The Queen’s Assassin by James Barclay (book review).

It’s amazing to think that James Barclay’s first fantasy novel, the highly acclaimed ‘Dawnthief’ was published in the last century, in 1999 to be exact. His 14th and latest book, ‘The Queen’s Assassin’, follows a mere 23 years later, although there has been a bit of a gap since his previous outing, ‘Heart Of Granite’, which appeared in the summer of 2016. Since then, the world around us has evolved in several unusual directions, particularly in the UK and USA, with the politics of Brexit and Donald Trump vying with the Covid-19 pandemic to make day-to-day life feel rather different from how it was at the turn of the century, for some of us at least.

It’s fascinating to see how that has impacted on the storyline of this heroic fantasy novel. Don’t worry, though. Although there are several interesting parallels between the plot of the new book and recent contemporary events, Barclay remains a storyteller first, last and always, and his latest novel demonstrates that he’s lost none of his skill, energy or imagination.

The book opens in the middle of a pitched battle, as we watch Naida Erivayne, the foremost battlefield doctor in the Suurkene army, saving a horribly wounded infantrywoman from almost certain death, before calmly moving on to the next casualty and then the next. When she finally goes off-duty, it’s after a 36-hour shift. That’s been her life for over a decade, as Suurken wages a seemingly endless war against the neighbouring country to their south, the land of the Haronics, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would the army, who worship her almost supernatural ability to treat the most appalling of injuries.

What none of her army colleagues know is that Naida’s abilities are not purely down to skill, experience and long study. She is one of the small minority of Suurkene citizens who are born with ‘the Talent’, a magical ability to manipulate the energy flows of the human body, enabling her to repair torn arteries, reconnect severed nerve fibres and destroy incipient infections before they can overwhelm the body’s defences. Although most soldiers are happy enough to be saved from an early death, whether the Talent is used or not, there is a growing backlash against the Gifted, as those with the Talent are called, stoked by a recent revival of some of the older local religions which view any use of magic as fundamentally evil, even if it’s for a good cause.

This backlash started fifteen years earlier, when Lord and Lady Esselrode, high-born healers who were two of the most famous Gifted in the country, were tortured and executed after allegedly using their abilities to create a deadly epidemic, killing rather than curing people.

Unfortunately for Naida, the Esselrodes were her parents. She was forced to run away at the age of fourteen to avoid sharing their fate, changing her name and appearance to avoid detection. Since then, she has hidden the Talent she inherited from her mother and father, scared that if it became known that she was Gifted, someone would recognise and denounce her, with a painful death following shortly thereafter.

Naida’s life changes overnight when she attends a formal regimental dinner, only to find that the guest of honour, Lord Marshal Yavin Ludeney, is precisely the same man who was tasked with finding her when she ran away a decade and a half beforehand. He clearly recognises her but, instead of arresting her on the spot, he offers her a new job as Head of the Royal Medical Service and personal physician to the monarch, Queen Eva Rekalvian.

Naida doesn’t want the new job but there’s no way to refuse it. She realises immediately that Ludeney must have some secret reason for putting her in that position, given the total power he has over her future. However, she can’t figure out what it might be. So, the next morning, she is forced to leave the life she loves and travel with Ludeney to the capital city of Suranhom and the Palace of Endless Spires.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Naida’s new life in the capital is fraught with dangers from the trivial, such as the dislike of some of the palace servants for this new arrival, to the deadly. She uncovers evidence of a powerful conspiracy to use an outbreak of disease to stoke the fires of mistrust of the Gifted. The intention seems to be to change the law to make use of the Talent illegal. As a medic, Naida knows that if a contagious disease does appear, the absence of the Gifted is likely to turn a small local problem into a city-wide epidemic that could kill many thousands. Despite all this, when Naida meets the Queen they immediately form a strong friendship. This makes Naida all the more suspicious of what Ludeney’s ulterior motives are for bringing her into such close contact with their monarch.

I imagine that many fans of Barclay’s previous novels will find this one quite a departure, in that a significantly smaller proportion of the book is dedicated to action scenes. There are still quite a few and when they arrive they’re just as brutal and thrilling as ever. However, the storyline is much more preoccupied with the exercise of political rather than physical power. That makes for a very different dynamic, with a lot less blood spatter for example. What it doesn’t mean, though, is any reduction in the levels of tension or conflict. The plotline of ‘The Queen’s Assassin’ takes Naida and us alongside her on a rollercoaster ride that just won’t stop changing direction, right up to the final chapter. The last fifty or so pages take the pace up a gear or three, twisting and turning through several scenes of the greatest brutality before leading us at the last moment to a brilliant and entirely satisfying conclusion.

While Barclay’s previous books may have been most immediately recognised for the visceral realism of his action scenes, he has always had a deft touch when it comes to creating empathetic and relatable characters. This is particularly noticeable in ‘The Queen’s Assassin’. Given the political intrigues and uncertainties of allegiance that fill much of the palace storyline, it’s important that he portrays many of the supporting characters in subtle shades of grey, neither all good nor all bad, so that the reader has to keep re-evaluating whether they think Naida should believe what she sees and hears from each interaction. Without giving away any spoilers, the proof of the pudding for me was that a minor character I had firmly put in the ‘one of the good guys’ camp turned out, five chapters from the end, to be the complete opposite. I didn’t see that coming and am impressed with how Barclay achieved this without at any point misleading the reader.

As someone who has read almost everything that James Barclay has written and has got used to reading stories that take place in the ‘Raven’ universe, the setting for ten of the author’s previous 13 novels, I was particularly interested to see him invent a fresh new world for this adventure to take place in. I wasn’t disappointed. The principal geography of the story is the city of Suranhom, capital of Suurken, and this is depicted in great detail across the book, with some beautiful descriptions of the Palace of Endless Spires where the Queen lives, and the bustling city that surrounds it. I loved his descriptions of the Cloth Market, the country’s parliament complex and, most of all, the faded grandeur of the dockside area, once a site of enormous investment, now fallen on extremely hard times. Each of these settings made Suranhom feel like a real place. Between them, I could visualise an entire living and breathing city, not only as it is at the time of the narrative but also as it has evolved over many hundreds of years. I would love to see more of this world in a sequel.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, some of the strange events of the last six years find a parallel in this novel. The two I’ll highlight here are the deliberate encouragement of an antipathy to facts and experts, as a tool for populists to gain political power, and in parallel with this, the promotion of simplistic ‘solutions’ to complex problems, knowing full well that the solutions won’t work but will buy you popularity. These and related issues are explored in the novel in a way that provides some fascinating insights relevant to the very real problems all of us are facing today.

‘The Queen’s Assassin’ shows James Barclay at his brilliant best, with a blood-soaked fantasy novel that couldn’t be more topical. Naida, a gifted battlefield surgeon promoted against her wishes to become the Queen’s personal physician, finds that operating on dying troops in the middle of a war is nothing, compared to the demands of surviving murderous intrigues in the Royal household, protecting gifted medics from persecution by luddites, and preventing the outbreak of a deadly epidemic. Fresh and contemporary, while also filled with the author’s trademark mix of dry wit and brutal action, this is an overdue reminder that James Barclay is the master of heroic fantasy.

Patrick Mahon

June 2022

(pub: Gollancz, 2022. 464 page hardback. Price: £22.00 (UK). ISBN 978-1-473-20246-7)

check out websites: www.gollancz.co.uk and www.jamesbarclay.com

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