Shadowhawk reviews Cassandra R. Clarke’s debut novel, one of the first wave upcoming titles from publisher Angry Robot’s recently-launched YA SFF imprint,Strange Chemistry.
“A strong and entertaining novel that shows a lot of promise from the author.” ~The Founding Fields
Young Adult fiction isn’t really my thing, by which I mean that I’m not going to self-consciously pick a book in this genre. I just prefer the more adult stuff even though I’ve read a fair bit of YA and middle-grade fiction growing up: Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew to name a few. And so what drew me to Strange Chemistry wasn’t the fact that they are a YA publisher, but the fact that they are an imprint of Angry Robot, an SFF publisher I discovered this year and have found to be extremely consistent with their output. Therefore my expectations of any Strange Chemistry title are not based on the differentiation of YA/Adult Fiction, but with that consistency in quality. Plus of course the fact that The Assassin’s Curse is about pirates and assassins and has an Arabian theme to it. For a bit of added context, I live in Dubai.
First, the stuff that worked for me in respect to this novel.
I loved the character of Anara, our protagonist. She is young, she is feisty, she is headstrong, and she always has a pirate saying or custom or tradition to back up her arguments with Naji, the assassin sent to kill her. The author plays up this side of her quite a bit and we get to see a lot of what makes her what and who she is: a pirate on the cusp of adulthood. Getting into her mind, through the first person perspective, was quite welcome, and I think it was the right approach to take for her character. It worked for me, allowed me to understand her and so, come to like her by the end, even though she can be quite… thickheaded at times. But that’s how kids are at that age aren’t they? Its a mindset that goes with the age, and considering that this is a secondary-world fantasy it allows the author to set up that dichotomy in Anara.
The Assassin’s Curse has a near non-stop action. The characters move from one tension-ridden scene to another and things are always happening to them, things through which the world is built up and explored, whether it be the first meeting between Anara and Naji, or the assassination attempts on her by “friends” of Naji. I think that The Assassin’s Curse has the potential to become a delightfully entertaining movie. I would certainly watch it on the big screen!
The banter between the two characters is very fluid and changing. At one point they bicker like kids in the playground, at another they have a decidedly adult disagreement. That reflects strongly on the nature of both the characters and also shows off beautifully that they are caught in events that neither of them has any experience with.
The novel’s cover is one of the factors that really works for it. That flowy and cursive script admirably hints at the content of the novel and gives me an idea of what I’ll find within its pages. It also sets the novel apart from other books on the shelves, as it has a decidedly Arabian feel to it. The more people who pick up this novel the better!
Now for some of the negatives that deserve to be mentioned here.
As an assassin, Naji makes for a somewhat unrealistic character. What put me off about him was that he was more a sorcerer (there being lots of scenes where he performs blood magic) rather than an assassin as the latter side of his nature wasn’t something that was explored to a depth I could appreciate. The tactics of his organisation and the relatively wide-spread knowledge of how to identify assassins was also something that contributed towards this issue. Naji and others like him in the novel are mysterious alright, but the charm of having such mysterious characters is that first they have to be set up that way, and then that mystery is taken away from them bit by bit until the reader can identify with them. And unfortunately, I couldn’t identify with Naji as much as I did with Anara.
The setting itself. In keeping with my last positive point above, I felt that the novel didn’t deliver on the promise of an Arabian fantasy. Or pirates for that matter. It was light on both counts as neither stood out for me with conviction. In a novel about pirates, I expect to read more than just a runaway girl who comes from a pirate family. I expect piratical hijinks on the high seas, I expect moral dubiousness, a showcase of pirate culture and so on. But we get little of that. I do understand that given the novel title, the focus is to be more on assassins than pirates, but our character viewpoint is still a pirate, especially one in the first person perspective. So not seeing much of that was a surprise to me and took away something from the novel. Its like having a Pirates of the Caribbean movie where Jack Sparrow spends 80% of the movie landlocked and among people who are not pirates. Not quite that extreme but still.
There is a fairly important minor character in the novel by the name of Leila, who is a former flame of Naji. I thought she was too generic for the purposes of the narrative, particularly as she has very little impact on either Anara or Naji, being nothing more than a seductive temptress who loves to tease, and is neither good or bad. No connection was there between me and her. Like the setting, she just doesn’t stand out on her own.
The novel also ends on a fairly low-key note for me. There was a lot of build-up going into it but the story failed to resonate with me in the climax. This goes back to how Leila is a generic character because the ending was similarly generic. I think that the novel could have ended on a far better note than it did, one with a much stronger purpose to it than what we get. Setup for the sequel is blatantly obvious.
And finally, the romance that is hinted at in the novel description. There is precious little of it, and what there is, is all one-sided! It felt as if the romance angle was there to hit that point off on the YA novel checklist. I’ll grant that I’ve read almost no YA fiction in like the last 6-7 years and my memories of what I have read prior to that are very hazy but the romance was too incidental and introduced way too late in the narrative.
So those are the issues I had with The Assassin’s Curse. There is plenty to like about the novel but it does have some issues, issues that I’m hopeful of being addressed in the second installment of the series. Cassandra R. Clarke’s writing overall is fairly solid and this novel is a promising debut. And ultimately that’s what I put down my issues to: this being a debut. I won’t hold these against the author, and I look forward to reading more from her and from Strange Chemistry.