‘Age of Assassins’ is a cleverly-rendered fantasy that subtly blends genres to create a unique voice and world. Ostensibly epic, it actually takes place in a single castle, and deals with matters of state, so is technically high fantasy as well, although the protagonist narrator, Girton, is a low-born assassin so enigmatic even he doesn’t know who he is. He and his Master, who refreshingly is female, are tasked with breaking into the castle, only to find themselves caught in a trap. They must then solve a murder that has not yet taken place: who wants to kill the heir to the throne? Well, lots of people as it happens, because the heir to the throne is a cretinous, bullying scumbag whose incompetence is masked by his clever mother, the Queen.
Mother and son relationships are at the heart of the story. The Master may not be the protagonist’s birth mother, but she performs that function admirably; rescuing the club-footed boy when he is tiny and training him in the dark and subtle arts of the assassin. That many of these skills involve theatre should come as no surprise; both characters use disguise as a means of getting close to their target, although intriguingly in this case they don’t know who the target is.
Unusually for a fantasy book, the novel then shifts into Sherlock Holmes territory as the Master uses her incredible talents in mysterious but ultimately revelatory ways to uncover a complex conspiracy, while her young charge narrates matters as best he can with almost no information. Meanwhile, he undergoes various trials of his own, including pretending to be a useless squire and falling in love with a pretty stable girl who, like everyone else, may not be what she seems.
The magic here is depicted as a force for destruction that literally sucks the life out of the countryside and everything in it. Reading these sequences, one cannot help but feel that fantasy, as much as science fiction, operates as a metaphor for our own times and politics in curious and unexpected ways.
The language used in place names is interesting too; informed by the resonant, familiar-and-yet-not structures of native Welsh, it somehow blends chivalry and folklore in a more convincing way than other fantasy novels, which often come up with titles by simply leaving out vowels.
There are other splendid indicators of the otherwordly, particularly the mounts, which in common with those of ‘Book of the New Sun’ are fanged, antlered monsters rather than equally improbable armour-clad horsies. The Master’s mount, Xus, is a great character, with an unexpectedly moving story arc of his own.
However, the most satisfying narrative concerns the Master and the Queen. That they have a shared history forms a relational edifice every bit as daunting as the castle itself, with its murder holes and secret ways. RJ Barker is a male author who writes really good female characters with as much agency and intrigue as compassion. It would be simplistic to dismiss them – particularly the Queen – as psychopathic, although admittedly they edge close to the ruthless clear-sightedness of that condition. Rather, they have their own ambitions that are defined by the medieval setting as being literal matters of life and death. These are the people who will determine what happens next and why, with full knowledge of the dreadful price of failure.