King of Assassins by RJ Barker

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Rating 9.7/10
I devoured this exquisite mystery, magic and assassin-tinged fantasy conclusion in two days.

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I received an advanced copy of King of Assassins in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to RJ Barker and Nazia and Jenni at Orbit. *This may contain slight spoilers for the trilogy*

Well, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. Where should I start? I can safely say in the (almost) two years I have been reviewing that this is my favourite trilogy that I have read that was released in that timeframe. I was the first person to review Age of Assassins, one of the first to review Blood of Assassins, and I had a to-be-read quota of thirty books as of last Friday. That was until King of Assassins ended up on my doorstep. Everything else took a back seat and I devoured this exquisite mystery, magic and assassin-tinged fantasy conclusion in two days.

Set fifteen years after the conclusion of Blood of Assassins, in Maniyadoc under the caring rule of King Rufra the atmosphere and events have been of the peaceful variant. A plague has led to the loss of life for two out of every three civilians around the Tired Lands everywhere, but for some reason, the catastrophic destruction passed Rufra's city by almost as if it didn't exist at all.

The high king of Ceadoc was not so lucky. He fell victim to the illness which leads people to become living and breathing empty shells. At his final demise, all eyes across the nation turn onto the capital. Every individual with power, armies, or an influence proceeds to attend a meeting where a next high king will be assigned. Rufra, with his new wife and three children, decides to 'throw his hat into the ring' and hopes he can bring the positivity and beneficial lifestyles that his civilians have revelled within to the capital and the whole world. Of course, it won't be that simple. Assassins, betrayals, rivalries and enemies from the past are lurking within every shadow of this giant, mysterious and confusing city.

My favourite genre to read after fantasy is a mystery or detective thriller and the combination here is unique, thrilling and completely unpredictable. I had no idea what was going to happen until about 10 pages from the end of the book. It gave me goosebumps, it made me sweat and then in the epilogue I was presented an even bigger reveal that left me speechless. Throughout this narrative, I cried a couple of times. There are a large number of characters that have been in previous entries and also a lot of new players joining the ensemble for the epic finale. Girton once again takes on the role of a sleuth to discover and analyse all sorts of events including assassinations, dead people still walking around, the true emotions of the Gods and many more unanswerable dilemmas. We even have a classic "locked room" murder to investigate which reminded me of Gaston Leroux's classic - The Mystery of the Yellow Room and many others similar scenarios from film and TV since. Girton is arguably the finest assassin in the world but he is a just above average detective and in the first person perspective I believe the affinity created with Girton and his dilemmas shows Barker's exceptional skills as a writer. 

I could have honestly read seven books about Barker's Tired Lands and the players involved. That being said, I really appreciate what RJ has done with the time that passes between each novel. We first met Girton at fifteen and he is now thirty-five in King of Assassins. The character development is amazing, all the characters have changed so much but Barker cleverly links back to past relationships, traits, friendships in expert fashion so however grotesque the world and current events are we still see aspects of those fifteen-year-old children who were training, bullying, making first friends and trying to impress girls. They've changed drastically of course but little snippets, maybe often subtext reminds us of the innocence these major players came from. That all being said, I hope Barker returns to the Tired Lands and will present a few short stories of what Girton, Boros, Rufra or Aydor were up to in between the three main novels. 

Girton Club-Foot is a character I could read about all day long. He's currently Death's Jester and when fighting still uses his balletic numbered poetic moves of murder. Some scenes that happen here are utterly grimdark - a character gets his tongue cut out, somebody drowns, limbs are lopped off, and magic annihilation of people and the environment - but King of Assassins could never be referred to as that genre because the main characters are so likeable and even a world famous assassin is only doing things as he believes it's true and the best for the world. In fact, Girton's previous antics are so famous that it seems every army who approaches Ceadoc has an assassin. Some worship Girton, some wish to test their worth against him and some remain completely unseen. My favourite of these characters was definitely the mute Tinia Speaks-Not. Aside from her Aydor and Boros are the most interesting to follow. Both were in Age of Assassins and have changed so much they are almost unrecognisable. It makes me want to go back and start the trilogy again.

There is one statement in King of Assassins that Barker presents that I analysed to state that physically or mentally disabled individuals can and often are the real heroes. Girton has a Club-Foot, Tinia is mute, his master has post-traumatic issues from her past and yet they are respected as the finest of their friends or groups. I thought that was a poignant touch. I'm not sure if it was intended but that is what I took away from it. 

Barker wrapped up this trilogy almost perfectly. There is a showdown of epic proportions which may decide the future of the Tired Lands and that was expertly played out. After that about forty pages remain to tie the knots and fill the gaps. Some epic action happens during this finale, however, I wish it would have been fleshed out a bit. One of the final showdowns seemed more of a ticking of a box to say that that plot arc had been finished as opposed to presenting the keen acute legendary battle of the ages that we could have witnessed between two fine warriors. That being said, this is one of the best fantasy trilogies I have ever read and I can't wait to see what RJ presents us next. As long as he knows in the future I need more Girton, even if he writes them for me and nobody else!

James Tivendale - 9.3/10

I've put off writing this review. I've procrastinated it like the worst of time wasters, and not because I didn't want to review it, and certainly not because I didn't enjoy the novel. Quite the contrary. I have been putting it off because I didn't think I could possibly put into words the way I feel about RJ Barker's masterpiece, the superior novel in my all time favorite literary series, The Wounded Kingdom.

