Master Assassins is the start of a fantasy series by Robert V.S. Redick. There’s a lot of heart in it – bloody, raw, messy story, one which rewards in depth investigation, but also provides the visceral impact of fire, blood and high-stakes terror.
The centre of the story are a pair of half-siblings, Kandri and Mektu. Kandri acts as the narrator, and our eye into the world. He is thoughtful, conflicted, and a romantic. As a man struggling with the results of his first great love, and with an ongoing rivalry with Mektu, the fault lines in his character are clear. Those lined are blurred by Kandris’ clear affection for his sibling, the shared experience, the shared pain which brings them together. Kandri is analytical, often afraid, but still someone to act opportunistically when required. Mektu, his half-brother, is something else. There is an individual who can talk. An extrovert without limits. Willing to chat the hind legs off of a donkey, or the sword out of someone’s hand before he cracks them over the head. But that gab is balanced by an impulsiveness, a desire to say the funny thing, rather than the smart thing. Mektu carries a one which rocks the boat, which accepts the restrains of authority only reluctantly. Mektu is the imp of the perverse, a man designed to outrage, who doesn’t always think far enough ahead to see the consequences of his choices. It's a complex pairing, a head-and-heart duo, whose relationship is often more than a little fraught. They’re tied together by a complex bond of blood and loyalty, and of past shared experiences which are slowly unfurled over the course of the text.
In this they’re assisted by an ensemble cast – ranging from their distant, mysterious father, through the quietly menacing and clearly barking mad Prophet who has led their people out of slavery, through a young soldier struggling with her experiences of violence, to the fanatical warriors of the Prohet’s religion, and the cold-hearted pragmatists fighting against them. As in reality, no-one here is just one thing, just vile, just a saint. No, they’re a swirling mass of contradictions, large and small, each a nuanced portrayal of an individual.
That’s helped by the world, of course. Redick shows us a continent wrapped in dysfunction and conflict after being quarantined by the rest of the world. It’s inward looking by necessity, a seething cauldron of political relationships, warfare and blood. We gain a sense of history too, of the old wrongs that shaped this world into its current, rather terrible state. And while religious wars play out, there’s a great many wonders on display around them. There’s a shattered salt pan of a desert, made when the sea which used to inhabit it was ‘stolen’. The winds ripping through the dunes, and the towering, twisted spires which once were islands are sights to inspire and awe. Then there’s the city on the edge of the sea, a broken-down metropolis run by an autocrat. This is a world whose sights feel real, where military camps and small farming communities and sweeping deserts are all realised with the same vivid intensity, in a world which manages to feel viscerally alive.
The story – well, that would be telling. But watching the dynamic duo as they scrabble to escape the many, many people who want them dead is a delight. The story begins as a bit of a slow burn, but catches fire by the halfway mark, leaving me rapidly turning pages trying to work out what happened next. There’s some great stuff in here; the exploration of the brother’s relationship is thoughtful, nuanced and sometimes raw and painful, but feels genuine. The splashes of magic and the supernatural scattered throughout add some sparkle, and their rarity increases their impact. There’s a not-small order of battles and some seriously well-crafted and kinetic fight scenes as well.
Overall, this is a work of intelligent, layered fantasy which will likely reward multiple reads; definitely worth a look.