Master Assassins – An Undiscovered Gem

51w4sn4d2bclI am always a little wary of fantasy books about assassins. You never really know what you are going to get – will it be pulse-pounding action and mystery like The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, or will it be based on politics, intrigue, and aristocratic courts like Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb? As I went into today’s book, Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick, I was expecting it to fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two options. However, Master Assassins surprised me by not actually being about assassins. Instead, this book tells the tale of two brothers running from the world and their perilous journey to escape a fate worse than death.

The book is set on a continent isolated from the wider world. Due to a plague, that our cast carries but is unaffected by, the continent is forcibly isolated and kept from interacting with outside nations. This has a profoundly negative effect on the people and land and gives rise to a religious pope-like prophet who proclaims to herald a new future for the people of this sequestered land. Almost all individuals of fighting age are drafted into the prophet’s army, and she leads them all with an iron fist with the help of her beloved sons. The plot of Master Assassins revolves around two brothers, Kan and Mek. They begin the story as loyal members of the prophet’s army, but when unfortunate manslaughter-related events occur they are forced to run with an entire nation nipping at their heels. The name of the book is actually a joke perpetuated in the story. Despite the murder of the prophet’s son being an accident, Kan and Mek are considered by the wider public to be master assassins who possess untold cunning in their methods of infiltration and elimination.

The plot of the book is compelling and well paced. There is a clear sense of believable urgency in the actions of Mek and Kan as they must fight to remain a step ahead of their pursuers. Redick also does a fantastic job foreshadowing and executing on the roadblocks that the brothers must pass if they are to escape with their lives. The narration bounces between the boys running for their lives as adults, and flashbacks to their formative years to show you how they came to be the men they are now. The world itself is fascinating, exploring a number of ideas I haven’t seen before in fantasy. Redick goes into depth about the various methods that other nations have used to isolate this continent – including diverting rivers, ship blockades, and moving mountains. The details really bring Redick’s world to life and further sell the danger and difficulty that Kan and Mek face.

Speaking of the brothers, they certainly are a handful. One thing I like about all of Redick’s characters (in particular Kan and Mek) is they have large personalities. Some of them are irritating and grating, but they all feel loud and real. They have memorable identities that will stick with you long after the book is finished and I wish other authors would make casts as vibrant as this one. Through the course of their journey, the brothers meet a huge variety of people and must carefully decide who to trust. Their interactions with the people around them and the various backstories of the supporting cast, all help to bring the story to life.

As to what I didn’t like about the book – while Redick has a supreme talent for storytelling, I wasn’t overly impressed with his prose. Often times I found certain text “blocky” or awkward, and I feel that he could have done a lot to smooth out some of the dialogue and descriptives. I would find myself deeply invested as our protagonists navigated treacherous cliffs of a drained sea – only to be kicked out of my immersion by some awkward phrasing or strange comments. Additionally, while the plot of Master Assassins is captivating, and the plot takes you through a variety of different locations and vistas, I felt like the story didn’t progress enough relative to the size of the book. While the minute to minute interactions and excitement feel fast-paced, the progress towards the greater objectives in the book could feel glacial. However, my critiques are more of a personal nature than mechanical problems with the book. I am sure that many will read it and wonder how I could have found issue with any of the things I have listed here.

Masters Assassins is a delightful surprise. It marries classic tried and true fantasy storytelling techniques, like the hero’s quest, with modern themes and an excellent world and character design. The book feels both vibrant and alive with a cast of characters that leap from the pages into your room as you read it. My one hang up was personal issues with Redick’s style of prose, but this is a personal preference more than a concrete issue. Master Assassins is the first book in The Fire Sacraments series, and we cannot wait to get our hands on the next installment.

