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REVIEW: Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

Dear Ms. Raby,

In our archives is this review by our own Amy of Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby. The BookPushers also have a review and Has has been recommending the book to me for ages. It’s been almost a year since its publication, but I finally picked up Assassin’s Gambit, a fantasy romance set in a late 18th/early 19th century technology level version of the Roman empire. Assassins-Gambit

The assassin of the title is the heroine, Vitala Salonius. Vitala comes from Riorca, a small country subjugated by the Kjallan empire. The Riorcans are under Kjallan rule and many are enslaved in Kjall, so as the book begins, Vitala is on a mission to assassinate Lucien Florian Nigellus, the emperor of Kjall.

The Riorcan resistance organization known as the Obsidian Circle has assigned her this task since Vitala was a young girl, and prepared her for killing Lucien before it was known he would be the one of the emperor’s sons to take the throne.

The Circle believes that killing Lucien will trigger a battle for power between contenders with little claim to the succession, and this will throw Kjall into disarray, enabling Riorca to overthrow Kjallan rule.

To this end, twenty year old Vitala, Kjallan-looking and the product of a Kjallan military man’s rape of her Riorcan mother, has been trained not only in seducing men, breaking the magical wards that protect them while they are distracted by orgasm, and executing them, but also in catarunga, a strategy game Lucien loves.

Twenty-two years old and missing a leg due to an earlier assassination attempt, Lucien is a brilliant leader on the battlefield. He’s also an enthusiastic catarunga player, and every year he invites the winner of the Kjallan catarunga championship to his palace and challenges that person to a game.

Vitala is the current champion, and the first of Lucien’s invitees to best him. They play a few games and she issues a subtle invitation to her bed, where she intends to carry out the assassination despite an attraction to Lucien, almost a liking for him, and an appreciation for his clever mind.

Just then Lucien must travel with troops to confront bandits plaguing a Kjallan city, but he invites Vitala along. While they are having sex in his tent, two things happen. First, Vitala experiences a post-traumatic stress flashback to her first experience of seducing a man to execute him, and second, Lucien is attacked by a group of men in a coup meant to overturn the leadership of Kjall.

The men drag Lucien out and decide to take turns raping Vitala. While alone with the first of them in the tent, Vitala kills that man during his rape of her. She then realizes that the Obsidian Circle’s information is incomplete. Perhaps another Kjallan has a strong claim to the Kjallan throne and killing Lucien will only make the succession easier for that man, not harder.

On impulse, Vitala kills Lucien’s captors, fakes Lucien’s death, and helps an injured Lucien to escape the military encampment, only to force Lucien to head north with her, in the direction of Riorca. Lucien agrees because despite Vitala’s lies, he deduces that she is from the Obsidian Circle and to retake his throne, he needs to ally with them and obtain access their spy network.

There is so much going on in this book and it’s hard to discuss it all,  but I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the dynamic between the characters.

What I loved about it was that though strong-minded and clever, Lucien was neither brawny nor domineering. His disability was real and impacted him physically when he wasn’t atop a horse. His prosthetic leg pained him and didn’t solve all his problems via magic. He also didn’t strike me as being quite as proficient at killing as Vitala, and I think it could be argued that her magical powers were stronger than his as well.

Some of Lucien’s countrymen viewed him as weak because of his disability, or had no respect for him. But none of this prevented him from thinking strategically and commanding well in the field. None of this stopped him from showing a ruthless side to his enemies when he had to, or a softer side with Vitala.

Vitala meanwhile was no fake assassin. Her past was very dark, and she could probably out-kill every character in this novel. This may not be a skill to be proud of, but it runs contrary to the way women are usually portrayed in romance fiction and when combined with Lucien’s characterization, it made for a truly fresh dynamic between the two characters. They really were equal; this wasn’t a case of one constantly besting the other.

In fact, Lucien was more vulnerable to physical harm for a good part of the book, and Vitala served as his bodyguard, protector and rescuer during this portion. Later in the novel, Vitala’s is surrounded by people who distrust her and her psychological trauma comes to the fore. At this point Lucien is able to repay her with care for her feelings.

