RJ Barker's debut, Age of Assassins, is a coming-of-age story which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. There were varied and mixed reactions, however, due to expectation. Most readers who were disappointed expected a book about an assassin kicking ass and taking names. While Girton did do some of that, it was not in the way that one typically anticipate from a story with an assassin in the title. For me, however, this was the reason why I liked Age of Assassins as much as I did. It was not what I thought it would be, but I still find it entertaining and fascinating. A club-footed assassin? Who would have thought it could work? Well, it did. By employing the fighting art of the assassin in the form of dance-like iterations, which club-foot or not, one can imagine the swiftness and fluidity of such movements negating the deformity.
I cannot mention much about the plot without spoiling the first book, except to say that the events herein take place five years after the conclusion of the preceding volume, and we return to the Tired Lands where a war wages between three kings. Girton, after travelling across various lands with his master lending their deadly skills to whoever willing to hire them, found himself landed squarely in the midst of the war and back in the company of his best friend, Rufra.
The five years which have passed seem to have quite a psychological impact on Girton. With his dark and fatal secret, known only to him and his master, Girton struggled with inner demons and frankly, a significant level of angst. The story is told from the first person perspective of our main protagonist, and as such, the reader gets substantially under his skin and deep into his thoughts and emotions. There were times when I got annoyed with him and wanted to smack some sense into his stubborn head. At the same time, however, I can also empathise with his inner conflicts and obstinacy judging from what he has experienced, seen and done. In the end, I still rooted for him and found the growth of his character compelling and realistic.
We are cursed to be the sum of our deeds, black as they may be. They are like an arrow; once the shot is made, there is no escaping the consequences.
The worldbuilding in The Wounded Kingdom, though not unseen before, is far from derivative. The Tired Lands is named as such as the land itself is suffering from the kind of sickness that sucks the life out of the earth. And it was caused by sorcery. The magic in the world is imbued into the very life of the land and its beings. People who have the gift to draw upon the magic to perform sorcery are hence viewed to be a great threat to the world. Then there is the lore of the old gods, who have all died, save for one, and 'hedgings'. Given the way the people curse on the names of these hedgings, one can only allude to the possibility that they are evil beings or demons, or perhaps just really powerful sorcerers of old. If there is one aspect of the narrative which I cannot complain about, it is info-dumping. In fact, I would like to get a bit more expository writing. For example, I still do not know what a 'yellower' truly means. And who or what are all these hedgings, such as Dark Ungar, Fitchgrass and Blue Watta? Instead, there are a few bizarre dream sequences where Girton encounters these strange manifestations. Thankfully, these do not occur with regularity.
The biggest improvement I find in the sequel are the action and battle scenes. There is a lot more killing and death in this instalment with fight scenes that are both visceral and strangely almost beautiful in its gore and violence. Again, there isn't any 'assassination' of the sort we are familiar with - killing done under the cover of night or covert circumstances. Girton and his master are as much performers as well as killers, their way of fighting almost an art in itself. And I enjoyed this interpretation; this original telling of a non-typical assassin story.
There is something about Blood of Assassins which made it quite a page-turner, and that is its unpredictability. I had no idea where the plot is heading to, which made me eager to keep reading whenever I can. Similar to Age of Assassins, there is an element of mystery which our main character is again tasked to unravel. Odd bits and pieces of conversation here and there, a character interaction which did not seem significant; all tied together marvellously as the revelations are brought to light.
The conclusion wraps up the current arc superbly with a scene which had me on the edge of my seat. The best part is that the final book of the trilogy is mere months away. There is no doubt that I will look forward to reading the finishing chapter of this unique tale.