Assassin’s Gambit takes on a significant challenge: Telling a personal, intimate romance and a sweeping political tale in just one 400-page book. Even if it doesn’t completely succeed, it’s still an enjoyable book which I recommend as both romance and fantasy.
Vitala Salonius was excluded as a child because her biological father belonged to the Kjallan forces occupying her home country of Riorca. She found a place among the anti-Kjallan Obsidian Circle, which trained her as a mage and assassin with one primary goal: Kill Lucien Florian Nigellus, the Kjallan emperor. Yet when she finally meets Lucien, over a chess-like game called Caturanga, she discovers that he is clever, charismatic, attractive, and frustratingly likeable. And when a coup strikes the palace, she finds herself, despite her instructions, trying to keep him alive. Can the Riorcan assassin find an HEA for herself and her country?
I really liked the setting of this book. It has original magical conceits which are smoothly integrated into the plot and internally consistent. Lucien the war-mage and Vitala the ward-breaker have interesting and clearly defined powers. The Riorcan “dead” villages, in which every inhabitant is spelled to die at sundown unless the spell is postponed by occupying Kjallan mages, were tragically plausible. If I could buy a computer version of Caturanga, I would totally play it. It sounds like a three-decker cross between chess and that holographic game R2D2 and Chewie play in Star Wars. My only setting complaint comes from mixing guns into a Roman-inspired fantasy setting. I found it jarring and thought some sort of crossbow might have worked just as well.
Lucien and Vitala are a compelling lead couple. Heroes with disabilities are rare anyway, but in fantasy settings they’re practically nonexistent, so Lucien is interesting just by virtue of having lost one leg in an assassination attempt. But he’s not solely defined by his body: He is also witty, politically savvy, rhetorically gifted, and wryly funny. Vitala is tough, smart, and independent, a rare heroine who is actually right to reject the hero’s order to stay back somewhere safe. I found her reluctant transformation from assassin to ally plausible, and was glad it came on the foundations of their like for each other rather than lust.
A couple of issues kept this book out of the A range. First, the author voice was often too modern for my tastes in a fantasy. Lucien says things like “Hey. Thanks for this,” and “Vitala gets Caturanga.” I don’t need to see stilted prithees and forsooths, but I felt that short, slangy phrases didn’t match the setting.
Maybe the voice contributed to this, but Assassin’s Gambit didn’t quite put enough weight or substance behind the serious topics it was attempting. I felt that the politics were oversimplified, and that the antagonists, whose primary advantage is brute military force, didn’t present the right challenge for the brainpower of Vitala and Lucien. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is page count – the whole civil war is begun and concluded within Assassin’s Gambit, which came across as quite rushed. I would have preferred more depth and less chronological time, even if that meant having to wait for the sequel to see the conflict resolved.
The book occasionally tries to emphasize the tragedy of individual deaths in a large war, but then undermines that effort when the assassins squabble over credit for a kill. Vitala is haunted by one man she murdered in assassin training (I should mention that Vitala is raped both before and during the book), yet she is unmoved by the further men she kills during the story. She has flashbacks to the training murder during sex, which makes her dangerous in bed and keeps her apart from Lucien. The resolution to this, however, seemed hasty, and again trivialized the gravity of what Vitala and war have done.
Despite its shortcomings, I recommend Assassin’s Gambit to fantasy romance fans. If it doesn’t have the heft of other politics-murder-sex series like Anne Bishop’s Jewels or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, it still has a great setting and protagonists worth rooting for. I will definitely be waiting for Hearts and Thrones #2.