K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin is a priceless gift of a book.
Or so it felt to me, anyway. I’ve been finding it difficult to enjoy reading lately, to concentrate on how the words fit together into the pattern of a narrative, to see what works and what doesn’t and find pleasure in it. The Perfect Assassin is easy to enjoy, sharp and clean without being straightforward, a debut novel invested in being both good and fun.
Ghadid is a desert city. It’s built above the jaan-haunted sands—jaan, improperly treated spirits of the dead, can torment or even possess the living—and its water comes from old technology. Water—or the counters that make the city’s fountains disburse water, at least—is the city’s currency, and at the end of every season, before the rains come, that currency runs short. The city is ruled by drum chiefs, either men or women, who allocate the baat, the water-counters, when the cisterns are full. It is a city with a language, foodways, and modes of dress influenced by medieval Arabia and Persia, but though it draws from those wells, it’s not limited by them.
Amastan has spent years training to be one of the assassins of Ghadid. It’s a family trust, the art of dispensing lethal justice from the shadows: it keeps the balance in the city, or so he’s always been taught. But Amastan’s daylight life is as a historian, and he feels ambivalent about the prospect of taking a life—unlike his cousins.
When Amastan stumbles across the body of a very important drum chief—concealed for long enough that its jaan has run wild—he finds himself handed the job of finding a killer, or the assassins of Ghadid will be forbidden to ever operate again. His task is complicated by wild jaan, which is attracted to him, destructive, and growing more powerful. And it’s complicated by the fact that someone is killing his fellow assassins and leaving their bodies hidden, too, so that their spirits can’t be laid to rest. Amastan has his cousin Menna, a trainee priest who’s learning to bind jaan, for aid, and his burgeoning romantic relationship with the mysterious Yufit to distract him. But if he follows this investigation through to the very end, he’s going to learn things he never imagined both about his city and about his family—and about himself.
The Perfect Assassin is part mystery, part thriller, part coming-of-age, and part explosive magic. Though its pacing stumbles a little in the middle, its worldbuilding—lushly realised even in its desert-dry environment—and its characterisation are delights. Amastan is a very believable young man, earnest, decent, a little insecure—he lacks the confidence in his ability to be a killer that his cousins have, and the eagerness to put his training into practice. He’s relatably bookish. And he’s worried about his first romantic relationship with another guy, since he doesn’t necessarily really want to have sex. His cousin Menna is much more definite, much less restrained, much more willing to throw herself headlong into trouble. Other characters, even minor ones, feel similarly real and believable, well-rounded, with lives and concerns of their own beyond those of the protagonist.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel is its (still not de rigueur) matter-of-fact approach to explicitly including people along a wide spectrum of sexual attractions among its characters. It inspires in me a feeling that combines relief and comfort: here is one world where, at least, non-heterosexual relationships both exist and aren’t cause for those who participate in them to be afraid.
Unfortunately, Doore’s antagonist is just a little too opaque—and once unmasked, just a little too willing to explain himself—for The Perfect Assassin to be an ideal novel of adventure, assassination, and magic. But it’s deeply entertaining, a smooth and rewarding read. I enjoyed Doore’s debut. And I’m seriously looking forward to seeing what she does next.
The Perfect Assassin is available from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.