Pirates, Assassins, and Magic: Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse

Kirkus Book Reviews, home of famously cranky and hard-to-please reviewers, unbent so far as to give The Assassin’s Curse a starred review. With praise and blurbing from the likes of Tamora Pierce and Adrian Tchaikovsky, I doubt my sour opinion will lose Clarke’s publishers much sleep. But the fact remains: I can’t join in the paeans of praise.

I guess this makes me even crankier than Kirkus, because when it comes to The Assassin’s Curse, I find myself distinctly under-impressed. Which is at least a little odd, because on the face of it, Clarke’s debut novel has a number of elements that, going on past experience, should have hit my bulletproof kink buttons. Pirates! Assassins! Enemies thrown together by circumstance and forced to work together!

Ananna is a daughter of pirates who has always wanted to captain her own ship. Instead, her parents decide to marry her off to the handsome yet inexperienced son of a wealthy allied pirate clan. Rather than accept her arranged marriage, Ananna steals a camel and makes a break for freedom. In the markets of Lisirra, she encounters a mysterious grey-eyed woman who knows more than she should, and a young assassin with a scarred face – sent by her intended husband’s family to avenge the slight against their honour. When she accidentally saves the assassin’s life, she fulfils the conditions of a curse which binds him to protect her – on pain of pain. Pursued by magical beings from the Otherword, or the “Mist,” they set out together to find some way of releasing the assassin—his name is Naji—from his curse, first across the desert to a witch whom Naji used to know well and whom he still loves, and then by sea to the north, to the Isles of the Sky, where just possibly there is someone who knows how to undo an impossible curse.

Alas, The Assassin’s Curse has a number of niggling flaws that undermine its initially appealing picture. Not least among which is the typical debut novel trick of trying to stretch a half-pound of plot to fill a full pound-size container: The Assassin’s Curse fails to sufficiently connect its incidents in such a way as to consistently maintain pace and tension. There’s a lot of traveling, a lot of movement – but often it seems this sound and fury signifies… well, not much. Moments of peril resolve themselves without accumulating, and as a result emotional impact is lost.

Speaking of emotional impact, or at least emotional connection… I don’t feel it with Clarke’s first-person protagonist, Ananna. The idiomatic, naturalistic style shows great promise—Clarke’s technical abilities with prose are nothing to sneeze at for a debut novelist, with some strong turns of phrase and a nice, if perhaps over-liberal, touch with description—but Ananna’s wants and fears all seem shallow. You’d think someone who’d just left their parents and their whole life behind would have a few second thoughts, but Ananna’s inner life reflects an unthinking self-absorption that nags at me like an unscratched itch.

And, too, there is a small unexplained logical flaw: why does Ananna so readily accept the need to free Naji of his curse? Isn’t it useful to have an assassin forced to protect you – and might he not be in a position to kill you again, as soon as he’s released? Perhaps her brain’s clouded by finding him attractive, a development which I could not help but find painfully predictable.

I’d like to be able to cut The Assassin’s Curse some slack for being YA. The plain truth is, it rubs me entirely the wrong way. It is a book not without technical accomplishments, and a pirate/assassin pairing has at least the benefit of somewhat more novelty than werewolf/vampire. But the strongest emotion I can muster in its regard is a sort of lukewarm goodwill.

It’s not a bad book, exactly. But it most assuredly failed to work for me.

Liz Bourke is probably not the crankiest of cranky book reviewers. But she thinks she might one day aspire to that peak.


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