In her review, Amy says that there wasn’t enough detail given to visualize the world and I agree with that sentiment. I wanted more visuals and also, a deeper sense of the cultural differences. The magical system was fascinating but I would have loved to learn more about how the objects used by the characters were imbued with magic and see this process in action too. There was a lot of swearing “godsdammit” but no real sense of the gods or their mythology.

Amy also talks about the way Vitala waves away her rape. I came to the same conclusion about this—that it fit Vitala’s character. Not only is she trained in putting aside her personal wants to sleep with her marks in order to kill them, but she is also a type of soldier and therefore cannot afford to focus on trauma while in the field.

Her PTSD with regard to her training is something she cannot suppress, and here I really appreciated that her mental illness was not cured. She figured out ways to cope with it, but it didn’t magically disappear.

Vitala insisted throughout the book that her training was her choice, and made no apologies for what she was. But she was only a teenager when she was trained in killing, so there were questions in my mind about how much of this truly was her choice, and how much of her statement that it was her choice indicated that she couldn’t fully perceive how limited her choices had been, as a young person born of rape and of two enemy nations/races.

The difficulties Vitala faced since childhood aren’t ignored. Full-blooded Riorcans are blond while Kjallans have dark hair, so Vitala’s hair color marked her as an enemy to her countrymen and countrywomen. Using hair color instead of skin color to indicate race difference means that skin color doesn’t come up in the novel, though.

This book is not for the faint of heart; a lot of bad things happen. Characters are discriminated against. Characters are raped, killed or do horrible things. The flashbacks to Vitala’s childhood reminded me of some of Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling books where we see the Psy characters’ childhood training in the hands of people who sought to use them.

Yet despite this, the tone of the book feels almost breezy at times. A fully realistic, gritty, in depth treatment of all the issues that come up here would have made the book at least twice as long and much tougher to read.

There are multiple problematic aspects —the slavery issue isn’t solved nor is it explored that much. The ramifications of rape and of recruiting children to kill are explored more but not fully either. But nor are they treated thoughtlessly, and for the characters to fully reform and entirely change their thinking by the end of the novel would have been too hard to believe.

For a debut this book is strong. It kept me turning the pages and was hard to put down. I thought Vitala began to like Lucien too early in the novel and that he trusted her with sensitive information sooner than was warranted, but a big part of what made this book work for me was the balance of power between the characters, which shifted so many times and in such interesting ways. Between that and the fact that the main character were not the archetypical dominant alpha hero or the archetypical “virtuous” heroine, I’m giving this one a B-.

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

14 Comments

  1. Anna Richland
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 12:21:31

    I love this book! Love, love, love. The catarunga game that they play is a perfect metaphor for the whole world’s structure, and I loved that. Action, strategy, geo-politics that ties in with sexy – times … I love this book. It’s one of the few that I’ve read straight through w/out skipping to the end to see if the middle’s worth it, b/c I know from the very beginning that I wanted to read it all. Rare for me.

    Also, I think it’s a little more magic-y and a little less technology-ish than you stated in the intro paragraph – it’s not at all steam punk, which the “early nineteenth century technology level” sort of hints at. It’s more of a Roman empire or medieval technology – I don’t think the farmers and people in the country had any tech.

    I often describe this book to friends as having a lot of the feel of the early Pern/Anne McCaffery books in the world building. That world also had issues with freedom/slavery, social issues of status/race/conflict that are very problematic – but it’s part of the story. I think Amy Raby has her characters start to deal with these issues, in a very realistic way. The emperor has a lot of challenges when he’s making grand bargains with all sides – heck, the US can’t even decide on a surgeon general, so I was pretty impressed with Lucien’s bargaining skills, and also with the realism of the writing that he couldn’t just solve all the political problems of his empire in one book when he was not in a position of strength after a nearly successful coup.

    It’s also the first of series – three so far and a novella. All fabulous. So I highly recommend reading and glomping on to it, especially if you like the main books of the Pern series.

  2. Allison
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 12:51:06

    Janine,

    We had a brief discussion on twitter about this book. I went into it with excitement, which was a bit diminished by the end of the book. I struggled with some of the same issues you did. I really wished we could have spent more time with the characters as they spoke/strategized over the ‘chess’ board. It would have been nice for there to be more to the initial attraction other than “he/she’s hot” then bang, their story switches to the camp/road/etc.

