? Is it the way he joins forces with his P.I.C./BFF/battle partner, Quick Ben, to form a super mage-assassin tag team? Or perhaps the sheer size of him? For despite his muscled bulk and the fact that he can crush a man’s skull with his bare hands, Kalam moves just as silently as the best of them. Jesus, the man runs a city-wide gauntlet of Empire assassins and hits the ground running. Kalam Mekhar, my friends, is a bloody legend.

(Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks)

Honestly, I could have made an entire list based on assassins from the Malazan universe. Aside from Cotillion, Apsalar and Kalam, I could also have waxed lyrical about Pearl, Topper, Skulldeath, Rallick Nom, Vorcan, Blend, Baudin, Smiles, Clip . . . but I figured I should at least mention the series responsible for inspiring Fantasy-Faction in the first place. Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy has a whole bunch of assassins (or ‘wetboys’, as Weeks refers to them) to choose from, not least the main character, Kylar. But I always found Vi Sovari to be way more interesting than Kylar, especially given that she’s the only female assassin in the business (which technically makes her – rather awkwardly, I might add – a ‘wetgirl’). And if Vi is interesting, then Durzo Blint (Kylar’s mentor) is a showstealer. Kind of an arsehole, too, but you know. Whatever.

Mr. TeatimeMR. TEATIME
(Hogfather by Terry Pratchett)

Speaking of nasty bastards . . . Jonathan Teatime (it’s pronounced teh-ah-tahm-eh) is much more likely to kill you than look at you. An insane sociopath, he was adopted by the Assassins’ Guild after his parents died of a tragic accident when he was a young boy. It was only later that the Guild reflected that perhaps they should have looked into those deaths further . . .

As Pratchett himself tells it, ‘Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.’

Skullsworn (cover) by Brian StaveleyPYRRE
(Skullsworn by Brian Staveley)

Every assassin has their own unique outlook on the profession. Perhaps not as unique as Mr. Teatime’s, but still. A Skullsworn, for instance, would insist that she is not an assassin, but a priestess; that to kill in worship of Ananshael, god of death, is incomparable to murdering for money. Still, Pyrre does an excellent job of it. Under the supervision of her mentors – grumpy Kossal and flirtatious Ela, each more dangerous than Pyrre on her best day – she spends the entirety of Skullsworn in pursuit of suitable targets for her trial. To become a fully-fledged Priestess of Ananshael, Pyrre has fourteen days to kill whomever happens to fulfil the conditions of the trial, including a pregnant woman, a singer, someone she loves, and someone who is praying. If that’s not holy, I don’t know what is.

The Killing Moon by N. K. JemisinEHIRU
(The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin)

Another world in which certain forms of killing are regarded as holy acts is the Dreamblood series by N. K. Jemisin. In The Killing Moon, Jemisin introduces us to Ehiru, a Gatherer, whose profession essentially involves euthanising the sick and the aged in order to gather dreamblood on behalf of his order, the Hetawa. Dreamblood is rare, since it’s only produced from dreams in the moment of death, and a Gatherer must be both skilled and compassionate in order to properly harvest the substance. Ehiru, also known by the moniker ‘The Black Rose’, is the best Gatherer in Gujaareh, and is worshipped by his apprentice, Nijiri, aka. ‘The Blue Lotus’.

Black Cross by J. P. AshmanLONGOSS
(Black Cross by J. P. Ashman)

From the sacred to the profane: Longoss is the foulest, most filthy-mouthed assassin you’re ever likely to meet, and is a far cry from the likes of Ehiru and Nijiri. With a mouthful of gold teeth and a strong smell of urine about him – not to mention an unlimited arsenal of F-words that would make Gordon Ramsay shit himself with envy – Longoss is a strange kind of hero amongst the dregs of Dockside. He likes his women willing and his fights dirty, and Samorl help anyone who wrongs him – whether that’s the innkeeper, the local thugs, or the Black Guild themselves.

Assassin's Apprentice (cover)THE POCKED MAN
(Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb)

In complete contrast to Longoss is Chade Fallstar, who prefers to operate through secrecy and subterfuge. Chade is a master of disguise; in service to the royal family, the very existence of his position is a secret . . . though one not as closely-guarded as Chade’s actual identity. Being, above all, a poisoner, there really isn’t much call for Chade to ever emerge from the shadows, except to train the protagonist, FitzChivalry. On the rare occasion that he does find himself caught in the open, however, the scars of a childhood disease have led to a convenient cover: ‘the Pocked Man’, a legendary figure whom the superstitious regard as a harbinger of doom.

