I 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