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Urskuul’s Reading Circle: Age of Assassins by R. J. Barker

ship by by geograpcicsWelcome back everyone to Urskuul’s Reading Circle’s latest newsletter! You will be delighted to hear that this month I was able to lead the meeting, following last time around when I was unfortunately absent owing to my enforced attendance of a family holiday.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t complain. I got to go on a lovely cruise ship around some idyllic islands and if it wasn’t for the fact I was surrounded by my Mother, Sister, her Husband and their bratling spawn I would probably be raving about how wonderful it was. But, as you all know, if you have the wrong people keeping you company it doesn’t matter how good something is, your time is still ruined. I did my best to enjoy it, and the fact the bar was all-inclusive and meant I could top up my alcohol levels for free did help. I simply had to stay at the right level (about one drink past tipsy but two before crazy-dancing) and I was able to tolerate their presence.

Especially when one of the children fell overboard on the second day, thus reducing the horde. Thank Urskuul the shark ate him before there was time to mount a rescue!

Age of Assassins (Cover)Now, on to a more enjoyable subject, that of our latest read book, Age of Assassins, the debut novel by RJ Barker. I was looking forward to this one, having heard a number of people recommend it and, I must admit, I am a fanboy when it comes to assassins. It was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I even received a membership card to Ankh Morpork’s Assassins’ Guild for my birthday one year, which pleased me no end.

It was a shame I found out having that didn’t legally entitle me to kill people. It’s not really what you want to hear when all your years you have been dreaming of the day you can go around assassinating people, especially when you’re standing over a dead body and it is a couple of officers from Urskuul’s Secret Police who are the ones telling you that. Luckily, it turned out I wasn’t the only person who didn’t like my target and he had been suspected of sedition against Lord Urskuul, and was likely to be arrested and executed later that week anyhow. So, they gave me a warning and made me promise that for next time I took note of a few key points:

1. Going round killing people I didn’t like wasn’t an assassination but a murder. And if I performed a number of them, then I wasn’t an assassin (certainly not a famed and respected one) but a serial killer.

2. Assassinations still aren’t legal, even if they are sometimes paid for by the head of state. I needed to ensure no one actually sees me assassinating the target or leaving the scene. Otherwise people could identify me and that could lead to people with various weaponry attempting to kill me in return.

It all sounded like a lot of work and nowhere near as much fun as I’d believed. Particularly if the assassination had to be disguised so people believed the target died as a result of an accident or natural causes rather than being killed. Not to mention I didn’t have a handy teacher who’d happened to pick me up and show me the ropes on how to learn various assassin skills/techniques. Hence why I eventually passed on it as a potential career. However, I still have fond memories and still enjoy books that have assassins as key characters.

fitzchivalry farseer by chazillahClearly, I’m not the only one, since discussions at the Circle raised a glut of favourite fellow fantasy assassins. It’s practically obligatory to mention FitzChivalry Farseer in any assassin discussion. How can you not? Robin Hobb’s best-loved creation has nine books to his name and every single one of them is fantastic (if you haven’t read them, go away and rectify the situation immediately. If you have read them and didn’t like them, kindly file your comments in the drawer marked “Opinions I should never express”. Otherwise I may have to use the Reading Circle’s funds to take a contract out upon yourself).

I’ve already mentioned Ankh Morpork on the Discworld (Sir Terry Pratchett), and we settled on Lord Vetinari as the best. Yes, he’s the Patrician now and doesn’t personally assassinate people, but you know the training is still there. He could easily kill you himself should you ever truly vex him rather than have some guards throw you in the Scorpion Pit with the mime artists (“Learn the Words”).

If we wander over to the Malazan series there’s loads, but the Reading Circle decided upon Kalam Mekhar with Quick Ben alongside. Then there’s Mia Corvere (Jay Kristoff), Nona Grey (Mark Lawrence), Durzo Blint (Brent Weeks), Royce Melborn (Michael J Sullivan) etcetera. The list goes on.

Age of Assassins (Girton Club-Foot)And so, stepping into this well-populated and liked group was Girton Club-Foot (and his master, Merela Khan, the land’s best assassin). The club-foot doesn’t tend to hinder him too much; Merela advising early on that he is fully ready to be a full assassin rather than an apprentice, being “twice the assassin of any other I have met”. But it does set him up as a target for others to ridicule or insult (calling him mage-bent, which probably gives you an idea that magic isn’t particularly welcomed in Barker’s world. Indeed, it appears to work by draining life, whether out of people, animals or even the ground. It isn’t hugely explored, but it seems large works of magic tend to result in lots of dead things. You can probably understand why they’re not liked). This does work in his favour, since it means people tend to underestimate him and his abilities. Which, given he’s going undercover as a hostage/squire in a King’s castle is probably pretty useful. Nobles tend to get a bit antsy about assassins wandering around the halls, just in case they’re on the list.

Why is he going undercover? Turns out someone doesn’t like the heir to the throne and would rather they cease breathing. Curiously, it isn’t the person who hired them (I say hired, but actually blackmailed). That was the Queen and she actually wants to know who is going to assassinate her son. And how best to do that? “To catch an assassin, use an assassin.”

So, who does want Prince Aydor dead? Well, after a few meetings with him, it’s fairly clear that pretty much everyone does. Including the Reading Circle. If Alex and Amy had perfected their machine to transport them into books to affect the storyline, Aydor would not have survived past the fifth chapter and the book would probably have been quite different. He appears to be the perfect reason to get up one morning, ask yourself what you’re going to do today, and decide that overthrowing the monarchy is the right way to go.

Assasin by ghostbowGirton and his master investigate, suspecting pretty much everyone and trying to work out which person is the assassin and who hired her/him. Meanwhile, Girton also gets some form of adolescence. His life (revealed in interludes and commentary) appears to have been lacking in the childhood department. He was a slave-child, eventually sold at the auction block for a smattering of bits (coins. Five in total). Luckily, Merela bought him and taught him her livelihood (If we exclude the slave-child part, it sounds like exactly what I wanted). However, it was just her and Girton, travelling the land and doing assassin tasks/jobs.

Merela appears to mainly administer justice rather than performing assassinations for coin (Girton at one point references the fact that Merela and he “often worked for free if she thought the cause just”), and you get an impression of someone who is constantly on the move. There’s no other children for Girton to play with, there’s no one to be his friend. So, his time undercover, whilst exposing him to the bullying of Aydor and cronies (as well as Aydor’s rival, Tomas and cronies) also allow him the time to make friends. To fall in love. It’s quite sweet, in a ‘at some point he’s probably going to have to kill some people and be a bad-ass assassin’ kind of way. Meanwhile, alongside the little adolescent moments you get the interests of the main plot as Girton and his master investigate the characters of the keep and you learn with them just what is going on.

How does Girton fare against the other assassins mentioned? Well, it’s his first book and it’s difficult not to like him; definitely want to see what happens to him in the next outing. If you like the protagonist (and narrator), chances are you’re going to like the book. He’s not going to overtake Fitz in my affections that easily, but, if I did need someone taken care of (such as an annoying treasurer), I’d call him for a quote. Definitely one to add to your reading list.

– – –

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Until next time all!

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