I might not have picked Age of Assassins up, but a blogger friend passed along an ARC. And man am I glad she did. Age of Assassins may not do anything that hasn’t been done elsewhere, but the worldbuilding is rich and inventive, the politics complex and deadly, and the characters and their relationships so sharply written it cuts.
Girton is apprentice to the assassin Merela. Their latest job is a set-up that puts them at the mercy of the queen and her son, the heir apparent. Someone wants him dead, and the queen has it in her head that only an assassin can catch an assassin. Girton and Merela need to find the assassin before the assassin finds them. And they need to find who hired the assassin lest they just hire another one. Meanwhile they are getting pulled into castle politics and uncovering the wrong secret might get them killed. As could not finding the assassin. Or the assassin finding them. In fact, they’re going to have to work very hard just to stay alive.
Age of Assassins is the sort of book that takes pains to distance its world from a generic fantasy or western European world by insistence use of made-up words. Barker chooses his words carefully enough that they aren’t annoying, but they aren’t necessarily effective. They can roughly be divided into three types (this is true for other fantasies as well).
The first sort are simple names given to everyday objects. E.g., a “stabsword.” It may not be confusing—you can certainly guess what a stabsword is used for—but it doesn’t elucidate anything. It is meant to add flavor, but it tends to at best be distracting and at worst be annoying. It doesn’t add flavor because a thing called by another name is still a thing, a name alone doesn’t give the reader anything to anchor the thing to, or both.
The second sort add flavor but not much else. E.g., Marela’s mount, an elk- or deer-like animal with antlers and three-clawed feet. It adds flavor because the reader can picture in their mind such a creature. It doesn’t add much else because it continues to play the role of an everyday thing.
The third and final sort add both flavor and something more. E.g., the use of sorcery destroys the fecundity of the land. This is something different from a generic world (though it’s been done before—e.g., Dark Sun). It is something the reader can envision. And it has real effects, not just by implication but shown expressly. Barker considers the social implications of his worldbuilding. Hence the “blessed” (nobles, an example of the first sort) engage in ostentatious displays of wealth by building arches for feast-day from fruit tree boughs and using bread to provide structure for women’s hairstyles.
Balance is an important theme. That has been done many times before, but it is done very well here. Barker embeds in the mythology of the dead gods; in the way that magic works, with sorcery killing the land and blood restoring it; in the way retired Landsman Heamus brought orphans to the keep to work as a way to balance out all the lives he took.
Age of Assassins is set in a dark world, and Girton is a teenager, but I’m not sure that I would label Age of Assassins as either Grimdark or YA (and I don’t think it is marketed as either). Although it doesn’t remind me of Half a King by Joe Abercrombie. The tropes of each sub-genre tend to ameliorate the excesses of the other. Girton hasn’t had much of a childhood, what with the whole apprenticeship to an assassin and all. He has to balance playing squire and searching for an assassin with his first experiences with friendship and love. Barker does the squire politics very well, as teen boys interacting and within the larger political climate of the castle. The banter, and relationship overall, between Merela and Girton is also a highlight.
There are some very good action sequences. The plot twists are both shocking and well structured. The pacing is a bit slow, but no more so than has become de rigueur in traditional fantasy these days.
4.5 of 5 Stars.