Quick Review – King of Assassins by R. J. Barker

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I recently received a copy of R. J. Barker’s latest epic fantasy novel, Call of the Bone Ships, but before I dive into that I figured I would finally review for the third and final novel in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins.

Barker is a talented fantasy author who has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years, creating several outstanding fantasy novels since his 2017 debut, Age of Assassins.  I was lucky enough to receive Age of Assassins, which is also the first book in The Wounded Kingdom series, when it first came out and had a fantastic time reading it.  I also really enjoyed the sequel, Blood of Assassins, which continued the excellent storylines from the first book in epic fashion.  I was quite keen to read the third book, King of Assassins, when it first came out, but I did not get a chance to read it back in 2018, which I had deep regrets about.  I did  manage to read it late last year, but I then completely failed to review it, even after I enjoyed Barker’s new novel, The Bone Ships.  So it is high time I got off my ass and pulled something together for it, especially as King of Assassins was a particularly amazing novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of 20 years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Barker is the way in which he significantly improves as an author with every single book that he writes.  King of Assassins is a particularly great example of this, as the author does an impressive job expanding and enhancing his already amazing series in this novel, presenting the reader with an incredible story that makes excellent use of its dark setting and exceptional characters.  The result is an awesome and deeply captivating read that was easily my favourite book in the entire trilogy, which is saying a bit considering how good the first two entries were.

At the centre of this novel is an outstanding dark fantasy narrative which sees the assassin, Girton Club-Foot, accompany his lord, Rufra ap Vthyr, into the dangerous capital of the broken and war-ravished kingdom this series is set in.  This results in Girton and his companions stuck in the middle of a dark and crumbling citadel, surrounded by nearly every enemy and manipulator that they have encountered throughout the course of the series, as well as several new ones who pop up in this book.  As Rufra attempts to politic his way into becoming High-King, Girton navigates his way through the many dangers of the citadel, attempting to uncover the hidden motives and plans of his enemies.  Unsurprisingly, nearly every other player gathered in the citadel has plans to either kill Girton and Rufra or manipulate them for their own advantage.  As a result, King of Assassins quickly turns into an intense and exciting narrative, as the characters must unravel every plot and conspiracy in the fortress to find out everyone working against them and what their ultimate goals are.  These leads to several amazing storylines and impressive reveals throughout the course of the book, as Girton desperately attempts to save his friends while also protecting his darkest secret.  All of this comes together in an amazing conclusion which will not only satisfy fans of the series but which also delivers some clever and surprising twists that will leave the reader breathless.

There is a bit of a significant time skip between the events of this book and the preceding Blood of Assassins, which Barker works into the story very well, allowing for some subsequent changes in relationships and the simmering of old grudges.  The author also spends a substantial amount of time wrapping up some of the storylines and character arcs from the previous novels in the series, which really helped to give the novel a sense of completeness while also resulting in some big moments for the various characters.  I also really must highlight the dark, foreboding setting in which the characters find themselves in.  Not only has Barker created a great location for treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed, but he installed an extremely dark and oppressive atmosphere into it that the reader can taste as they read/listen to the book.  The sense of dread and despair that washes over the reader as they have the castle and its people described to them really enhances the story and ensures that they are eagerly waiting for the protagonists to prevail and rid the world of darkness.  All in all, this was an extremely well-written and utterly compelling narrative, and readers will quickly find themselves enthralled within it.

Among the main things I liked about King of Assassins were the impressive characters, most of whom have appeared in some of the previous novels in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  Barker has done an awesome job of developing each of these characters throughout the course of the series, and in this final book they all reach the conclusion of their individual or joint arcs.  While this does result in a bit of heartbreak and betrayal for some characters, one or two are quite nice, and I think those readers who have read the earlier entries in the series will be quite satisfied by where each character ends up.  The focus of the book is naturally on the point-of-view character Girton, who has gone through a lot throughout the course of the series.  Girton continues to battle his demons in this book, including his hidden and dangerous magical ability, and he must come to terms with several betrayals and old wounds from the previous books.  A major focus of the series has been the friendship between Girton and Rufra, as their lives have become inexorably bound together.  While their friendship had some ups in downs in the past, by the start of this book relationship has become a lot more strained due to differences in opinions about certain events.  Despite this the two constantly attempt to reconcile throughout the course of the novel, often unsuccessfully, but the power and complexity of their friendship is a key cornerstone of the book’s plot.  However, their joint character arc has a major twist into it near the end of the book, and the devastated feelings that result make for quite an epic and heartfelt conclusion to their narrative.  I also quite liked how the character of Aydor was featured in this book.  Aydor was one of the main antagonists of the first novel who eventually morphed into a reluctant ally in the second book.  However, in King of Assassins, after the time-skip he has become one of Girton’s closest friends and confidants.  I loved this gradual and excellent change in personality for Aydor, especially as he becomes one the nicest and warmest people in the entire novel and it was fantastic to see his relationship with Girton change throughout the series.  I ended up really loving all the amazing character arcs that concluded in King of Assassins and each of them added a strong, emotionally rich pillar to the overall narrative.

I ended up listening to King of Assassins on audiobook, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out this excellent fantasy novel.  The King of Assassins audiobook is narrated by the talented Joe Jameson and has a run time of 17 hours and 17 minutes.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, not only because the format helped me dive into the narrative but because of Jameson’s impressive narration.  Jameson did a fantastic job bringing the various characters to life in this book and his voice works extremely well for the first-person narration that Barker uses for his novels.  I personally found that Jameson’s narration helped to enhance the dark atmosphere that the author created with his writing and this made for an outstanding listen.  At just over 17 hours in length, this is a somewhat more substantial audiobook listen, but I found myself getting through it in an extremely short amount of time as it proved very hard to turn off.  This is an overall awesome audiobook and an excellent way to enjoy this great novel.

King of Assassins by R. J. Barker is an exceptional and captivating novel which takes the reader on an exciting and addictive ride.  This is an extremely well-written and impressive book that serves as an excellent conclusion to the fantastic The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  This was honestly one of the better fantasy novels of 2018 and this review is a long-time coming.  King of Assassins is an outstanding book, and I am looking forward to checking out Barker’s latest novel, Call of the Bone Ships, in the next week or so.

Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker

Blood of Assassins Cover

Publisher: Orbit

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 AssassinsBlood 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.

My Rating:

Four stars