[Review] Master Assassins – A Languid Examination of Character and War (Feat. Giant Cat Mounts)

Master Assassins

Title: Master Assassins (The Fire Sacraments 1)
Author: Robert V.S. Redick
Publisher: Talos
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 460 pages

Rating: 8.5/10





Okay. Before we get started, I’m going to give a bit of advice on how you might want to approach this book. Lay down some primer.

See, this isn’t a book that you’ll read the first 80 pages of and go, “Wow, this is a fantastic story!” and start pointing out every part of it that you love. You can’t. At least, I couldn’t. I had no idea what I felt about it in the beginning.

It’s like an interpretive dance. At first you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing–it all feels so disparate and strange–but there’s something about it that urges you to stay and watch. And once you do, you fall into the rhythm of the prose and the characters, and what was strange before becomes a part of the experience, the reality that this world projects. You start to get invested.

So, my advice? Try to stay with it for at least half of the book. It might surprise you.

Now. On with the show.

The title “Master Assassins” is a bit of an inside joke. The story is about two young men– half-brothers Kandri and Mektu–who blunder into one mistake after another and find themselves inadvertently becoming the most wanted and accomplished assassins in the continent. Our “assassins” reside in Urrath, a land (home of the Chiloto, among many other clans) that has been contested for centuries by various conquering nations. Most recently, it’s been taken over by the Vazeks and the Chiloto people have endured centuries of slaughter and subjugation under their rule. Then a young Prophet came into the picture. She’s the Joan of Arc of this world; claimed to be chosen by the Gods to lead her people to unity and freedom, she took up the mantle of leader, and under her power, a vast army formed. Present day, this army has retaken a vast a majority of Urrath. But the Vazeks will not bow down easily.

The immediate thing that jumps out is the prose. It’s something you don’t really see in epic fantasy. For one, much of it is told in third-person present tense. For another, it’s very stylized; there are a lot of sentence fragments and bits of stream-of-consciousness. The closest comparison I can make is The Court of Broken Knives mixed with Kai Ashante Wilson–the dialogue resembles the latter more, a distinct mixture of coarse and melodic–and like those book, the style will not appeal to everyone. It played right into my tastes, though.

The story is told from Kandri’s point-of-view, alternating from the present to flashbacks that reveal details of his childhood. Kandri is the steadier of the two brothers. He hates fighting and despises killing even more, yet circumstances have landed him as a soldier in the Prophet’s army. I quite liked him; he’s thoughtful and empathetic–a perfect lead character.

Mektu was my favourite, however. He’s coarse and irreverent and oscillates from hyperanxiety to excitement; his interests flit from one shiny thing to the next. He says some bizarre and shitty things but I couldn’t really hold it against him because he’s so blissfully unaware of how people would react to his words and actions. He reminds me a bit of Michael Scott from The Office (U.S version). He’s not mean-spirited, he just has no social filter. You get the sense that he’s a child in the body of an adult; there’s an innocence to him that I couldn’t help but find endearing.

Kandri’s relationship with Mektu is the heart of the story and it’s one of rivalry and exasperated acceptance. And also love. They bicker constantly but they lean on one another for support and there is little doubt of the strength of their bond. I said before that I wanted more fantasy stories focusing on sibling relationships, and here I got a great one.

The world of Master Assassins isn’t built meticulously from the ground up, but through a scattering of details that you have to collect and piece together. This frustrated me quite a bit in the beginning. Everything felt vague and incomplete. I got the idea that something catastrophic has happened to the world–there’s talk of a “World Plague,” and how the Urrathi are immune to it–but little else was offered beyond that. There was a lot of name-drops but little sense to where these places resided and what they looked like.

Then I got a quarter of the way through and came across this passage:

History, geography, politics, the classic Urrathi tales: none of these were taught any longer, save by private tutors.

And a switch flipped in my head. I realized that the readers don’t have a good grasp of the world and its culture and history because our narrator, Kandri, doesn’t have a good grasp of the world. Once I understood this, things started to get less frustrating and a lot more exciting. I no longer cared that these names had little context or texture because now I knew it was the same for Kandri. We were both fumbling along in the dark together. And I think this is a brilliant bit of writing craft by the author–ignorance that doesn’t exclude us from the characters, but connects us together. There are mysteries that run through the story and I was stoked to uncover the secrets of this land alongside our heroes.

And the worldbuilding we do get is original and exciting. It’s a strange, brutal yet beautiful world–a curious amalgamation of medieval and modern. There are tame riding cats, clockwork contraptions, vultures bigger than elephants, a string of towering islands across an ocean robbed of its water. The images conjured are at once quiet and arresting:

They are walking on dragonflies, hundreds of thousands strong, black pearl eyes and rainbow wings, dessicated, dead. All of them facing the same direction, which happens to be their own. As if the swarm had set its collective mind on crossing the Yskralem and flown due east, low and purposeful, moving as on. Until strength abandoned them, or the last trace of water in their bodies, or simply their will…For over a mile, they wade in this river of silver corpses. Then the wind starts to blow, and the insects click and clatter over the salt pan like a curtain of beads.

Besides Kanri and Mektu, all the characters are diverse and colourful, not just in terms of race and gender but also in personality. No two people they meet are the same: Uncle Chindilan, the Master Smith, who’s not really their uncle (just a family friend); wise Eshett who was captured by human traffickers and is now trying to return home; Talupeke, a hot-headed young soldier seeking revenge for a betrayal, who also happens to be an absolute beast with knives. They are complex characters brought together by happenstance and the author does well to showcase them all equally.

The story wasn’t without its problems, the foremost being that it took me a while to get into it. A fair chunk of the middle is spent on Kandri and co. running for their lives across the oceanless ocean, which was a little tedious (the pacing felt VERY slow, and I’m talking as a Robin Hobb fanatic). Worry not, though, because latter part is thrilling and eerie and got me eager for the next installment. The colloquial dialogue also threw me off at first. While I did get used to it, there were still some that I found a little weird and jarring. There is also mention of child prostitution, rape, and human trafficking, which may turn off some readers.

Most interestingly, I think, the author posits questions you don’t often see in stories about an oppressed group of people and the rebellion that eventually follows.

What happens when your leader, your savior, the one who has liberated your people from slavery and genocide, begins to exercise the same kind of censorship and brutality as your former subjugators, albeit in a slightly different way?

What happens when you replace one conqueror with another?

What happens when you find that you have become the enemy of your own people and faith?

Master Assassins is a story of a rebellion within a rebellion. A story of the cost of war and the complicated bonds between family. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fulfilling one. And I recommend you give it a shot.


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