King of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom, 3)
Orbit, 9 August 2018
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of King of Assassins.
So it's over. Barker's trilogy chronicling the life of Girton Club-Foot, assassin, sorcerer, friend, enemy, Heartblade to King Rufra ap Vythr - and murderer - finishes in triumph. I don't mean that the book is about triumph - it isn't, that would be client to the nature of the series which is about small wins, loyalty, friendship and suffering. Girton doesn't end loaded with honours, titles and lands - rather he foresees a blade coming in the dark (in other words, his life is much as it ever was).
No, I mean the story is a triumph. We've followed Girton through highs and lows, hoped for him, feared for him and, frankly, loved him. One moment in Blood of Assassins, when he does something deeply dishonourable (but totally understandable) gave rise to the hashtag #OhGirton, a phrase I've increasingly muttered to myself as I read these books. I don't think I can recall a protagonist over whom I have worried as I have with Girton. Through the books he has carried a terrible secret: that he can practice magic, a thing abhorred and forbidden in this world. If this came out, Girton would die a horrible death. The secret has driven a wedge between him and his King, Rufra, and has nearly been revealed several times. Yes the real worry is not Girton being "found out" so much as him overreaching, acting out of pride or fear and being unable to step back again. That he will lose himself. That we will lose him.
And now, as we reach the endgame, we fear for Girton as never before. Rufra is taking his Court to the capital, Ceadoc, where the High King is dead and the nobles of the Tired Lands will conspire and politic to elect a replacement. Ceadoc proves a truly awful place, riven by treachery and deeply corrupt. The trials will pose many dangers and temptations and will test Girton to his limits, and beyond - will they reveal what he is, and separate him from Rufra forever?
All the familiar elements are here: the Sons of Arnst with their fanatic leader Danfoth, sinister priest Neander, the Landsmen whose duty is to hunt down and kill sorcerers. And there are new perils too, new and troubling magic right at the heart of the Kingdom.
Barker weaves a compelling and heartstopping tale around all this, giving us mystery inside mystery - not only new puzzles (assassinations, the curious state of Ceadoc itself, the enigmatic Gamelon, Steward of Ceadoc) but the culmination of things going back decades - including the story of Merala herself, Girton's Master, and the explanation of certain events in Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins. (I will, I think, have to go back and reread those books in the right of what I know now). It's all very neatly done, but that's not why I declare this book a triumph. No, the reason for that is the subject matter and how Barker handles it.
There are big issues around the Tired Lands - why magic use is so destructive, what became of the Gods and whether they can ever return, how the Age of Balance came to an end, to name only three. As a magic-user Rufra is at the heart of some of this, sensing the "souring" of the Land, walking (almost, perhaps) with the Gods. In a more conventional fantasy Girton would be declared the Chosen One and the quest would be for answers to all this. Or perhaps Rufra's task would be to guard the Land from some unspeakably evil invader. Or both Certainly, Rufra's bid for the High Kingship would carry a cosmic significance - not just potentially allow his modest reforms in Maniyadoc to spread more widely.
Barker's brilliance is that he doesn't make these books about the fate of worlds. There is good and evil here, yes, and they clash, but it's about how people express that. It's about relationships - Girton and Merala (I have to confess there were moments in this book with those two where I seemed to get something in my eye...), Girton and Rufra, Girton and Aydor. The struggle is for these people to be better people, to be what they should to each other, to confess to what they mean to each other. The magic and the assassining and the battles with Landsmen are less the ends, than the means - forums where these relationships are tried, tested - and broken.
The potential tragedies here are not the land falling to some ancient evil, but the prospect of personal loss, of a dear one being lost (as happens to a friend of Girton's early in the book), relationships wasted or broken. Because Barker makes us care for these people - or perhaps, shows us that we should care for them - this all matters to the reader far more than the fates of empires and kingdoms, would far more than abstract evil does.
Because when evil stalks Ceadoc, people we have come to love suffer and die. And boy how they suffer - some parts of this book make very hard reading, with some cruel deaths.
The greatest fear we have, though, is the fear - the knowledge? - that Girton will go too far, and it will be impossible for things to ever be the same again. So far in these books he has, just, managed to draw back, but with the deadly game in a new and most deadly phrase, how long can that last?
In short, an excellent end to a groundbreaking and glittering trilogy. A real treat, you need to get a copy of this, put everything on hold for a couple of days, and sit down and enjoy it.
Indeed my only frustration was how much more I'd like to have been told - about Festival, about the Age of Balance, about Girton and Merala - but most of all, about Xus, Girton's Mount. Barker's writing is at its best when it comes to the relationship between the two, and I could happily have read whole chapters about this subject. Perhaps, as he hints in the Afterword, he might be persuaded to write some of that...