So let's now move forward then as I attempt to remain eloquent enough to not stumble over these words as I emotionally recap my feelings about an absolute treasure of a novel.

In order to talk about King of Assassins, it's important to understand that RJ Barker's Wounded Kingdom series essentially works as a continued trilogy, in that the characters and world remain intact throughout. It does, however, run the course of a number of years, each novel it's own murder mystery and while they work as stand-alone books, what makes them so wonderfully enduring is how Barker treats his characters and their progressions (and regressions) over the trilogy

Those fortunate enough to have read it will know that Age of Assassins is the coming of age tale for young Girton Club Foot as he experiences growing pains of adolescence, bonds of friendship and first love all the while under the tutelage of his Master and maternal figure Merela Karn. It's also here that we first meet Xus, one of many antlered "Mounts" that have become a defining feature of the series.

Those tasteful souls that moved on to Age's brilliant sequel Blood Of Assassins experienced a far more angsty 20 something Girton. One who had experienced betrayal and questions of loyalty. A Girton who was beginning to question all those around him, even his beloved master Merela. It was a brutal, battle heavy and philosophical book. We didn't always love Girton's choices. We may have wanted to slap him about the head at times, but we also hoped and prayed much like we do for ourselves and those we love that he would heal and find redemption through his "phase". We continued to love him for his idealism and his journey.

This brings us to the subject of this review for a book that is spectacular, but without its prequels wouldn't have nearly the resonance.

Set nearly 15 years after Blood Of Assassins, we find a 35-year-old Girton in the role of master to his own young apprentice at the start of the novel. Without giving away anything that would take away the pleasure of reading, he has also assumed the role of Death's Jester once belonging to his master. A horrible plague has killed the High King of Ceadoc and King Rufra, always with idealism and positivity as a motivator decides to make a run for the position, leading of course to political unrest, questioning of loyalty, and once again a murder most foul. Rufra is best as a brooding well-intentioned character. A truly conflicted one, at odds with the corruption around him and his own priorities. His new mission, and the stubbornness and single-mindedness it brings to the forefront within him creates truly gripping dramatical effect when he shares a scene with Girton, as events that took place in the previous novel have somewhat soured their relationship. With that said, Girton stays loyal to his King while mourning the loss of his childhood best friend.

While Blood Of Assassins moved away from the almost claustrophobic setting of Castle Maniyadoc and featured a more sprawling setting across the Tired Lands, King of Assassins features the best of both worlds, with much of the intrigue of the aforementioned murder mystery taking place at the far more menacing Castle Ceadoc, where we are introduced to a horrific, violent world. This is the closest Barker truly gets to Grimdark. There are graphic descriptions of corporal punishment and mutilation and a trip through the "Menagerie" will leave you terrified, shocked and no doubt feeling like much has changed since 14-year-old Girton arrived at Castle Maniyadoc. It's Clive Barker at his finest with RJ's stunning penmanship, and despite the change of tone, these segments are welcome additions to this highly evolving story.

Much like its predecessors, King of Assassins features another murder mystery at its core, and Girton once again takes on the task of finding the motive and seeking out the killer. Through a series of twists and turns, and jaw-dropping, mouth wide open surprises, Barker brings us a conclusion we never saw coming and leaves us feeling angry, sad, questioning, yet strangely fulfilled as he brings his tragic tale to an epic conclusion.

As a reviewer, I tend not to focus heavily on plot detail. The intention is to drive you to read the book, not to give you the Coles Notes for your book club. What drives this book possibly even more than the strong pace, the beautifully choreographed battle sequences and the intrigue are the quieter character-based moments. Through the third person interludes, we finally learn of Merela Karn's tragic origin, and not only what led her to become a Master Assassin, but also how she came to love a young disabled slave named Girton Club-Foot (I'm in tears as I write this) The interactions between Girton and a now older and far less able-bodied Merela seem to bear even more weight as there is an impending doom on the horizon. We love their bond. It provides solace in the decrepit world we are reading about.

It's also difficult not to feel affection for Aydor, the first antagonist we meet in Age of Assassins and now a lovable drunk and Girton's most trusted friend and confidant. Through Barker's brilliant use of a longitudinal character study we are able to experience the very human psychological idea that we can either move against the values of our Family of Origin, or remain stagnant to them and possibly even expand upon them. This character study, and the way Barker examines the effects of time , and how it can shape a person sits at the core of the series, and adds to its uniqueness.

From a prose standpoint, Barker switches from linear narrative to poetic and abstract seamlessly much like we've come to expect from his other novels. Readers will no doubt have their favorite passages that they will want to highlight and return to. The Third person interludes, which cover: Girton's back story in AoA, the Hedging Lords in BoA and now Merela's back story are without a doubt my favorite bits of beautiful writing in these novels. They are challenging, mesmerizing and provide a deeper glimpse into Barker's incredibly fleshed out world.

I'm very happy I was able to write this review for RJ Barker. He is a wonderful author. He writes from the heart and his work connects with the human spirit in a way that only the greatest artists can, but all spend their lifetime attempting. I will miss Girton, Merela, Aydor and the rest of RJ's amazing creations and I will no doubt re-read this series many times until my own children are old enough and I can enthusiastically share it with them.

I look forward to the next gift RJ Barker chooses to share with the world

Onward!

Michael Gruneir - 10/10
 

This King of Assassins book review was written by and Michael Gruneir

All reviews for: The Wounded Kingdom

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