It’s a novelty these days to find an assassin character who visibly fulfils that role, both in practice and in temperament. Rhisia Sen is a paid killer for the Attalon Empire, so well-paid for her work that she can almost afford to retire. But when she’s offered an outrageous amount of money for a kill, she can’t resist just one more job. But if something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and this is the job where Rhis finds out just how far she will go to fulfil a contract, and where she’ll draw the line.
This book drew me in right from the first chapter, where we see Rhis on a mission, and realise how skilled she is, and how cold-blooded an assassin needs to be. But her next job is a little different, and when she finds out that she has to kill a child, she goes on the run with him rather than comply, and finds herself the target of a contract in her turn. From then on, it’s a race to escape the various assassins sent to hunt them down, to find out why the boy, Asher, is so special and to reach a place of safety for the boy and Rhis herself.
The first part of the book works really well. The initial kill, the glimpse of Rhis’s luxurious lifestyle, the long trek through the backlands of the Empire and then the confrontation with Asher and his family — all these elements are utterly absorbing.
However, once Rhis commits herself to saving Asher, the story becomes more episodic. There’s a lot of hopping about here and there — to find a ship to escape on, to rescue the boy after he runs away, a visit to the Atheneum (a giant library) for information, a side trek into the mountains to find out more about Asher’s history, and so on. And at each stage, there was someone or other leaping out of the scenery trying to kill our heroes, and Rhis has to find ingenious ways to defeat them. This isn’t uninteresting in itself, and the author is superb at describing fights, but it did become a little repetitive after a while. And the love interest felt rather perfunctory to me.
More concerningly, both Rhis and the boy behaved stupidly at times. The boy’s antics were perhaps understandable, given his age and sheltered upbringing, but several times Rhis, the supremely skilled assassin, was taken by surprise and found herself at a disadvantage, which had me shaking my head in disbelief.
On the positive side, I loved the way both the boy and Rhis changed over the course of the story. Asher learned some harsh lessons about life and death and protecting your friends. Rhis softened considerably and learned to trust someone other than herself. And the ending took me by surprise, and finally showed Rhis’s intelligence and creativity.
For those who’ve read the Echoes of Imara series, this book offers a fascinating glimpse of another part of the same world, but it’s not at all necessary to have read those books first. A good, action-packed read, with some excellent characterisation in Rhis and the boy, and the mysteriously creepy Athon. Recommended, and you don’t just have to take my word for it, since this book is a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s competition for indie books, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016. Four stars.