Review: Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

“TO CATCH AN ASSASSIN, USE AN ASSASSIN . . .

Girton Club-Foot, apprentice to the land’s best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But their latest mission tasks him and his master with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone, or many someones, is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder.

In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies Girton finds friends he never expected, responsibilities he never wanted, and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire land.”

Age of Assassins (book one of The Wounded Kingdom) is the debut novel from RJ Barker, an epic fantasy following a club-footed assassin and set against the backdrop of the Tired Lands. I picked this up because Robin Hobb’s Farseer books left an assassin-shaped hole in my chest when I was a teenager, and I can’t resist trying to fill it every now and then with a new read. And to be fair, much like Hobb’s own books, the strength of Barker’s novel lies in its characters.

Girton Club-Foot is certainly a flawed and relatable character, and he perfectly encapsulates that melting pot of emotions and experiences that we all go through as teenagers. Of course, Girton is also an assassin – an accomplished killer – which is (hopefully) outside our own experiences, but this simply adds to his inner conflict as he tries to balance life as an assassin with life as a young adult. It makes for compelling reading. And the host of secondary characters help to breathe life into Barker’s world, each with their own motivations and agendas, virtues and flaws.

The Tired Lands also make for an intriguing setting. The land has been scoured by the side effects of sorcery, the soil fouled and fauna twisted, which only the spilling of blood can counteract. What Barker does well is incorporate this into the everyday lives of the people… sorcery is hunted out at the root, and people live in a society shaped by the fear of sorcery and the scarcity of resources. Along with this, Barker has created many new words and phrases to set his world apart. I personally didn’t think this was overdone, but some readers may find this more of an annoyance.

The plot works well in two ways. It’s a mystery, drawing Girton and the reader along to a satisfying resolution. And secondly, the plot also works to temper Girton’s actions in a believable way – he isn’t able to fully or openly use his many skills, which works to create tension and stakes in a novel that could easily have lacked both.

My main struggle with Age of Assassins was actually the writing style. Don’t get me wrong, the novel is well-written, but my main complaint is with Barker’s use of tenses. This can be seen in the prologue, when the novel switches between past and present tense. I can see that Barker is creating immediacy when he switches to present tense for part of the prologue, however he switches back and then midway through another sentence switches again, which I couldn’t see an effective reason for. This may just be me, but I found it jarring and it affected my reading of the next chapter as I couldn’t fully relax into the narrative. I’m glad I read on, as the novel does progress more smoothly and the subsequent switches in tense are handled more deftly (perhaps with the exception of a portion of the novel’s climax).

Overall, I give Age of Assassins four out of five stars, as the story and characters made this a very enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Blood of Assassins, and to seeing more of these characters and exploring more of the Tired Lands.

I really liked it.

You can learn more about RJ Barker here, and Age of Assassins is available from Amazon.co.uk here. I read the UK paperback edition.

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