Title: The Assassin’s Curse
Series: The Assassin’s Curse #1
Author: Cassandra Rose Clarke
Published: 02 October 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre: fantasy, YA, adventure
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate parents, raised in the violent, seafaring lifestyle of a pirate. She dreams of one day captaining her own ship, although that seems unlikely now that her parents have arranged her marriage to the son of another pirate clan. Tarrin of the Hariri. Tarrin is “the most beautiful man [Ananna] ever saw” and looks like a god from a temple painting, but Ananna distrusts beautiful people and when Tarrin shows his disdain for her family name, she decides to run away. Ignoring Tarrin’s warnings that his family will send an assassin to kill her for this insult, Ananna steals a camel and disappears into the city.
She hides out for a short while, but the assassin comes after her as promised. They are fighting it out in the desert when a snake appears. It’s about to bite the assassin and save Ananna’s life, but she’s so shocked and scared when she sees it that she kills the snake, saving the assassin’s life instead and activating a curse. The good news is that Naji, the assassin, can no longer kill her – the curse forces him to protect her from harm because every time she gets hurt or even finds herself in danger, he experiences physical pain. So of course if she dies, he will too. Ananna is not obliged to hang around, but after seeing the suffering that she could cause by leaving Naji, she decides to travel with him and find a way of ending the curse.
Ananna and Naji’s world is rich with magic and bursting with the potential for adventure. Naji comes from an elite order of assassins who reside in The Mists, a mysterious Otherworld that exists in the same space as the normal one, but is invisible to it. Naji is skilled in the magic of blood and darkness and can move unseen by leaping from shadow to shadow. Ananna has always been untouched by magic, although her mother is a water witch and tried her best to teach her daughter the craft. Instead, Ananna takes after her father and frequently recalls his advice in times of trouble. She’s a quick-fingered thief, is deadly with a blade and perfectly at home when running a ship.
Her quest with Naji takes them across the desert, the ocean and to a magical floating island. They fight magical beings and cutthroat pirates, proving to be deadly young warriors. Although Naji has to protect Ananna in order to protect himself, she has to look after and save him a lot of the time as well, especially after he’s incapacitated from using too much magic or suffering the pain incurred by Ananna’s injuries. I was surprised but pleased to find that Clarke didn’t entirely romanticise the idea of Ananna as a pirate by glossing over the violence of her lifestyle for the sake of a YA audience. At seventeen, she’s familiar and comfortable with violence. She’s kills people, she’s used to being cut and bruised, and she doesn’t make a fuss about it. That’s not to say it’s a violent book – it still has a very gentle YA feel. The characters don’t make a big deal of the violence and none of it is very graphic, so the tone remains light.
There’s a delicate touch of romance to the story, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of “growing romantic tension” advertised in the blurb. Any attraction between our two protagonists is completely one-sided. The story is narrated by Ananna, and she finds herself drawn to Naji in the same way that any seventeen-year-old girl would find herself attracted to a mysterious guy who she spends a lot of time alone with. He’s also perfect for her in terms of looks: Ananna distrusts very good-looking people, but although Naji is handsome, his face is marred by an ugly scar, so Ananna sort of gets the best of both worlds with him. Naji however, remains taciturn throughout the novel, and the only romance he acknowledges is the one that once existed between him and a river witch named Leila. He doesn’t smile, he barely speaks to Ananna unless he has to, and doesn’t show any interest in her beyond their quest. He’s not mean, but he’s more like an estranged brother than a potential boyfriend.
I was surprised that the feisty, garrulous Ananna didn’t make more of an effort to get Naji talking. Because Naji, for completely inexplicable reasons, flat out refuses to give Ananna any proper information about the curse that’s changed both their lives, where they’re going to end it, and what they’ll have to do to achieve that. And like Ananna, Naji is also being chased by people who want to kill him, but he doesn’t provide the details. In contrast to her tendency to be hot-headed and smart-mouthed, Ananna is willing to just follow Naji around and wait to see what happens, even though she could easily coerce him into telling all. I’m not sure why Clarke makes her characters act this way. Normally when authors make characters withhold information, it’s to force them to maintain a sense of mystery that could easily be lost. But this is not a mystery novel and it doesn’t need the suspense. When Naji does eventually reveal tiny bits of his plans and the details of how he was cursed, it makes no real difference to the story. So why hide these things in the first place? If anything, they could have given the story a greater sense of purpose.
This is one of many small problems that spoil the book. Ananna generally speaks well of her parents, so it’s unclear why they basically sold her off in marriage at the age of seventeen. After running away, Ananna expresses sadness at leaving her parents as well as frustration regarding the arranged marriage, but she never thinks about this extremely troubling issue for very long. After activating Naji’s curse, you’d think she’d be calculating enough to realise that having a skilled assassin to protect you is very useful when there’s a clan of pirates out to murder you, but she lets her pride and her temper get the better of her and almost leaves to fight her battles alone. The problem with the Hariri doesn’t end up being nearly as dire as expected though – after the fight with Naji and another battle out in the desert, they practically disappear from the plot. The story mostly concerns the quest to end Naji’s curse, but it moves very slowly. There’s plenty of action and adventure so it’s not boring, but this basically fills up the long spaces between the very brief pieces that actually move the main plot along.
Then the book ends without resolving anything. This didn’t bother me too much. The end approached without the characters having made any real progress in dealing with the curse, so I assumed the bulk of the story was being saved for the sequels. But mostly it didn’t bother me because this is one of those books that I don’t feel much of anything for. It’s just a quick easy read to pass the time and, in my case, finish a reading challenge. I couldn’t help but notice the flaws, but they didn’t elicit more than a shrug. Naji and Ananna’s adventures were enjoyable and I liked them both, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out how they solve their problems, so I won’t be reading the sequel. But at least I didn’t hate it, and this review was a lot easier to write than most.