    It was a good premise that didn’t quite work out the way I hoped. It was refreshing that we were told how well trained that the female MC was, and then we were shown through her actions/decisions that she was capable and smart. Very few TSTL moments. (none come to mind at the moment)

  3. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 13:07:23

    @Anna Richland: Good to hear you enjoyed this one too.

    Also, I think it’s a little more magic-y and a little less technology-ish than you stated in the intro paragraph – it’s not at all steam punk, which the “early nineteenth century technology level” sort of hints at. It’s more of a Roman empire or medieval technology – I don’t think the farmers and people in the country had any tech.

    I often describe this book to friends as having a lot of the feel of the early Pern/Anne McCaffery books in the world building.

    I agree it’s not steampunk, but I think of steampunk as being firmly in the 19th century, rather than “late 18th/early 19th century level technology” which is how I described this world in my review above.

    Perhaps I should have said 18th century to be clearer–I’ll consider that for future reviews, so I appreciate the feedback. This world has rifles and pistols as well as carriages, so while the world has the trappings of the Roman Empire, in terms of the technology it’s more advanced than the technology the Romans possessed.

    For me the Pern books had a more medieval feel– they had nothing like carriages there much less guns.

    That world also had issues with freedom/slavery, social issues of status/race/conflict that are very problematic – but it’s part of the story. I think Amy Raby has her characters start to deal with these issues, in a very realistic way. The emperor has a lot of challenges when he’s making grand bargains with all sides – heck, the US can’t even decide on a surgeon general, so I was pretty impressed with Lucien’s bargaining skills, and also with the realism of the writing that he couldn’t just solve all the political problems of his empire in one book when he was not in a position of strength after a nearly successful coup.

    Yes, I agree. I didn’t want the slavery issue to be waved away, if anything I wanted to see it taken more time with. I also felt it should have been more of a wedge between Lucien and Vitala than it was. I wanted him to get why she saw his country as she did.

    I think I could have read two or maybe even three books about Vitala and Lucien because there were so many conflicts or potential conflicts to play out, and for her to just become Empress of Kjall coming from her background should not necessarily be a simple or easy thing, especially once they go back to Kjall.

    Maybe this is dealt with in book 3 which is about Lucien’s sister (book 2 is a prequel, I’m reading it now), but I would have preferred there to be more than one book about them because then some of their past issues could have gotten more attention, and we could have seen the slavery issue grappled with more slowly.

    I enjoyed this book quite a bit, especially the dynamics of the relationship between Lucien and Vitala — I loved that she was the bodyguard/protector for much of the story. But I did wish the world had been fleshed out more. The system of magic and the mythology behind the religion both had to be the potential to be fascinating, but we didn’t hear enough about them. I hope the above explains why this was a B- for me, despite how enjoyable it was.

  4. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 13:46:57

    @Allison: Yes, I agree, there was something a little off about the initial attraction. Vitala started wavering on killing Lucien very quickly, before she really knew him.

    It was refreshing that we were told how well trained that the female MC was, and then we were shown through her actions/decisions that she was capable and smart.

    Hear hear! I really appreciated that too.

  5. Anna Richland
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 14:29:28

    Janine –

    I’ll be interested in your reaction to Book 2. I liked it a lot, but I loved Assassin’s Gambit more. I’d personally go A on Assassin’s Gambit and B+ or B on Spy’s Honor (using the TOUGH and multi level grading system here – on goodreads they’re both 5 stars for me!) I think the difference for me is b/c of the heroine’s POV.

    Vitala’s depth, from the PTSD to the incredible distance she has to change from her beginning truth to her end decisions, seems to me to be much more complex than Rhianne’s. I felt like Rhianne had to grow up, and she had to learn to see the world differently and to take her own agency out of the small space into the bigger space, but she didn’t have to UNLEARN everything she believed. She didn’t have her core mission, her core self, challenged and changed as much as Vitala did. She was so much more innocent than Vitala, b/c she had been so sheltered in the palace, and I think the author really expressed that in the book – she wrote from that sheltered POV place, which is a lot less dark than Vitala’s space, so the book and the journey are also less challenging to the reader who gets immersed in the POV.