Rating: Master Assassins – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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Age Of Assassins – A Blade With A Little Too Much Edge

33296298As per usual, I often spend a good chunk of the start of a year catching up on books I missed from the year before (which causes me to miss more books this year, it’s a vicious cycle). Up next in my 2017 cleanup is Age of Assassins, by R. J. Barker. Assassins are a tricky subject to tackle in fantasy. In the past I have gone into assassin novels expecting constant action and murder, but assassination has typically been more of a waiting game than anything else – which can leave me disappointed. So when I realized that this book had all the soul of other classic assassin novels, with great pacing, I was quite excited to dig in. But first, let’s talk plot.

Girton Club-foot, apprentice assassin, still has much to learn from his master (Merela) before he can strike out on his own. However, thanks to a past she can’t outrun, Merela strikes a bargain with a queen to hire Girton as an assassin/bodyguard to kill the other assassins after her son, Aydor. So a sheltered Girton is thrust into knight training and must navigate the perils of friendship, mystery, and political intrigue. If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a coming of age story about Girton. The book primarily follows the first person POV of Girton and follows him as he essentially shifts from assassin homeschool, to knight public school. On top of this, there is the mystery of who is trying to murder prince Aydor, and a lot of political intrigue around the noble families of the world. The three elements of storytelling (coming of age, mystery, and political intrigue) pair with a fast pace for a thrilling read, but there are also some issues.

First let’s talk about Girton. Right off the bat, let me say that I think Girton is an incredibly well written character that does a very good job placing you in his shoes. The problem is sometimes his shoes are terrible and I don’t want to wear them. I would describe Girton as that socially awkward friend that every person has, where nine times out of ten they are wonderful to be around, and one time out of ten they are a cataclysm of awkwardness. I honestly think this is a realistic portrait of a boy who basically never had a friend until the age of 14 and spends most of his time learning the most efficient way to murder people. However, that doesn’t make his extremely awkward or edgy passages fun to read. Generally Girton is a fun and endearing boy to read about as he awkwardly makes his first social steps. However, his secret assassin background enables some internal power fantasy monologues that shattered my empathy for him like throwing a mark through a window. The appeal of the characters in general was very varied. My favorite group of characters was the “suspects”, or the various individuals around the castle that Girton investigated to see if they were behind the attempts on Aylor’s life. This group were varied, well fleshed out, and had a lot of personality that really brought the mystery to life and made you wonder who was behind the assassination attempts. On the other hand, Girton, his master, Aylor, and a few others fell flat for me. Aylor in particular, clearly trying to embody the “jackass prince who will become a spoiled terrible king” trope under delivered. I was initially worried that he would be an over the top asshole, but I instead found I was generally apathetic about him and not invested in him getting his comeuppance.

Along a similar line, the plot also felt like it varied in quality. The pacing was very fast, which was both good and bad. In some chapters I found myself on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. In others, I found myself metaphorically shot from a cannon through world and character development, so that the payoff of story arcs was smaller than it could have been. For example, there were a few small passages that talked about the origin and structure of Girton’s assassin organization, but they are so few and far between that they left me wanting. In addition, it was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the “horses” of Age of Assassins were a cross between elk, tigers, and boars and I am super disappointed the book did not spend more time talking about these rideable death machines. The mystery and political intrigue elements were much more solid, remaining strong almost throughout the book. There were a couple of small twists that a blind man could have seen coming from the horizon, but as a whole the core mystery was extremely well done and I found myself deathly (get it? Because assassins) curious about the identity of the culprit until the final pages. Finally, Barker has a real talent for action writing. The action sequences in Age of Assassins were definitely a highlight, and they satisfied my desire to see a well-trained assassin murder large groups of people.

Overall, Age of Assassins was slightly disappointing. The book felt like a long prologue that could have been a lot better with a little more depth. However, the bones of something excellent are here and I am going to stick with the series and give the second book a shot. If you are in the market for a coming of age story about assassins, and are willing to forgive a little awkwardness, you should give Age of Assassins a shot.

