“Show Me A Hero And I’ll Write You A Tragedy”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
**Here There Be Spoilers**
I found these via a review of the third book – “King Of Assasins” – on one of the many blogs I follow – either Bookwraith’s or FanFiAddict’s – apologies for not remembering which – but I can recommend both of them to any Science Fiction and Fantasy fans out there. These two gentlemen have guided me to quite a few really enjoyable reads over the course of the last 6 months. If you’re not following them, you should. The review of the third book was positive and left me interested in the series as a whole so I downloaded all three and spent the last week reading straight through.
I finished yesterday and, as I was thinking about what I was going to write, the quote above came to mind – and not for the reason you might think. Anyone who’s read these books might think I’m referring to the way the series ended – I’m not. I actually found the conclusion to be both satisfying and, in many ways, redeeming. The quote actually resonated because I did find the hero in these three books to be a tragic one – tragically frustrating – and I’ll get to why in a bit.
I should start by saying that I did really enjoy all three books – I wouldn’t have continued through the series if I hadn’t – and I find it hard to say which I preferred – they were all solid and entertaining. The overall premise was a good one, I enjoyed getting to know the world Barker has built – the idea of the Dead Gods, Festival, the juxtaposition of Assassin and Heartblade and the characters – particularly the characters. Interestingly enough, the characters that most appealed to me were the secondaries – Merela (Girton’s Master), Aydor, Nywulf, Celot, Nimue, Crast, Gusteffa, Heamus, Neander, Tinia Speaks-Not, Rufra (Girton’s King and only true friend). I found them all – at least some aspects of them – to be fascinating. It’s impossible not to put Merela at the center of any affection you develop for these stories – she’s the calm, sane, center of every storm and she is – in the oddest way – the most caring parent you could ever hope to find. The way in which the author transitions Aydor from hated, contemptible, bumbling villain to lovable, admirable, bumbling hero and friend is incredibly satisfying. Nywulf is hero personified and is the hardest death in these three books full of death. Tinia Speaks-Not, despite playing only a brief role in the third book is instantly likable. The way Rufra grows from naive, idealist to capable, weary, experienced reformer king is extremely well done. For me, it was these characters that carried the narrative through three volumes.
The protagonist – Girton – is another matter altogether. He drove me nuts – from Book One straight through Book Three. He’s emotional, quick to anger, barely in control of himself and always jumping to conclusions despite the very best advice from all of those around him. He’s the one character in the books that manages to grow and mature the least – if at all – over the course of the three books. Had Girton taken the time to reflect on his own preconceptions and prejudices and listened to those around him offering sound advice – Merela, Aydor, Nywulf, Rufra – fewer mistakes would have been made, multiple tragedies would have been averted and Rufra would have had a quicker and far easier climb to the High Kingship.
By way of example – from the second book – “Blood Of Assassins” – Girton’s decision to challenge and ultimately kill Karrick – the head of the Landsmen – in order to defend the herb seller who had been accused of sorcery and who would likely have identified both Girton and Areth as practitioners – was a pivotal point in the series. Girton was advised repeatedly and vociferously by Merela, Aydor, Nywulf, Rufra AND Karrick – not to go down this path and yet he arrogantly chose to do so based on an assumption that Karrick had committed a murder in an earlier portion of the book. As a result, he killed an innocent and relatively honorable man even after being cautioned repeatedly by numerous friends that he’d not conclusively proven the man’s guilt. He also allowed a fanatic who hated Rufra and Girton to assume leadership of the Landsmen – ensuring that they would ally themselves with Rufra’s adversaries throughout the remainder of the story.
It’s easy to justify Girton’s decision as necessary to protect both himself and Areth from a similar charge of sorcery. I couldn’t help but think, however, that an easier path presented itself – one that a clever and capable assassin would have seen immediately. Heartless though it might have been, Girton should simply have killed the herb seller before the Landsmen had the opportunity to torture and interrogate her. Girton had, by this time, traveled the assassin’s path for decades and had killed so many. This would have been a small mercy for the herb seller, it would have allowed him to honor the command he’d received from Rufra and the advice he’d received from his friends and it would have resulted in an easier and less painful future for Rufra. Most importantly, it would have shown some small measure of growth and maturation as a character.
This sad episode actually highlights another problem I had with Girton. These books are, in part, a mystery. Running through the three book narrative are multiple open questions that Girton is charged to answer – why was Neander collecting and protecting boys and girls with a potential to perform sorcery, who murdered Arnst and who is the spy and assassin present first in Mariyadoc and then embedded in Rufra’s court. Frustratingly, Girton spends the better part of three books either failing to answer these questions or coming to incorrect conclusions. Ultimately, it’s Merela – his Master – who unravels the mystery at the heart of the 1st book – “Age Of Assassins”. Girton spends the second book coming to all the wrong conclusions regarding the murder of Arnst – causing chaos along the way and, as a result, almost clearing a path for two separate assassination attempts against Rufra – both of which he foils at the very last minute. While Girton does finally identify the assassin / spy responsible for so much pain over the course of the three books, he does it only in the final chapters due to an off hand comment from Neander – information that should never have been that hard to obtain. Short to long – this boy is not the Detective that I would want assigned to my case.
When you combine Girton’s impulsiveness and self-centered nature with the sheer amount of time he spends being wrong about so many things over the course of three books, I couldn’t help but wonder why either Merela or Rufra continued to tolerate him. The longer I read – the further I progressed through the story – the more I began to feel that Girton was half the problem. I would have finished the third book with a profoundly negative view of the character were it NOT FOR ONE THING. In the final chapter of the third book, years after the events that gave Rufra the High Kingship, it’s revealed that Girton makes an exceptionally difficult, truly selfless decision which saves Rufra and his reign while dooming him to life as a hermit and exile. For me, that final chapter finally gave me something about Girton to truly admire – it delivered the redemption he so desperately needed.
I’ll say again – I did really enjoy these books. They’re a very worthy read. I just wish Girton had been an easier hero to stomach.