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Cenaria is not a place you’d like to grow up – but the backstreets, of the worst district, of the most corrupt city in the world, is the place Azoth does. Ruled by a weak, arbitrary king, and effectively run by the Sa’kage, the underworld criminals, Cenaria is rotten to the core, the very epitome of a dog-eat-dog world, and it leaves its mark on many of the characters.
Azoth, orphaned, surviving on the streets in a gang run by a boy who uses rape and cruelty as a means to control other children, is both moulded by his early experiences, and yet defies them. It is the fear and terror of his childhood, the raping of one friend, the deliberate maiming and scarring of another, that drives him to apprentice to Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in the city. The sheer misery and terror of these children’s existence is enough to make a reader want to cry, and this is important, because it’s this background that makes us forgive Azoth’s future as a trained killer.
Blint refuses to train Azoth unless he can kill the boy who tormented him; the nasty piece of work, or ‘twist’ as is the slang in the book, deserves everything he gets and more, but it isn’t an easy task for Azoth. When he completes his task, if too late to save his friends Jarl and ‘Doll Girl’ from their own torments, Blint takes Azoth in, gives him the name Kylar, and teaches him the black trade of death and all the lessons that go with it. Assassins have targets; wetboys have deaders. A wetboy cannot love. Life has no value. Despite the lessons Blint teaches him, Kylar cannot move past the basic decency that led him to share his meagre food with his street-friends. Though he learns to kill, surely, he cannot always take the actions Blint would take, or urges him to take.
Durzo Blint is, at first blush, irredeemable, corrupt, cold-hearted. But the author gives us enough clues to know the man is not as cold and callous as he’d like us to believe, but rather only desperate to ensure everyone does believe he is cold and callous. Bitter experience has taught him love is weakness; if you love someone, they can be used against you, hurt to make you comply. It’s not that Blint doesn’t care; it’s that he dare not let anyone know he cares, and most especially not his enemies.
These two are supported by a host of other characters; Momma K, the retired whore pulling the strings of the city; Count Drake, an example to Kylar that one can turn away from the darkness; Elene, Kylar’s childhood friend ‘Doll Girl’; Logan, the impeccably ethical heir to Duke Gyre; the duke himself; the king, and his family; the prophet, Dorian Ursuul, and his friends, desperate to divert an horrific future; and the God-King Garoth Ursuul, architect of that future.
Of them, Elene and Logan are two least affected by the corruption in Cenaria, but while I admire and like Logan, Elene annoys me. Logan always tries to do the right thing, but doesn’t necessarily expect others to live by his code. Elene, who knows she has been saved from a life of prostitution, poverty and cruelty only by Kylar’s sacrifices, presumes to judge him for the deeds he has committed in making those sacrifices. Where Logan comes across as a pillar of morality, Elene appears only self-righteous and judgemental, and expecting all to live according to the word of her One God. It is hypocrisy to be simultaneously grateful for the life one has, and judge another for the acts committed to give one that life.
The events of the book centre around six magical artefacts called ka’kari, made to fix people who would otherwise be brilliant mages, but who are ‘broken’ and have no way to access their power. As a side effect, the ka’kari also grant immortality. The God-King wants one to extend his rule into eternity; Durzo, blackmailed by the God-King who takes his lover, and later his daughter, hunts one to try and save their lives; Kylar inadvertently calls one to himself because he is broken, but would give it to Durzo if he could. Everyone seems to want it, and no one can get their hands on it, and the price is paid in blood by many.
And so, Durzo and Kylar, loving each other like father and son, are driven against each other. Durzo must take the ka’kari to save his daughter, but doing so means the death of Kylar. Kylar would give it to him if he could, but he can’t, and he must stop Durzo’s end-game or watch his best friend, Logan, die.
Which is the better wetboy? Can either bring themselves to kill the other? What are the secrets Durzo hides, about himself, about Kylar? What is the secret of the ka’kari? What is the conflict between Momma K and Durzo? Plots within plots weave about plots, intrigue within intrigue. Keeping up with all the schemes, who is on whose side, who is betrayer or betrayed, will keep you on your toes and turning the pages.
Though the book is not perfectly written (it is a debut novel), the story is compelling enough, the characters likeable enough, despite all their flaws, and undeniably real enough, to immerse you in the story and have you hanging on to know what happens next.
The emotional importance of Kylar’s and Blint’s relationship and affection for each other could have been cranked up a notch to add to the conflict, but admittedly that’s difficult to do when both are trained killers who conceal their emotions. Nevertheless, a must-read fantasy book, especially if you like assassins!