Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Assassin's Heart

In the kingdom of Lovero, nine rival Families of assassins lawfully kill people for a price. As a highly skilled member of one of these powerful clans, seventeen-year-old Lea Saldana has always trusted in the strength of her Family. Until she awakens to find them murdered and her home in flames. The Da Vias, the Saldanas’ biggest enemy, must be responsible - and Lea should have seen it coming. But her secret relationship with the Da Vias’ son, Val, has clouded her otherwise killer instinct - and given the Da Vias more reason than ever to take her Family down.

Racked with guilt and shattered over Val’s probable betrayal, Lea sets out to even the score, with her heart set on retaliation and only one thought clear in her mind: make the Da Vias pay.

There are certain words I try and avoid in book titles. Assassin. Throne. Crown. Iron. Heart. Queen. Princess. Use of one or more of these words usually indicates that I'm in the presence of a book that's not going to be my cup of tea. I don't mind YA cliches, I mean I love YA books, but I do like books to offer something different to what I've read before, have their own voice, their own identity, to stand out from the crowd. Despite the questionable title, I was super excited for this book. Romeo and Juliet meets The Godfather. Maybe a vigilante assassin operating in a mafia-esque fantasy world.

Instead, what I found was a mess of YA cliches, an irritating protagonist and half-baked Italian stereotypes with a bit of a magical twist, but ultimately one that never felt fully realised.

In the kingdom of Lovero, killing is legal for nine assassin families in tribute to some old saint or other. These families are bitter rivals for territory, respect and of course, money. The Saldanas. The Da Vias. Valentino. Rafeo. Marcello. Dante. Estella. The author amazingly manages to restrain herself from calling anyone Corleone - although hilariously there is a minor character named Brando. Seriously, this book is about as subtle as a Michael Bay movie. The Da Vias even own a restaurant - one that smells of rosemary and olive oil. I can only imagine that the Dolmio puppets are manning the bar.

I'm not suggesting that this was the inspiration for the characters in this book, but I am insinuating it.
The plot hinges pretty much entirely on how much you buy into Lea and her desire for revenge when her family are killed by their sworn enemies; the Da Vias. But I just couldn't get invested. Lea is utterly insufferable. Even one character outright stating "you must be very special indeed Lea Saldana"  - subtlety, thy name is Assassin's Heart! - couldn't do anything to make me believe she was worth caring about. Barring one or two instances of ghostbusting which are exactly as stupid as they sound, there's zero interesting about her. Her love of Val seems to be limited to a bit of kissing and a few gropes in an alleyway, there's certainly nothing in her inner voice to suggest she's interested in anything more than his body (we're treated to several loving descriptions of how muscular he is in the first three chapters alone) which doesn't make his betrayal hit as hard as it probably should. When Lea finally flees, we immediately get The Transformative Haircut scene. She drags Les along in her quest to kill the Da Vias even though she knows he's so useless he'll probably be killed. She complains about the terrible fashions and boring nightlife in the kingdom of Ravenna while she searches for her uncle. She's less a character than a particularly annoying walking stereotype of all the worst elements of a YA heroine.

While I'm on the subject, does anyone else find it a bit creepy how many YA protagonists list assassin as their job title? It isn't cute, these aren't vigilante killings, Lea is a straight up murderer. First thing, we see her poison a drunk in a back alley. What did he do to deserve it? Your guess is as good as mine, we never find out. But she's the main character, so bow down to her badassery instead of questionning her ethics.

For a book that has such an exciting plot, I found it unforgivably boring. Things happen, people die, but I felt no emotional connection to the goings on. When your protagonist is so slash-happy and willing to drop anyone for a price, why should you feel sympathy when she gets a taste of her own medicine? Why should you believe in her self-righteous cause? Lea's family are little more than ciphers, hastily introduced with barely a defining characteristic between them (Rafeo probably comes off best, but he's still a cardboard cutout masquerading as a character), so I couldn't have cared less when they were killed off. Family tragedies can be gut wrenching - see The Hunger Games, Storm Siren, Daughter Of Smoke And Bone - but this tragedy is pure plot device to kick off Lea's adventures, and it shows.