Are there any infamous assassins we’ve forgotten about? Who’s your personal favourite? Are there any individuals that – shock, horror! – ignore the Guide completely? Let us know in the comments!

Bloggers – why not join us?

Next month’s topic will be books featuring NON-HUMAN HEROES. The Tough Guide assures us that HEROES are ‘mythical beings, often selected at birth, who perform amazing deeds of courage, strength and magical mayhem, usually against all odds.’ Furthermore, ‘if you get to meet a so-called Hero, she/he always turns out to be just another human, with human failings, who has happened to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, more likely)’.

HOWEVER. For good or for evil, some of fantasy’s most memorable Heroes are not human at all. Some look human, but aren’t. Others may look monstrous, but be ‘human’ on the inside. Others still never pretend to be anything other than what they are – and why should they? In nearly all cases, we are likely to Learn Something from them – usually that appearances can be deceiving, or that the concepts of both ‘Human’ and ‘Hero’ are entirely subjective.

Tough Travelling

There’s always room in the adventuring party for one more! Add a link to your own blog’s list (it’ll remain open for the entire month, so you have plenty of time!), or check out the others below.

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  1. I thought I was being sneaky and unique with the Dreamblood duology on my list. Darn you Laura!

  2. Avatar Nicola Alter says:

    Ah, I totally forgot about Pyrre! I haven’t read Skullsworn yet but in The Emperor’s Blades she already stood out as an assassin disturbingly devoted to her cause. Great to see her on your list!

  3. Avatar Alex says:

    Mr. Teatime and Fitz are my favourite assassins. Glad to see they made the list : )

  4. Avatar Lynn says:

    I still haven’t read the Malazan books – even though I bought the first in the series ages ago – I think I’m a little daunted by the actual number of books in the series *gulps* – will get there eventually.
    Lynn 😀

    • At this point it’s basically cheating for me to use them in these lists (a bit like we always used to say HP and LotR were!), but I don’t even care. They’re amazing. 😀

  5. […] That’s my list for this month – it’s quite a short one. The post on Fantasy Faction is here. […]

  6. Avatar Joe Lindley says:

    One of my favourites is Gemmell’s Waylander, also the mysterious Shenkt from Best Served Cold, Nona from Red Sister which I’ve just started reading also Larkspur from Kings of the Wyld though she’s more of a bounty hunter

  7. Avatar Mervi says:

    Some of my favorite characters are assassins. Yet I’m only familiar with three of your choices. TBR grows… Thanks!

  8. Avatar C Mark says:

    River from the Steelhaven series by Richard Ford was a very well-crafted assassin character.

    • Oh! I forgot about him. I’ve only read Herald of the Storm (up to now) and it was a long time ago, but I do remember River. I’m pretty sure he was one of those characters you just want to bring home and hug and make hot chocolate for…

  9. […] I’d have another (typically belated) go at Tough Travelling. This week, we’re dealing with […]

  10. Avatar Wastrel says:

    I was going to say “I’ve added my link, with a bunch of people nobody will have heard of”, but apparently that’s not quite true this week. I knew one of mine would be shared, and that another would be known but I was hoping he’d be overlooked. Turns out only 2 of mine were unique (so far).

    Joe: I didn’t go with Waylander, but in hindsight maybe I should have done. He’s probably the ur-assassin, in terms of influencing the modern genre. Though I never read his third book, for some reason.

  11. Sadly I haven’t read any of these books, however I do have Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb on my TBR and I am pretty certain I will get round to reading The Hogfather; I aim to read all of Pratchett’s books! Actually I don’t generally read books with the obvious sort of assassin in…so I have had to think outside the box a little for my post, which should be posted on Saturday 🙂

  12. […] Travels is a monthly meme hosted by Fantasy Faction, which, inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones, spotlights each month a […]

  13. […] Tough Travels is a monthly meme that recommends fantasy books based on tropes, themes, and clichés cited in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The meme was created by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn and is now hosted by Fantasy Faction. […]

  14. Avatar Sarah says:

    Great list! Cotillion is one of my fevourites from the whole series and I also like Kalam in combination with Quick Ben! Yay for Durzo Blint as well! I never really liked Kylar, but Durzo kicked some ass!

    And of course, Chade has to be on this list, my favourite silent assassin 🙂

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