[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
Goodreads

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.

 

Most Anticipated Scifi & Fantasy: Feb-April 2018

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2018 has some incredible books coming out, and since I can’t narrow the list down to a reasonable number (and since you don’t want to spend days scrolling through a blog post), I’m dividing them into chunks! Three months per genre, starting with Scifi and Fantasy. And yes, I’m lumping them into one.

FEBRUARY

The Armored Saint by Myke Cole

The Armored Saint
First of a trilogy, The Armored Saint is Myke Cole’s first foray into epic fantasy. I haven’t had a chance to read his Shadow Ops series, but I’ve heard many good things about it, so I figure this would be a good introduction to his writing.

The story features Heloise, a young village girl fighting oppression in a land of machines and magic. It sounds dark, gritty, and the themes are right up alley.

Releases February 20th

MARCH

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone

This YA fantasy debut has been receiving early accolatdes left and right, and no wonder. The cover is phenomenal, the worldbuilding sounds complex, and it’s already been nabbed by Fox for movie development. It’s yet another story revolving around oppression and revolution.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Releases March 6th

Imposter Syndrome by Mishell Baker

Imposter Syndrome
Borderlines, the first book in The Arcadia Project series, is one of my favourite urban fantasy books and it introduced me to Millie Roper, who is, hands down, my favourite urban fantasy protagonist ever. Mishell Baker draws from her own experiences and seamlessly incorporates Millie’s BPD and disability into the story without letting it define her character. She’s clever, funny, and when she fucks up, she really fucks up.

I can’t wait to read more of her.

Releases March 13th

Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick

Master AssassinsIt’s been blurbed by Pat Rothfuss and given a rave review by Mark Lawrence–what more can I say? The generic title belies a summary that’s chock full of excitement and teases a dark adventure in a non-medieval setting. Most importantly, it promises something that I want to see more of in epic fantasy: sibling relationships. Plus, the cover features a saber cat and a lady whose arm appears to be on fire, which is always a cool combination.

Releases March 20th

 

Torn by Rowenna Miller

Torn
The first of the Unraveled Kingdom Series, Torn proposes a protagonist with a unique talent: magical dressmaking. I’m always on the lookout for fantasy stories that feature women in traditionally “domestic” roles, so this caught my eye immediately. Plus, it seems to have a bit of everything I love: revolutions, political intrigue, fancy balls, and romance.

Releases March 20th

 

Anna Undreaming by Thomas Welsh

Anna UndreamingAnna Undreaming is the first of the Metiks Fade trilogy. It’s an urban fantasy with a super fascinating premise–artists who can literally create new realities.

[Anna] finds herself hunted by Dreamers—artists, both good and evil, who construct new worlds—within a complex community that threatens to undermine reality itself. When Anna learns that she’s an Undreamer with powers she cannot yet comprehend, she must travel through their strange and treacherous creations to discover that there’s as much beauty in life as there is darkness. As her existence spirals into wonder and danger, Anna must look deep within herself and face the horrors of her own past, to save her old world as well as her new one.

Releases March 20th

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of INnis Lear
Three Queens. One crown. All out war.

Tessa Gratton’s adult debut is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear with a feminist bent.

I’m very interested to see what changes, if any, are made to the original plot, and how the fantasy elements are woven in.

Releases March 27th

 

APRIL

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Grey Ssiter

I swear Mark Lawrence gets better with every book he writes. Red Sister was his best one yet, full of intricate magics, violence, and exploration of female relationships, all woven with lush prose.

If he continues on in this trend, I have no doubt Grey Sister will be my new favourite Lawrence book.

Releases April 3rd

 

 

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

Space Opera

Catherynne Valente has a talent for weaving magic and poetry into the strangest concepts. And Space Opera looks to be the strangest of them all:

Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.

It’s basically Eurovision in space. And I am not missing that for anything.

Releases April 3rd

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Meyer

Fire Dance
I sound like a broken record at this point, BUT JUST LOOK AT THIS COVER. It’s probably my favourite of the batch, which says a lot. Ilana Meyer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, was one of my top ten reads of 2015, and if this book is anything like the first, the quality of the cover will be a direct reflection of the content. Meyer has a deft hand for character development and atmospheric worldbuilding, and Fire Dance looks to continue Lin’s tale from where the first left off.

Though it’s technically a standalone, I highly recommend reading the first beforehand.

Releases April 10th

 From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

From Unseen Fire.jpg

The Dictator is dead; long live the Republic.

But whose Republic will it be? Senators, generals, and elemental mages vie for the power to shape the future of the city of Aven. Latona of the Vitelliae, a mage of Spirit and Fire, has suppressed her phenomenal talents for fear they would draw unwanted attention from unscrupulous men. Now that the Dictator who threatened her family is gone, she may have an opportunity to seize a greater destiny as a protector of the people—if only she can find the courage to try.

There are three more paragraphs to the summary, and I get stupidly excited every time I read through them. Set to be the first in the Aven Cycle, From Unseen Fire is a mesh of alternate history and fantasy that I needed yesterday.

Releases April 17th

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Time Was

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Yet another blend of history and SFF, I’m intrigued by the unique concept and its potential to break my heart in two.

Releases April 24th