The pacing is all over the place too. Within the first chapter Lea is poisoned, something that's abruptly swept under the rug for a few chapters of mooning over how hot Val looks in his leathers. The entire Saldana familiy is slaughtered in one, almost throwaway chapter, and we're then treated to chapter after chapter of Lea kicking about in the neighbouring country of Renne where literally nothing happens. Her search for her banished uncle who knows the location of the Da Via's family home consists of sitting on rooftops waiting to see if he stumbles into her path. She has a couple of run ins with a lawman who seems to sense her unique and special snowflake-ness, but aside from forming an uninteresting subplot, this goes nowhere. There's a confusing sense of time in the story as well. Lea seems to cross cities and countries in moments, while her sulking in Renne seems to go on forever. She goes to see the king after her family's murder, saying that she expects a long wait, and barely three sentences later he turns up, with zero indication that any length of time has passed.

Her rambling about murder being a blessing didn't do a lot to endear her to me either. It reeks of someone indoctrinated from birth into a cult that is never more than one step away from rat poison-laced kool-aid. These aren't her beliefs, they're merely what's been drummed into her from birth. The rationale behind all the killing - "I killed them to honour my saint and free them to a better life" - is some psychokiller talk if ever I heard it.

Of course this book wouldn't be complete without a love triangle, now matter how unncessary and gratuitous.

Val Da Via ... uh ... well, he looks good in leather from what I hear? And clipper-in-training Les ... blah. His sole motivation is to be a clipper/assassin and when we meet him he's killing anyone whose name is on a piece of paper, no questions asked. He's not a born clipper, he's just a guy who wants in on killing people. He volunteers to murder an entire family just to get in the good graces of a girl he's just met and he bumbles around like an idiot after Lea because she's an assassin. Am I supposed to care what happens to this amoral jackass just because he calls the lead character beautiful? Even when he's supposedly finding his backbone it's all purely to advance the plot. He and Lea fight over her stealing money from him (our wannabe assassin has no issue with murder, but apparently takes great offence to thievery), he ludicrously overreacts - for "conflict" I assume - claims he's done with her forever, and then five pages (seriously) later, he's back and all is forgiven.

And as for the ending ... urgh. Just ... urgh. I've never seen such a blatant "get out of jail free" card. It's a pair of "get out of jail free" card aces. Rather than a tragic ending in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, or a lesson about the futility of revenge, there's a hastily written twist that undoes the previous few chapters and sets up a by the numbers finale with a half-hearted revelation that means nothing because nothing has been done previously to set it up. While I would normally be irritated by this, I was just glad the book was nearly over. It's also another book that tries to make a tragedy the protagonist's fault, only to lose its nerve at the last minute and backtrack.

Frustratingly, I felt that there was a really good book in here trying to get out. The idea of ghosts haunting the cities and plains had so much potential, but ultimately it just felt a little half-hearted and used to explain away plot twists rather than a believable part of this world. The themes of blood and family, loyalty and love could have been fantastic, but got swept aside in a standard story that seemed to squander all the elements that could have made it something really special. One thing that did pleasantly surprise me though was the lack of a blatant, sequel-baiting hook, it's been so long since I read a book without one I'd almost forgotten that they exist. But that said, if there are any more books in this series, I certainly won't be reading them.


  1. Oh dear. I came by because I've been reading the Throne of Glass series (assassin, high fantasy, strong female, etc) and I really like it. So I thought I would check this one out. Maybe not, eh?
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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    1. Ah, I didn't like Throne of Glass either, so maybe you'll really love this book! Aside from the title, Assassin's Heart sounded like my kind of read, I was just so, so disappointed with how it turned out.