The Perfect Assassin: K.A. Doore

★★★

The Chronicles of Ghadid: Book I

There’s been a lot of talk about The Perfect Assassin, the first book in K.A. Doore’s new Middle Eastern flavoured fantasy series. It has won well-deserved praise for its setting, which takes readers beyond the standard white European semi-medieval tropes of fantasy fiction, and also for its diversity in including characters with a wide range of sexualities, including an asexual hero. The world-building is tantalising, both in terms of the physical space of the city of Ghadid, and in the metaphysical workings of the story. Now, anyone who remembers my posts on Robin Hobb will know that I have a soft spot for stories about assassins, so I should have loved this book, as so many other readers have. Unfortunately, though, I was never quite able to lose myself in the story. Ironically, for a tale about assassins and murder, I found it a little bloodless.

To those around him, Amastan is an introverted, shy young man whose great passion is his work as a historian. Little do his neighbours realise that this mild-mannered scribe is also a member of ‘the family’, a loose-knit network of distant cousins who make up a shadowy company of assassins. Young members of the clan are picked out for their likely talents and trained by the family’s leader Tamella, the fabled Serpent of Ghadid. Training is all they can do at the moment, because the trade in contracts has been banned ever since a political scandal some years past, but Tamella believes that their services will soon be needed again. They just have to be ready. And so Amastan and his fellow trainees – his ‘cousins’ – undergo their trials, challenge their nerve and sinew, and try to keep themselves in fighting condition while also keeping up with their day-to-day jobs. For Amastan, that means helping Tamella’s husband Barag keep up to date with his records and scribe-work; for his cousin Menna, it means training to become a marabi. Her profession is ironic, given her assassin’s training, because a marabi ushers the soul or jaani from the body of a dead person, and ensures that it is safely contained. This is a vitally important role for society at large, and perhaps not quite as incongruous for Menna as it first appears. No assassin under Tamella’s influence will leave a body somewhere where it won’t be found. It’s actually imperative that it’s found as soon as possible, so that the marab can undertake the necessary rites.

If a dead body is left beyond a few hours, its jaani begins to untether itself and, if not stopped by the rituals of the marab, the jaani then begins to seek another host. The sands beneath Ghadid are known as a place of restless, homeless jaani, but no sane person will go down there without a marab in tow. And the city itself has been safe – until now. When Amastan and Menna discover the body of a city leader, Drum Chief Yanniq, hidden away on a rooftop, they realise something alarming. He’s been there for too long: his jaani has escaped. Soon they will discover something even more alarming, as more bodies are found, hidden away. There is a killer on the loose and he or she has a particular focus, because – after Yanniq – the victims are all members of the family. Someone knows who they are, and is capable of defeating them. Worse, this person is willing to desecrate the bodies and risk everyone’s safety by encouraging the jaani to come loose. Who would do such a thing. And why? To his alarm, Amastan is put in charge of finding out more – a quest that will take him deeper into the byways of Ghadid history than he ever expected, and which will bring him a glimpse of a future he never imagined.

The race-against-time nature of the story keeps the tension up, but for me the book’s main interest lay in its world-building. We’re told that Ghadid balances upon many different platforms, each of which focuses on a pump-house which draws up water from underground rivers beneath the desert. The city’s economy focuses on water, which is rationed out among the citizens with a complex system of checks and measures: no wonder, when the dry season is so long. It’s possible to pass from one platform to another with bridges, and by the end of the book I had a vague idea of what all of this looked like – but would have loved an illustration. Doore hints that Ghadid is built on the technology of an earlier, more advanced civilisation. No one now knows how to build the water-pumps, though they’ve taught themselves to repair them. But how long has Ghadid existed? How does it relate to other cities or countries? There are hints about traders coming across the desert, but this story’s focus is very inward-looking and we don’t get much of a sense about what else is out there. Another interesting point: Doore’s characters often refer to God, but only ever as ‘G-d’ – either they, or the author, don’t profane his name by speaking it. Customs, as far as I could see, are Arabic in flavour but with a pronounced equality: both men and women can be Drum Chiefs (or assassins). And there were interesting ideas about morality: characters usually swathe themselves almost entirely in their headscarves, with only their eyes visible. To reveal your face to another is to undertake an act of extreme intimacy. All these ideas were fascinating, but I wish they’d been focused on and developed even further.

Just as the story’s focus should be tightening in on Amastan’s investigation, it’s derailed by the addition of a romantic element. This does become significant for various reasons, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really feel it was that strong. The characters involved felt much younger than they actually were: they behaved in ways that seemed more appropriate for young teenagers rather than adults, and this undermined some of the story’s strength. I also thought the romance developed incredibly quickly, given the book’s short time-frame. For me, this aspect of the book felt very much like young-adult fiction – not necessarily a bad thing, but not the kind of genre I’d expected from the marketing. Besides, the quest to identify the killer, and the attacks of the jaani, were elements that sat comfortably in a grimmer, more adult kind of fantasy. Perhaps people will think I’m being unfair in singling out certain elements in this way, so I’d be interested to hear what others think. Did there actually have to be a romance at all, given the emphasis placed on one character’s asexuality? (Yes, I am fully aware that asexuality doesn’t necessarily mean aromantic, before you point it out.) I’m just wondering whether we couldn’t have reached the same end-point by creating a different, yet equally impactful relationship between the said characters.

However, this is a small quibble and it won’t bother many readers. Overall, this is a first essay into a rich new fantasy world, full of details that make me want to dig down further into the way it works. There’s a satisfyingly complicated history, lots of political machinations and careful thought about how a secret society of assassins might operate in a city like Ghadid. Personally, I found the characterisation less deep and successful, but I’m still inclined to carry on to the next book in the series, to see where Doore takes Ghadid and her characters next. What did everyone else think of this?

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