Age of Assassins by R J Barker

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Age of Assassins by R J Barker

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Steve Cotterill
Reviewed by Steve Cotterill
Summary: A pair of assassins become caught up with the politics of a fantasy kingdom, as they act to stop an assassination.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0356508542

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Age of Assassins is a very ordinary fantasy novel, which at the same time manages to slip in the occasional surprise. The central protagonists are a pair of assassins, Girton Club-Foot and his master, Merela Karn, also known as Death’s Jester. They find themselves hired by a Queen to protect her son, an obnoxious prince, and to find out who is behind the threats on his life. In doing so they discover a host of plots and problems, leaving no part of life in the castle untouched. Plots and Machiavellian figures are evident at every turn as noble families fight over the throne of a dying king. In the meantime between sorcerers in the stables, bitter rivalries between the young men who vie to be heir to the throne, and the moves of great families, there is no lack of suspects. As such the novel is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy and as much as coming of age story as it is either of those.

The novel starts slowly, and the beginning feels flabby and uninspiring. The stamp of recent fantasy trends is evident throughout the novel from the very beginning. Age of Assassins is very much in that 'grimdark' tradition, where life is cruel, characters are weak and nobody is particularly pleasant. This might have worked, but for the fact that there is nothing particularly fresh in the book and it sorely needed an edge to make it stand out. After a slow start, the novel progresses, slowly building speed. The action rises as the reader gets deeper into the book, never achieving great heights, but starting to grip after the first one hundred pages or so. When the novel does blossom, it is exciting; though sadly not particularly surprising.

On the good side, Barker's descriptions of combat are competent, he handles pace and fighting descriptions rather well, and there is a nice twist regarding the central character's nature that just about works, though again came as no surprise. He has also invested time in creating names for martial moves and assassin's tricks which are pleasant to read and did something to bring the world to life.

Many of the characters are interesting and well-rounded, though sadly Girton comes across as a fairly typical fantasy protagonist with a mysterious past. In contrast, his Master, Merela, is actually interesting and I found myself wishing she was the protagonist. There's some nice world building in the form of Festival and the 'Sour Lands', which were rendered barren a long time ago during the (obligatory) big, scary war which wounded the world. Barker also touches on changing traditions and the way that the role of women has altered over time, even though some cling to the old ways, acting as warriors. Sadly, this avenue feels neglected, a side point which could, and I hope will receive more attention in a later book.

Unfortunately, Barker's gift does not seem to be concise, or even effective description of his world, and it feels flat as a consequence. There's no real clear picture of what the castle looks like, the reader is simply told it is there, but the author never evokes a structure of significant size or imposing power. As a result, it was a surprise to find out there were abandoned tunnels and rooms within the structure because I had no clear image of what it was like. In a similar fashion, his use of language can be confusing. The word 'mount' conjured up horses rather than whatever the creatures people ride are meant to be (some sort of mix of reptile, horse and stag I think), and this led me to wonder if 'dog', 'cow', and other terms meant what I understand by them, or something else. He also uses a lot of words that work but threw me out of the story, things like 'keepyard', instead of Bailey, or 'crossbowyer' which felt as if they were obligatory for a Fantasy novel to try and create a 'we're in Kansas any more' feeling, but at the same time felt out of place and weakened the narrative..

If you are new to Fantasy as a genre, or a diehard Grimdark or assassin fan borrowing this book might be worth your while. If on the other hand, you are an old hand, I would suggest you think long and hard before committing any money or time towards it.

I would recommend the following books as further reading: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, Imperial Assassin by Mark Robson.

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