Blood of Assassins is the second in R.J. Barker’s “The Wounded Kingdom” series. It follows Girton, sometime trainee assassin, sometime artiste, and occasional killer, as he investigates treachery, mendacity, magic, and the occasional murder, in a land broken by malevolent sorcery and internecine warfare.
The Girton of this story is one scarred by war. He’s spent the last few years out on the borders, fighting for pay. We last saw him as a damaged youth, but this is a man who has internalised his own wounds, then coated them over with armour, both metaphorical and physical. The agile sweeps of an assassin’s knives have been put away, and a Warhammer taken up instead. It’s a brute thing, an engine of war which breaks what it touches – and in that choice, the reader can see some of the struggle that Girton has internalised. There’s a rage bubbling up in there, and a sense of the cost of both fighting and running away. He travels with the woman who raised him, his Master, a woman whose unspeakable lethality is matched by a closely held affection for Girton. Their relationship has weathered storms, and the warmth of the complex bond between the two is a joy to behold. That Girton may feel a certain possessiveness makes sense; this relationship, almost parent-and-child, is the one point of stability in a life of disguise, double-bluff and murder. But the text lets him face up to the ugliness of that possessiveness, and isn’t afraid to explore the emotional landscape of the boy-becoming a man. In a life seemingly lacking much non-mentor affection, Girton is emotionally vulnerable, no matter the armour he wears, physical and mental. The loyalty and love Girton has for his master is the emotional heart of the text – or at least one of the lungs; the other is Girton’s relationship to Rufra, perhaps the only friend he has, now a king fighting a war for the throne.
Rufra and Girton work well together because of their history. They’re two boys who fought their way out of something terrible, and have grown into men trying to do the same. Rufra struggles with the demands of kingship – with being a good and just king, with the harsh realities of statecraft, and with balancing those against his own needs. Girton’s return, a reminder of a simpler time, may help him claw back some of the sense of self which being a leader, being a figurehead, takes away. The dialogue between the two, from angry words through to silent affirmations of friendship, is pitch perfect, and emotional depths are quietly and breathtakingly plumbed. This is a book which carries the weight of hurt and fire white hot rage in its prose, and leavens it with an intimacy and humanity which makes it impossible to put down.
Girton is, of course, drawn into the madness of the struggle for the kingdom of Maniyadoc, land already broken and poisoned by sorcery. The atmosphere is one of conflict, of broken bodies and broken promises, where the social bonds that keep everything together have begun to fray – or, in some cases, been deliberately snapped. Maniyadoc continues to fascinate, as the social hierarchy - set in stone by the apparent death of their divinities – begins to disintegrate. The upheaval is not just political, but social, and you can see that in every common soldier starting to think that maybe the knights up on their horses don’t have any idea how to lead. Or in the new wave of priests quietly preaching the ideas of change. Or in the way the Landsmen, killers of magic users, willing to use their blood to return a land to life, will stand aside whilst the political uncertainties wear themselves out. This is a land in flux and crisis, without question, and one where the battles, where the knives in the dark and the swords on the field all come within the wider tapestry of compelling world-building.
The plot? Well, it’s intriguing stuff. Girton investigates a plot to kill a king, and win a throne. There’s espionage. Counter espionage. Betrayals. There’s love, for family and romantically thrown into the mix. There’s a lot of assumptions that get put on display and torn down, as the world rearranges itself over the course of the story. This is a story of mystery and murder, more than a whiff of LeCarré mixed into the cavalry charges and politicking. There’s blood, for sure, and sacrifice, and a feeling of costs and consequences for every inch of progress – and there’s some wonderfully human moments in the mix, and opportunities to grasp a little light and hope in the maelstrom. The scheming is suitably byzantine, the stakes both immediate and personal -the story, spellbinding. If you’ve made it this far, and you want to know if this sequel is worth it, take away an emphatic yes. It’s definitely worth picking this one up.