It is almost a shame that there is so much less publicity garnered by this book, which can easily stand neck-to-neck if not surpass the quality of quite a few others.
This is a well-written and skilfully crafted coming-of-age tale of Girton, a club-footed apprentice to a master assassin. While there may be echoes of the Night Angel series with the orphaned apprentice and master trope, there is nothing derivative about this story. True that there is a sense of familiarity given the well-used concepts of coming-of-age stories with Girton being the subject of bullying, finding friendship in another outcast and unexpected love, yet the story was delivered in a manner that still felt fresh.
The narrative is written in the first-person point-of-view of Girton Club-Foot. His character development, as he slowly comes to terms with who he is, is realistic and endearing with occasional flashbacks in the form of interludes, which do not happen too often as to disrupt the flow of the story. One that is compelling, and augmented by solid supporting characters.
The plot is quite simple with Girton and his master being tasked to uncover the identity of the person behind the plot to assassinate the heir to the throne. This placed him in an undercover role as a lowly squire-in-training in the castle where he was then subjected to the usual problems when young men form cliques and bully the misfits. As much as these seemed clichéd, I typically enjoy its inclusion in such stories as it is very much a fact of life, whether in medieval or modern times. And I am always gladdened when the culprits received their well-deserved comeuppance.
I loved the component of mystery in this novel, which to my delight is superbly executed and kept me guessing right until the end. The heir is quite a despicable person, and with all the political and courtly intrigue that is gradually revealed, it just appeared that a whole of people wanted him dead and for valid reasons. How does one uncover the real mastermind under such circumstances?
As with stories involving assassins, readers will want to be shown and not told that so-and-so is a badass killer, etc. There is definitely sufficient showing in here, demonstrated in a fascinating fashion. Almost like a dance, Girton and his master performed iterations with names like “the Precise Steps”, “the Placing of the Rose” or “Boatgirl’s Dip” while fighting. Unlike one popular epic fantasy series which utilised stylistic terms to describe sword forms, these iterations were actually explained so that I understood the movements it entailed.
The world that RJ Barker created fits the title of the series most aptly. The Tired Lands is bleak and magic-scorched, and where sorcerers are deemed as abominations. People are designated by three different classes, and there is a pervasive feeling of a broken kingdom. While the in-world mythology took quite some time to be unravelled and terminology understood, it did not present much a struggle and was delivered quite seamlessly into the story without disrupting the flow.
Barker's prose is fluid, accessible and drives the narrative forward without being too simple nor given to unnecessary complexity. As such, the pages turned quickly, and with the engaging narrative, I finished the book most expediently. I wholeheartedly look forward to the sequel and highly recommend this book to all fantasy readers.