Rating: Age of Assassins – 6.0/10

Series Check-In – Vlad Taltos

Today I am trying something a little different. Awhile back I reviewed the first three books in the Vlad Taltos series, starting with Jhereg, by Steven Brust. I enjoyed the books a bunch, so much so that I have continued and read nine of the sequels. It is difficult and repetitive for me to post reviews of each of those sequels, so when reading large series like this I hardly ever do. On the other hand, I have invested a lot of time and energy into nine books to not say anything about them, and I have some thoughts on my journey so far. As such I thought I should do a series check-in and give you some general spoiler free thoughts as to if Vlad Taltos is worth your time. I will let you know that I just finished the ninth (sorta) book in the series, Dragon, and that all of these thoughts are from those nine books.

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If you missed my first review, Vlad Taltos is planned to be a roughly 17 book series (with 14 of the books out so far). The book follows the stories of a human assassin named Vlad working in the Dragaeran (sorta like elves) empire where he is a constant outsider. The empire is broken down into 17 houses and each book in the series both showcases one of the houses, indicated by the titles, and slowly builds the story of Vlad and his companions. The difficulty with big series like this is that they inherently have slower (but usually better) character development as the stories are almost always about the growth and change of a character over a large number of books. This has both benefits, like that you grow very attached and invested in the cast, and drawbacks, such as the initial books in the series often aren’t that engaging. When I finished Jhereg I was lukewarm on Vlad because while I thought his character was amusing and fun, he had some tendencies that made him seem like he was trying to be a badass all the time and constantly falling short. What felt like awkward character writing at the start of the story has revealed itself to be intentional character flaws and long term character development. Speaking of characters, when I initially started this series (and for the first three books really) I assumed that this was a story solely about Vlad. However, the more that I read the more I realize that it is really about his relationships with the people around him and learning to find companionship and love in a world where both are culturally looked down on and where one is an outsider. It is a wonderful theme, and as I have learned more about Vlad’s friends and family, they have steadily moved from fond acquaintances to close friends.

While the characters are certainly the series’ driving force, the plot becomes surprisingly nuanced and captivating as well. Brust published the books out of chronological order, which results in the timelines of the stories being an absolute mess. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in big series because I feel it prevents a meaningful linear storyline from developing. While I still wish that Vlad Taltos was chronological, Brust is a master of information manipulation and has written his series so that even though the books aren’t in the order they happened you have this sense of a growing body of knowledge. An example of this is I just read the third book chronologically, but the ninth in publishing order. While none of the events that happen in this book can effect what is happening in the current timeline (or rather, the furthest point in time chronologically), I am learning information and twists from the third book that greatly alter my understanding of what is happening in the ninth. You realize quickly that the details matter and that the closer you pay attention to the little things in the book the more you will be rewarded. This keeps you on your toes as you read and does a great deal to keep the books feeling fresh.

Speaking of keeping things fresh, when I finished the first few books I was a little worried that the series might fatigue me as they share a lot of similarities. Brust relieves this by beginning to drastically change the style of his narration and storytelling in each book. Each house in the Dragaeran Empire gets its name from different animals they were genetically altered with, and the qualities of that animal they embody. The translations from animal to behavior to cultural values are not always intuitive (especially when some of the animals are original to Brust), but they are all definitely distinct. As such, the story of each book reflects the house it is about. In the last three books I have read one was on self discovery that was deeply philosophical, one that was a murder mystery, and military adventure about a civil war. Each of these books did a great job of teaching me about their respective houses, adding to the collective plot, and changing up Brusts formula to keep me from being even slightly fatigued.

When I read a series that has 10+ books, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish if I like the books or if I am just mentally trying to justify the amount of time that I have sunk into them. With Vlad Taltos I can safely say it is the former, and I have found myself changing up my reading schedule to read ‘just one more Vlad book’. While I was lukewarm about Jhereg, the more time I have spend with Vlad and his friends, the higher my passion for the series has risen. I have definitely started to see why some consider this one of the best fantasy series of all time, and I recommend you dig in and see for yourself.