King of Assassins: A clash of blades, magic, and dead gods

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King of Assassins by R.J. Barker epic fantasy book reviewsKing of Assassins by R.J. Barker epic fantasy book reviewsKing of Assassins by R.J. Barker

Note: THE WOUNDED KINGDOM is intended to be read in sequence, and as such, some spoilers for Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins will be inevitable as I discuss King of Assassins (2018).

Girton Club-Foot’s star has risen dramatically since we first met him — no longer a gawky and insecure fledgling assassin, he’s matured over the past two decades to become the Heartblade of King Rufra, entrusted with not only the king’s life but those of king’s children and his queen, Voniss. Girton’s Master, Merela Karn, still lives and is surprisingly agile despite her near-fatal poisoning and the crippling wounds she incurred during Blood of Assassins’ climactic battle; his best friend is a former foe from way back in Age of Assassins, and while this turn might be unexpected due to their previous and intense enmity, R.J. Barker has a deft hand with character maturation and development, and this pairing is one of the best aspects of King of Assassins.

Readers may remember that in the various richly-imagined Tired Lands which include and spread far beyond Rufra’s kingdom of Maniyadoc, there is a High King who rules all lesser kings and lands from a throne in Ceadoc; as King of Assassins opens, Girton is traveling with Rufra’s court to Ceadoc, where Rufra will declare his candidacy for the recently-deceased King Darsese’s throne. But before they’ve even sighted Ceadoc’s borders, an assassin makes an attempt on Queen Voniss’ life, and in the confusion, Girton’s apprentice Feorwic is killed while protecting Rufra’s children. Her death weighs heavily on Girton, even more so because the killing wound is a little odd, but Feorwic’s sacrifice is quickly forgotten by Rufra’s retinue in the subsequent fuss over the unexpected birth of Voniss’ child and, shortly afterward, their arrival in Ceadoc. The city, decimated by the Forgetting Plague and steeped in an almost-tangible wrongness, is nothing like Rufra’s Maniyadoc, and as badly as Girton wants them all to pack up and head back to safety, Rufra just as badly believes that the right High King can set everything right and bring order and justice to Ceadoc.

Girton, in his Death’s Jester persona, receives a blend of notoriety — everyone knows who he is, to the point where his deeds have inspired a cult-like following — and anonymity, in that no one takes Death’s Jester seriously despite his royal proximity and influence. While investigating Ceadoc’s corruption, he begins to hear whispers that Darsese lives, and sees evidence that the Landsmen aren’t as pure as they claim to be. But his investigations are constantly sidelined or outright blocked by unseen and unknown players, not to mention assassinations and his own king’s machinations, and Girton’s success in coming through any of this alive is never guaranteed.

The Wounded Kingdom (3 Book Series) by RJ Barker, RJ BakerMeanwhile, the Interludes peppered throughout King of Assassins shine some long-awaited light on Merela Karn’s background, along with how she and Girton came to be together, and ultimately show how the events of Age of Assassins were set into motion. These Interludes add emotional heft and complexity to an already-strong relationship, helping to explain Girton’s insecurity in Blood of Assassins as well as how Merela was able to forgive him despite the consequences of his misguided actions. Their relationship is wonderful, and I’ve really appreciated the ways in which Barker grounds it in lifelike and accessible terms within the series’ fantastical trappings.

Barker’s character work is generally superb — particularly with regard to Girton, who is no longer an impetuous young man and must make allowances for his ageing and stiffening joints — which compensates for the occasionally-predictable turns the plot takes. The wrongness within Ceadoc has some obvious sources, though the methods by which various factions are employing or causing that wrongness are interesting, and I definitely didn’t anticipate quite a few character actions as the overall plot threads were resolved. (Plus, dear little Feorwic’s killer receives due justice, so my heart is happy.) The Arthurian-influenced elements continue in Blood of Assassins, though I am disinclined to discuss specifics, and will merely say that the payoff was satisfying in that regard, as well. And the world-building, with the priests who follow dead gods (or the God of Death himself, Xus) and the very real threat of danger from magical “hedgings” like Blue Watta and Dark Ungar, inform characters and their choices in completely realistic ways.

As a concluding volume to THE WOUNDED KINGDOM, Blood of Assassins manages to tell its own story while informing the books that came before it, creating a complete picture in the reader’s mind. Should Barker write further stories in this world (and I sincerely hope he does) or write an entirely different set of books in the future, I’ll definitely want to read them.

Published August 7, 2018. The epic conclusion to RJ Barker’s debut fantasy trilogy, set in a world ravaged by magic, featuring a cast of assassins, knights, and ambitious noblemen. 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 twenty 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.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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