Publication Date – 13 February 2018
War, murder and magic return with R. J. Barker’s assassins in the sequel to his impressive debut, Age of Assassins.
It has been five years since assassins Girton Club-Foot and his master, Merela Karn, started a bloody civil war in the nation of Maniyadoc. Since then, they have been in hiding, fighting in the borderlands as soldiers for hire to avoid the price on their heads. However, when Merela is gravely injured, they have no choice but to return to Maniyadoc and seek shelter there. Girton finds a far different land to the one he visited five years before. War has turned much of the kingdom into a brutal hellscape, ruled over by war crazed marauders known as Nonmen, while giant flesh-eating pigs roam the wilds.
Amongst this chaos, three kings fight for power, their armies controlling what small tracts of inhabitable land remain. Girton knows all three of the opposing kings, having spent time among them five years ago. Two of them hate Girton and his master, falsely blaming them for the deaths of their relatives, the events which started the war. However, the other of the warring kings, Rufra, owes Girton his life, and may be the only friend the young assassin has. Since their last meeting, Rufra has turned into a noble king, weighed down by the responsibility of his office and personal grief.
Pledging his loyalty to Rufra, Girton immediately sets about trying to find a spy hidden among the king’s closest followers, navigating camp politics and the fragile alliances that hold the army together. At the same time, Girton must also solve the murder of a fanatical religious leader whose dangerous followers demand retribution. Rufra is the fractured nation’s best option for peace, but far too many people want him dead. Each day the spy is active hastens Rufra’s defeat, and Girton must use every bit of his wit and skill to save his friend.
But the greatest threat to Rufra’s reign may be Girton himself. Like all assassins, Girton uses forbidden magic to grant himself subtle advantages to aid him in his kills. However, Girton’s magic has become far too powerful, and he can no longer control the terrible energies within him. In a world were all magic is outlawed and feared, any evidence of Girton’s abilities would condemn him and everyone he loves to a bloody end. The last uncontrolled sorcerer turned the kingdom of Maniyadoc into a barren wasteland, and Girton’s power may soon compel him to do the same.
This is the second book in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series and is the follow-up to last year’s successful and highly compelling debut, Age of Assassins. Blood of Assassins is a great addition to the series which builds up the anticipation for the upcoming King of Assassins, which is set to come out in Australia in August 2018.
The fantasy world that Barker has created is an interesting one with several unique features. While most of the first book’s story was limited to the goings-on within one specific castle, Barker completely changes the script in this sequel by expanding the narrative to the whole realm of Maniyadoc and the fighting going on around it. Readers of Age of Assassins will enjoy seeing how the devastation of the civil war has changed the kingdom. The nation of Maniyadoc, which was already described as a fairly dismal place, is now haunted by a new range of monstrous creatures and humans created by neglect and the brutal fighting. This noticeable change to the scenery of the story helps to affect the overall mood of the book and also acts as a mirror to Girton’s more depressed and hopeless mental viewpoint in the second book.
I often enjoy authors blending different genre types within fantasy books, and Blood of Assassins is a great example of this, as Barker has incorporated elements of political thrillers and murder mysteries. The hunt for the murderers and traitors at the heart of Rufra’s camp is a well done and produces a compelling mystery that combines well with the book’s action, politics and magic.
Fans of action and battle will not be disappointed, as Barker makes full use of a range of fight scenes. Action junkies will enjoy the numerous duels, clashes between assassins, larger pitched battles and one notable siege that sees that protagonist fighting to defend a village from a horde of crazed Nonmen while also attempting to hold his destructive magic at bay. It is also interesting to see how Barker forgoes the enormous pitched battles that are a usual fantasy staple. Instead this conflict is fought by small, desperate armies over limited amounts of land, which comes across as more realistic, considering the landscape.
Finally, Barker has also done a great job of showing how his main characters have developed since the last novel, particularly taking the time to illustrate how their relationships move and change throughout the book. Girton has gone from a young and optimistic boy seeking the approval of his master to a taciturn and depressed man, actively resenting his master for the changes and problems in his life. At the same time, Rufra has gone from a lowly squire seeking a friend and trying to avoid trouble to a man consumed by his responsibilities and personal grief. These changes lie at the heart of the book and add emotional depth to the story. It is also warming to see how the friendship between Girton and Rufra lightens both characters and helps heal their emotional wounds.
As a result, Blood of Assassins is a fantastic character-driven story that weaves together action and mystery in Baker’s excellent fantasy world to create a scintillating and addictive read. This is a marvellous second outing from a bright new star in fantasy fiction.