    Still wonderful, and I found the military campaign to be worthy of being translated into Latin and sent home from Gaul, but the character development was right for the story, which sort of meant not as punch-to-gut gripping as Vitala. (When the legion comes through the town where they’re hiding …. darn, that hurt me.) Still, Rhianne’s story was much more interesting than about 90% of what I read, so I highly recommend it.

    I wonder about reading them in chronological order rather than published order… hmmm.

    I also think — and this is a really tough point that I don’t have time to mull over or carefully phrase – but there’s a huge difference in POV from Vitala, who identifies with the enslaved population, and Rhianne, who is of the slave-owning group. I think the fact that Rhianne doesn’t struggle with slavery nearly as much as we THINK she should is, unfortunately, accurate. Vitala has to struggle with it much more. Rhianne can go from sort of oblivious, I”ll just help people who are being abused, to oh-my-bad-bad, must do away with slavery, b/c that’s an easy emotional transition in comparison to Vitala’s starting and ending places. The freedom Vitala seeks for her people isn’t the end of the journey, barely even the beginning, and when Vitala realized that and has to make choices/decisions … that feels like much more story than Rhianne’s journey.

    So while I really liked Spy’s Honor, I agree that there could have been more than one Lucien/Vitala book, but I don’t know that Rhianne has more than one book in her journey.

    (FYI, I probably give more points to accurate military campaigns than many readers do …. and I really think Amy Raby nails that aspect in all her books. I think she might be a gamer. I also really like Jean Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series, for a lot of the same reasons … haven’t finished all of those yet either b/c I have my own darn book to write, but soon.)

  6. Erin Satie
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 15:30:36

    Ooh, this is my favorite kind of review. A book I’d never heard of & a plot that is like catnip to me.

    I love murdery assassins. It’s way, way too hard to find assassin characters that actually kill people. And it sounds like the heroine strikes a nice balance between being a stone-cold killer & a thinking, feeling human being who doesn’t take her actions too lightly.

    Totally sold. Woo.

  7. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 15:30:41

    @Anna Richland: I’m reading Spy’s Honor now and so far it isn’t grabbing me as much as Assassin’s Gambit and your comparison of the two heroines points to a big part of the reason why. Still, I want to reserve judgment until I finish it.

    With regard to the military campaign in Assassin’s Gabmit, even though I’m not a gamer I noticed that it was well thought out.

  8. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 16:09:47

    @Erin Satie: Sorry, I missed your comment earlier! I hope you enjoy it.

  9. Anna Richland
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 16:34:57

    Janine –

    I think the military gambits in Spy’s Honor are actually or perhaps even better thought out. Sea warfare instead of land. She did a good job of not going down the Patrick O’Brian rabbit hole of sea lingo (which I love but which would have stopped the forward momentum of the story) and yet made it feel like a sea battle. Take time to figure them out – takes a pause b/c they’re so elegant.

    I read Spy’s Honor when it first came out, and I was reminded of it recently — before this review — while reading a middle grade/YA book with my son. (Angel’s Command, I think Brian Jacques of Redwall fame?) It had similar sea battles that appealed to the less-lingo-crazy reader.

  10. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 16:48:44

    @Anna Richland:I haven’t reached the sea battles in Spy’s Honor yet, so I can’t comment on that.

  11. Carly Rose
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 17:33:19

    Since you loved this book you should check out Tangled Web by Christa McHugh. It’s another amazing story in the same genera!

    http://www.amazon.com/Tangled-Diezian-Empire-Crista-McHugh-ebook/dp/B009RI7ATK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396305107&sr=8-1&keywords=tangled+web+crista+mchugh

  12. Janine
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 18:24:02

    @Carly Rose: Thanks.

  13. JJPP
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 15:40:10

    I bought this from your review! I was partly inspired by how many comments there are on this post. I haven’t read them all (the comments) because I think I’m going to read the book first and then come back. But I love that it’s inspired so many thoughts and opinions. (Like The Last Hour of Gann — this doesn’t sound like that book, but that’s one of the things I loved about it. It definitely made you think.)

  14. Janine
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 20:28:02

    @JJPP: Yes, please do come back and let me know what you thought. I’d be interested to hear more opinions. I hope you enjoy the book!

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