We are now somewhere in the middle of the fantasy shrapnel cloud that exploded some time around the release of the Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings films. As pieces whiz by with greater frequency, the titles have become meaningless blurs—The Dragon’s Sword, A Warrior’s Oath, and Shield & Throne are titles I just invented but could easily be on the market somewhere. Fantasy’s covers have stretched further and further apart—like a waistline after pasta and beer—as writers worldbuild ad nauseum. Its clichés and stereotypes have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to the point subversion is almost meaningless. Its low roads have been ridden hard, and its high roads occasionally explored. It has been integrated with every other genre out there—romance, noir, mystery, horror, etc.—in attempts to be fresh and innovative. And with self-publishing an option, it seems everybody and their brother is writing an epic fantasy trilogy. How then to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the useless? Trial and error, unfortunately. With R.J. Barker’s Age of Assassins (2017), first in The Wounded Land trilogy, I can report the former more than the latter.
Given almost all fantasy book blurbs these days blend together into an empty nothingness, I’m tempted not to offer a plot summary of Age of Assassins. So, short and simple: Girton is apprentice to the master assassin Merela in Castle Meriyanoc, and together they work to find the person who is trying to assassinate Aidor, heir to the throne. Requiring Girton to go undercover among the kingdom’s knights-in-training, he learns the Castle is home to a lot more enmity than he ever imagined, and it will require all of his wits to stay alive, let alone catch the culprit.
Very much a classic fantasy coming of age story, Age of Assassins pokes its nose just through the shrapnel cloud of fantasy titles on the market these days in two areas. The first is the mystery built around who is plotting to kill Aidor. Barker builds this in positively suspenseful, page-turning fashion. Girton’s sneaking around the castle and eavesdropping, as well as his confrontation with the various secondary characters are handled fluidly. From the variegated interests to the suspects’ situations, Barker plays these elements off one another wonderfullyIs the priest part of the conspiracy, or just weird? Why do people dislike Rufra? Who is the sorcerer who killed the boy? Is master Merala involved? And as the story moves on, the reader finds themselves questioning even the supposed assassination target himself, Aidor, if he is not somehow involved. Tying these threads into a knot upon the novel’s conclusion, it all snowballs satisfyingly.
The second, and I would argue stronger, area where Barker elevates Age of Assassins above its peers is in delivering a compact package. Eschewing the minutae of worldbuilding in favor of concise plot and character focus, the novel moves at a good pace, contains several moments of surprise to keep the reader off balance, and has just enough character and scene detail to paint the pictures unique to the story in the reader’s mind. The bulk (no pun intended) of the fantasy shrapnel cloud these days composed of bloated worldbuilding, Age of Assassins delivers tight focus, and is all the more readable for it.
With such a complex plot, are there holes? Yes, here and there. Barker does his damndest to hand wave and explain, but they remain. Are there cheesy scenes? Yes, there are a few, but I think these can be chalked up to the novel being graded for the YA audience. When looking at those scenes through teenage eyes, they feel somewhat natural, losing their awkwardness. And for as much as it’s worth, Barker keeps such scenes free of truly maudlin one-liners.
In the end, Age of Assassins feels a very close cousin to Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice but with more punch. Both YA, coming of age stories featuring young assassins who are close to dramatic events happening around the throne of a fantasy kingdom, Barker sets his story apart from Hobb’s by pushing pace a little harder and spending less time developing the main character. As such, he is able to put more plot into his book, which, coupled with the excellently built mystery, makes for a page-turning read. Girton maintains something of a super hero profile, but his doubts and concerns are honest and relatable, which helps give the impression he is a developed character. I will not say Age of Assassins is a breath of fresh air in fantasy (that is impossible these days), but I will say that despite the hail of shrapnel flying around it Age of Assassins at least makes for a tight, fun read.