Monday, 19 August 2019

King of Assassins by RJ Barker

I'd been meaning to do this review for a while and had mentally drafted it, but when I found out that RJ Barker was so drained and in need of reviews that he'd lost full use of his words, I decided to push it up the schedule - anything to avoid updating my CV!

Also, I'm trying out a new review format in the hope of teaching myself some structure...

King of Assassins huh? You'd think wearing a crown would be a drawback in the secret murder game. What's the premise here?

King of Assassins is the third and final book of the Wounded Kingdoms trilogy. We've seen its protagonist Girton go from optimistic young secret murderer to angry slightly-less young secret murderer, all in RJ Barker's creepy kingdom of gloom and secrets and tainted sorcery; now there's a bit of a bigger time hop and we get the very tired, somewhat old no longer that secret murderer. That's the problem with being a book protagonist, everyone hears about you.

(From here on there'll be some spoilers - I'm assuming anyone reading a review of the third book in a trilogy either has read the other books, or is okay with a few spoilers. I mean, you know that Girton survived the first two books for one thing already)

This time, Girton's mission revolves around getting his once and still kinda-bestie Rufra to the newly vacant High King's throne (no, Girton had nothing to do with that). But making a High King isn't as easy as a Kind Hearts and Coronets-esque spree, oh no. It involves finding a way through the political swamp, uncovering the secrets of a Gormenghast-esque castle, and untangling the messes caused by Rufra's previous wars to become king (and Girton's part in them). In short, King of Assassins is a glorious tangled bundle of intrigue, drama and action, featuring the wise and emotionally scarred in their one last "pays for all" adventure in a fantasy world tinged by nightmare and decay. With the odd secret murder.

So that's the cool stuff - how does it read?

The majority of the book is set in Girton's first person past narration. First Person is a difficult one as the voice can get tiring, particularly with a narrator so basically over it as Girton, but I could have read it all day. There's a wry self-deprecating note that keeps it from getting too much and provides a more-ish sense of humour. The variety of tasks set before Girton also keeps things moving swiftly.

There's also a few chapters detailing the background of Merela, Girton's mentor and foster-mother. This made me so happy because if I'm ever reborn into a fantasy world where I'm destined to be trained as an assassin from birth, Merela is the secret-murder-mother I want.

Okay, be honest now. At what point did you think "I'm not sure I'm up for this, let's just flip to the back and see just how many pages it is"?

I did flip to the back at some point but that was only because I just really, really wanted to know how it ended and didn't mind spoilering myself. If it ever felt like a chore, that I can't recall.

Favourite thing?

Aydor the Place Bear!

Which is a double answer because I cheat. Aydor's metamorphosis from first book villain to some wonderful heroic combination of home truths, one liners and smackdowns is just fucking delightful. If I ever do a list of my favourite characters in fantasy for sheer entertainment value, he's a strong contender to make it.

But the how of that transformation is key to the book's themes (as I see them at least). Aydor's become comfortable in his skin. He's found his place in life, he's found the sort of friendship that lets him stand tall. He's found *healing*. And gradually, as you watch Aydor have the time of his life while Rufra and Girton stress and snap at each other, the centrality of healing and escaping the cycles of harm becomes more and more apparent. He's the contrast that brings it out. And he's the rock that helps bring the moments of emotional clarity that lie behind this book's pathos. And he's the shining example that for all the focus on decay and mistakes, that redemption lies there for us all. I loved that the Wounded Kingdoms walked in darkness before finding some light.

That's why I love Aydor - and this trilogy, and this book.

Cheating indeed. Okay, what sucked.

Nothing.

Liar. Come on, something could have been better. Or more to your taste. Or-

Look, there's always something, but it makes no sense to sweat the small stuff. Particularly when it'll rarely be the same small stuff as everyone else. I guess there's one minor character who I wish had more of an arc of their own - they felt a bit of a plot vehicle, in retrospect. But that's nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. I'd rather talk more about how great this book was to be honest.

Well get on with it then. This is your review. You don't have to listen to us you know...

Ultimately every book's value lies in the eye of the beholder. A reviewer can try to convey a book's type, and how good it is of that type, but they can never convey the value.

My type - well, one of my particular favourite types - is the stories that can flit seamlessly from shenanigans and action to heavy real talk. Sitcoms like Scrubs and Brooklyn 99; Pratchett; Gemmell at his best; Jim Butcher's Changes. Stuff like that. I suspect that might be RJ Barker's type too, or at least it's what he writes. There's an uncanny versatility in how he shifts gears. And as such, this is a book I feel like I could recommend to just about everyone, as there's something for everyone. I can get people not loving it, but pretty much everyone's going to like it, as evidenced by it only having 8 sub 3 star ratings on GR and Amazon UK combined (about 1% of respondents). I know people only tend to rate series endings if they like the author, but that still feels pretty bloody high.

In any case, I feel like I've made my point. This is the sort of Epic Fantasy that covers all the bases, and covers them with style and cohesion. It makes you go Ooh. It makes you go Aah. It makes you point out that you can't actually be experiencing emotions because you're a robot. It has tension, catharsis, fistpumping moments, tons of mystery, and highly memorable characters. And the overall effect is, well, great. Amazing.

Read it. Read it now.

And I can't wait for Bone Ships.

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