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RJ Barker Interview – Blood of Assassins

RJ BarkerIf you’ve not see Fantasy-Faction’s Best of 2017 list yet, then you are missing out on some great reads. But lucky for you, we have the author of one of our top five picks here to talk with us today! RJ Barker is the author of The Wounded Kingdom. The first book Age of Assassins came out last year to much acclaim (including our own!) and the second book Blood of Assassins was just released this month!

And now on with the interview!

When did you decide you wanted to be a full time writer?

I’m not sure I ever decided really. I played music for a long time, though I was always terrible. And there was never any thought given to not doing something creative. I love art, but can’t draw, love music but am not really good enough. I’ve tried acting but could never remember the lines. But I always loved books the most. When I was younger it probably felt like the least likely thing I could ever do because there were so many books and they were all so very good. And it wasn’t the sort of thing you heard about people you knew becoming or you were encouraged to do at school. Being an author seemed utterly and totally unlikely. So I suppose I was unwilling to give up on the idea of being someone creative and kind of forced into doing the one that scared me the most.

Oddly, my mum visited today and was talking about this. She says she can’t remember a time when I ever doubted I would end up doing something. And I did, and it’s something I love doing. Though it still scares me sometimes.

What was your inspiration behind The Wounded Kingdom series? What did you set out to accomplish at the very start?

I think ‘inspiration’ is a very big thing. I had a conversation about Agatha Christie with an editor but that was in relation to science fiction. Then later this idea for the end of Age of Assassins came to me, where the suspects are gathered together and the culprit is unmasked and I was really excited about it. Couldn’t think of anything else. The name The Tired Lands also came to me at the same time and it felt very evocative of the sort of landscapes I like and at the same time Merela and Girton appeared. Though he was called Gorton first of all. That was a terrible name, what sort of idiot thought of that?

Girton Club-Foot is a unique protagonist in that he has a mild disability. Why did you decide to give your hero a clubfoot?

Age of Assassins (Girton Club-Foot)Well, it wasn’t really conscious. I have Crohn’s disease and it attacks the joints so I’ve been through some quite painful times with that, and that came into it. And I also think it’s good for people to see themselves in fiction. So maybe you’re disabled (such an ugly word) in some way and you can see yourself in the othering of Girton that happens in Age of Assassins. And lastly, a club foot isn’t something that will actually get hugely in the way. So I can still have him be pretty active.

The terminology in Age of Assassins and its sequel Blood of Assassins is often quite literal (i.e. mounts, stabswords, longswords etc.). Was there any intended reason for this?

That came along with the idea of the Tired Lands. I liked this idea of a civilisation in decline and they are struggling. They don’t have time for imagination, for telling stories (part of why jesters are prized, because they do have stories). So this reaches right down into the language of the people, they don’t have the time for imagination, they name things for what they are. It’s a stabsword cos you stab people with it. It’s a mount because you mount it. The people who ride them are riders because they ride them and on and on… It’s a Tired Land full of tired people.

Girton has a unique and complex relationship with his master Merela Karn. How important is this relationship to these two central characters?

Well, their relationship is everything to them and it’s what the books are built around. It’s not an easy relationship by the time we get to Blood of Assassins, but it is still an incredibly strong one. Girton is sort of champing at the bit and he thinks he is ready to go off on his own now, but is he? And is that really what he wants?

Why did you choose to begin Blood of Assassins fives years after the events of your first book as opposed to writing a direct sequel?

Blood of Assassins (cover)I’m interested in how people change and that was a nice amount of time for people to have changed but not too much. And I always envisaged these books as three almost entirely standalone books with a story behind them that tied them together. They were always meant to have big gaps between each book. The gap between Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins was originally going to be five years too but I ended up making it considerably longer. I was a bit worried Orbit might say, ‘but this isn’t what you promised’. However, my editor, Jenni Hill has been incredibly supportive and shown a quite staggering amount of belief in me. When I said I wanted a gap of sixteen years between the last books she was just very much, ‘you go do what you do.’ That huge gap also allows for a large amount of change between books two and three.

Twenty-year-old Girton is quite a different presence in Blood of Assassins, than his fifteen-year-old semi idealist from AoA. Prepare readers for the new Girton.

He’s angry. Angry and disappointed and I think he expects far too much of himself. (The working title for this was Girton Fucks Everything Up.) He sort of wants to walk away but there are circumstances in his life that tie him to his master, Merela. Coming back to Maniyadoc is sort of last hope for him. He’s been out in the world and it’s been harsh and he has a sort of idealised image of what his friend may have achieved while he was away. I think he’s expecting to find a haven and to recapture the moments from Age of Assassins where he was just a boy playing with his friend.

