This book has everything that I love in fiction – pirates, assassins, magic, romance. Automatically, that should set it up to be a winner to me. Somehow, it did not. This book feels like something I would have written in high school, and not in the endearing “aww look how silly I was back then” way. This book was put out by a legitimate publishing house, but it feels entirely unpolished. Another round or two with a good editor could have made this an incredible book, and it’s kind of a shame thinking about what could have been. This was a good concept that just missed its mark.
This books tells the story of Ananna of the Tanarau, a ship of the Pirate Confederation. She runs away to land to escape an arranged marriage and find a way to become the captain of her own ship (something disallowed by the Confederation). She has a chance encounter with the assassin Naji (hired to kill her by her ex-fiance’s family) in which she saves his life – inadvertently binding him to her as her protector. The book follows their misadventures as they try to find a way to break the curse so that they can go their separate ways. And obviously they start falling in love (or, I suppose, Ananna starts falling in love with Naji; it’s only shown from her perspective).
The book is told in the first person, which I tend to find extremely difficult to write in myself, and it’s really easy to get it wrong. Clarke tries to imitate Ananna’s tone through the narration – a coarse, uneducated pirate teen girl. It’s… missing something. Or it’s too much something. There’s a lot of times where the narration sounds absolutely nothing like this character would, and where it sounds entirely too much like this character would. It’s really inconsistent, and that’s part of what I feel a better editor would’ve helped. If it had stuck with one or the other, I think it would have been a lot less jarring – there were several moments throughout the book where Ananna’s narration was so bad that it pulled me out of the story, and that’s just never a good sign.
One of the purposes of using first person narration, I think, is to make the reader feel more in-tune with the POV character, to enable them to relate to them more easily. It somehow didn’t work here; I didn’t really like or understand a lot of Ananna’s actions as a character. She has agency, that’s not a criticism I would make here, but only in the dumbest possible sense. At least three times throughout the story, Naji says “don’t do this thing because the evil spirits will get you”. Every single time, she does the thing, and the evil spirits attack her, and Naji has to save her. You’d think she’d learn after the first time, maybe the first two times if we’re being generous. But Ananna is really carrying the idiot ball here. There’s two more books in this series and maybe that’s part of her development? But damn was it annoying in the first book.
Naji has his problems too, and he takes his own turns at carrying the idiot ball. Mostly, however, I just felt like he was completely flat. I know a lot of romantic interests in books are, to allow you to project your desired traits onto them. But it just… he was so boring. I did not understand at any point in this book why Ananna was falling for him. Her asshole arranged fiance seemed more appealing, and I can’t imagine that was the author’s intent. It takes so little for me to buy into romance in fiction, so it’s really disappointing when it still doesn’t happen. I’m normally squealing “oh my god they love each other” at the slightest provocation (just ask my boyfriend; I say it at least three times during every episode of Star Trek we watch). But here, the only way that I could tell that Ananna was falling for Naji was that she repeatedly tells us so. There’s a piece of writing advice that I see every so often, that if the characters need to kiss for us to know that they’re in love, it’s not a good romance. I think that also applies here.
All of this is so much more disappointing in the face of what I really did like about this book. I liked the overall concept and plot outline. I liked the world that was built around these characters, with the Confederation and Lisarra and the Isles of the Sky. I wish we’d seen more of it, because it felt fresh and new. I liked the presence of magic, and the way it worked, and the ever-present threat of the Mists. I felt like Ananna had potential as a character, and it was a shame to see it wasted. I’m legitimately curious to see how they’ll break the curse, and if Ananna will ever return to her family, and what else will happen along the way. I just don’t know if I’m curious enough to read the next book knowing that all of my issues with the first book will most likely continue.
In researching for this post, I realized that The Assassin’s Curse was published by Strange Chemistry, a publishing imprint that closed its doors about three years ago (it was the YA branch of Angry Robot Books, who consistently put out books I love). I’d read some of their other titles, and I realized that I’d had a similar reaction towards all of them. I felt that all of them had excellent potential but subpar editing (one of them, The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond, is really a great example of this – her other works with other publishers are far superior). So I guess this just goes to show: a good or bad editor can not only make or break a book, they can make or break an entire publisher.