But when he arrives it’s just more of the same. And he’s tired of it, tired of war and killing. But there is no escape. He’s forced to become a detective again and he has a reputation now. The events of Age of Assassins have become known so people expect things of him. (Though to be honest, he isn’t a particularly good detective in either book but the aim is the reader is a bit ahead of him and knows, if not where things are going, at least when Girton is getting it wrong.)

I adored Age of Assassins as you well know but Blood of Assassins is in my opinion a major progression in depth and scope. Without giving too much away, what was your favorite part of the new book to write?

I think the battle of Gwyre was my favourite part. I thought of this book as two acts and Gwyre is the pivot they turn on. There’s a metaphorical moment in it, which I like. And it felt like this is the moment where it really starts to tighten everything. This whole sequence was very clear in my mind from the moment I started the book. It felt like, in this sequence, Girton rediscovers his purpose – if not his way.

I also really liked the interludes in this book. They’re different to Age of Assassins, more like nightmarish half-formed glimpses, and they occur where they occur as part of what’s happening to Girton. I also suspect some people really won’t like them, and there’s a degree of impish glee in writing something like that. They do exactly what I want them to, but if you don’t like them that’s fair enough too. Mea culpa.

Your books are on roughly a six month schedule of release, with the final book King of Assassins set for release in August. Has this been a challenge for you? It seems quite ambitious.

King of Assassins (cover)It’s been, really weirdly, quite easy. I think I’ve been lucky with these books because what I’ve written has been quite close to what you end up reading. There’s been no huge structural changes and Jenni has a really light hand, just sort of pushing me into thinking about stuff but largely letting me get on with it, which is how I like to work. I don’t ever really think of ambition, or whether a thing is hard. It was what Orbit asked if I could do before I signed up and I said yes. So I did it.

For all of us on team Xus, tell us a bit about King of Assassins without spoiling much.

It’s been sixteen years since Blood of Assassins. Maniyadoc has been largely at peace when plague strikes the Tired Lands and this plague wipes out the high king and his family. For reasons Girton doesn’t really understand Rufra decides to throw his crown in the ring to be high king. So they travel to Ceadoc, the capital and a place full of secrets. It is definitely the darkest of the three books – though I would say we get a less angry and far more contemplative Girton. It’s like a dark mirror of Age of Assassins, but where that was Girton’s book, King of Assassins is Merela’s and I know people want to know more about her. Well, this is where you find out.

What is next on the horizon for you once the dust settles and the brilliant Wounded Kingdom Trilogy reaches its end?

I’m writing a thing with ships. It’s very different to The Wounded Kingdom books. My agent said it was, ‘utterly unique and still undoubtedly RJ.’ But it’s his job to sell things so he is going to be nice about stuff. I’m enjoying doing it though.

Can you recommend any good books from the last couple of years?

Oh, so many. Slow Horses, a spy thriller by Mick Herron. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Bastard Wonderland by Lee James Harrison. Sebastian De Castell’s Spellslinger is excellent too. Then there’s my fellow UK debuts of 2017, Anna Stephenson, Anna Smith Sparks, Nick Eames, and Ed McDonald – all have delivered great books. I hate writing stuff like this cos I am so forgetful and there are so many great books and authors.

When you’re not writing (and tweeting) what takes up most of your time? (Wait did I already answer that in my first set of parenthesis?)

Age of Assassins (Cover)Sleeping, to be honest. I tire quite quickly. If I’m not doing that I might be playing on the PS4 which is a great way of playing with my little boy as I’m not much use for anything physical like running about. As a family we like to play cards as well, and chess. The boy started beating me at chess recently, and he’s only seven. I’m a bit sulky about that if I’m honest.

You write tremendous battle sequences that are brilliantly choreographed. If Age of Assassins was optioned for a film, how many monkeys would it take to screw in a light bulb?

Once you get monkeys involved the light bulbs is the last thing you think about. Imagine the mess, even worse than cats and my cat is a terror.

In honour of my Canadian heritage, who would win in a battle between an unarmoured mount and a fully armoured moose intoxicated from a six pack of Molson Export?

Oh, that mount, without doubt. A moose is a fearsome thing, fair enough, but a mount is a fighting beast with the advantage of teeth and claws.

If you ever write a fourth book in the series and choose to name it Antlers of Assassins (my idea) will I get any money?

You might need to speak to my agent…

Thanks again to RJ for stopping by to talk with us today! Blood of Assassins is out now! To learn more about it and the rest of The Wounded Kingdom you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter @dedbutdrmng.

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