Thought I’d have another (typically belated) go at Tough Travelling. This week, we’re dealing with Assassins:
Assassins are ubiquitous throughout fantasyland. Sharp-eyed readers (or even dull-eyed ones) will notice that their hooded forms often adorn book covers, and that they frequently appear – rather improbably – not to mind being the sole focus of our attention. Whether they’re spotlight hogs or camera-shy and brooding, most assassins will have trained for years and are very, VERY good at their job (i.e. killing people for money).
- Artemis Entreri (The Crystal Shard (1988), et seq.; R.A. Salvatore)
Is there anything particularly special about Entreri? Not really. I suspect that in today’s dagger-saturated fantasy climate, nobody would even notice him. But way back in 1988, Artemis Entreri was the world’s premier fantasy assassin, the dark mirror to Forgotten Realms mascot Drizzt Do’Urden. He may not have been the genre’s first assassin – the Belgariad, for instance, gives one of its protagonists an assassin nemesis, and I’m sure there were more than a few in the pulps – but until the rise of grimdark he was probably its most famous, and none of those knife-posing hoody-wearers on modern covers would have been given their big break if not for the path blazed, methodicaly and violently, by Artemis Entreri.
Entreri was a human man from the rough streets of a big city, who murdered his way up from child abuse victim to paid henchman to freelance contractor to legend (and beyond). Entreri possessed a powerful sort of… anti-charisma. He was so boring it was hard not to respect him. Like many fictional killers, he rarely murdered innocent people for no good reason unless someone were paying him – but in his case this was not so much the result of a code of honour as of a code of efficiency. Entreri built himself into a remorseless living weapon, and prided himself, in a bland and apathetical way, on his capabilities: the only distraction from his job, ironically, was his desire to be the best at it. This in turn lead to a long-term fixation on Drizzt, the only fighter Entreri had found who could match him. Entreri’s professionalism, perfectionism, and wounded pessimism made him peculiarly sympathetic… for a pathologically uncaring mass murderer.
A recurring and rather under-written villain throughout the Drizzt novels, Entreri finally got his big break ten years into the sequence in The Silent Blade, the main plot of which sees an older, marginally slower Entreri return to the city of his youth to try to find a new place in it; perhaps the best that can be said of the character is that he made the book readable long after Salvatore’s tropes had otherwise grown wearisome.
Entreri appears in at least 18 novels, a number of short stories, and a handful of computer games, and is last I heard, still going strong, making him perhaps the genre’s most prolific and longlived hired killer…
- Inigo Skimmer (The Fifth Elephant (1999); Terry Pratchett)
Discworld is overflowing with assassins. One, Pteppic, gets his own novel. Another, Mr Teatime, gets to be the chief villain of another. Dr Cruces and Lord Downey play recurring villainous and semi-villainous roles as politicians as well as killers. One of the setting’s highest-billed fixtures, Lord Vetinari himself, is a graduate of the Assassin’s Guild (a cross between an English public school and a psychopath’s convention). Countless other assassins, and more particularly Assassins, litter the pages of the cycle, even providing their own themed tie-in diary; the most ‘Boba Fett’ of them may be young Jocasta Wiggs (who, when she grows up, will murder a vampire – at least, said vampire has previously been killed by four previous generations of her family, and everyone agrees it only seems sporting to let her have a go at maintaining the family tradition); Wiggs, meanwhile, is just one student of a more recondite character, House Mistress Miss Alice Band, stealth archaeologist and exploding-bustle-wearer…
My pick this time, however, is Inigo Skimmer. Skimmer is unusual for an Assassin, in that he’s a working-class kid, a scholarship boy who made up for anything he lacked in manners or fine taste or black silk with, instead, a talent for remorseless killing. He is not, however, a full-time freelance murderer: after graduating, he instead found employment as a “clerk” for Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruler. An unassuming, bald man, who finishes his sentences with a mumbled “mhm-mph” and wears a bowler hat, Skimmer attracts little attention, which is useful in his never-fully-defined line of work. This does not, however, prevent him from extremely efficient violence – he combines the refined training of the Assassin’s Guild with the cunning and resourcefulness of his origins on the streets, with a razor blade sewn into his hat and daggers in the soles of his shoes. Like Entreri, Skimmer possesses a powerful anti-charisma, in addition to a keen intellect and possibly a sense of humour; he’s also, a little ambiguously, one of the good guys.
- Chade Fallstar (Assassin’s Apprentice (1995), et seq.; Robin Hobb)
Most assassins in the fantasy genre are dashing, strong young men – some are charismatic anti-heroes, some are purposefully cold and clinically effective, and some, like the hero of Assassin’s Apprentice and the following volumes, are just troubled boys with few good options in life.
And then there’s Chade – the eponymous apprentice-taking assassin of the novel. Chade is not a young man, although he’s younger than he seems – Hobb brilliantly evokes the way in which children come late to the story and are forced to reassess their parents as they age themselves. Solitary, slow, disfigured by alchemical errors, Chade seems ancient to the young Fitz, but can’t be much older than Fitz himself is in later books. In many ways, the entire cycle of books could perhaps have been told from Chade’s point of view – at times a hero, at times a ghost, at times the brother of a king, at times a rebel, at times a murderer, at times a politician. Chade, ‘the old spider’, takes on the Walsingham role behind the throne of the Six Duchies, and his life twists and alters to serve the needs of the kingdom – a genuine selflessness that masks, and perhaps is driven by, a colossal egotism that in turn casts an ironic reflection of our protagonist’s own issues. At times a beloved father figure, at times perhaps a manipulative, exploitative Fagin, Chade is both the embodiment of the establishment and a dangerous wildcard – a disconcerting and yet lovable figure, constantly underestimated, creeping through the walls from peephole to peephole. And he, and Hobb, know that in reality an assassin need not be some ninja warrior – a knife and the element of surprise are all a man needs to kill. Or, better yet, a diverse supply of poison and a safe, unimpeachable distance.
- Oasis (Sluggy Freelance (1997-); Pete Abrams)
Sluggy Freelance is heading rapidly for its 20th anniversary as a near-daily webcomic. That’s not just a sign of a succesful and dedicated cartoonist, it’s also central to the nature of Sluggy’s peculiar (and admittedly inconsistent) brilliance, because Abrams is an author who, through a combination of planning and opportunism, is perfectly happy, to give a recent example, taking a plot twist that suddenly makes a throwaway gag from nearly two decades ago mean something totally different. It’s part of the intense tonal and structural whiplash that is both one of the comic’s most frequent weaknesses and one of its greatest strengths. Not only do absurdities, slapstick and terrible puns live side by side with convoluted plotting and complex and emotive character development, at times they are the vehicle for those deeper elements. It’s consistently hard to tell on any given occasion whether an event or character is light comic relief or the foundation for decades of examination.
So when, back in 1999 (chapter 15, “The Isle of Dr. Steve”, collected in Book 4, Game Called on Account of Naked Chick), a badly-drawn Torg, lost in the woods, is rescued from being beaten up by his psychotic pet talking rabbit (OK, it sounds silly when you say it out loud) when the pair fall in a lake next to the eponymous naked woman, it probably seemed like another silly week-long adventure, of the sort the comic was prone to at that time. After all, the set-up for the story was a brief parody of The Blair Witch Project, so nothing much could be expected, right?
Well, the naked woman (with bizarre hair) was Oasis, and the rest is (admittedly obscure) history. Oasis’ introductory (and at the time seemingly final) story is a pretty good yarn in its own right – a twisty, confusing tale of the sinister Dr. Steve and his daughter/friend/student/victim/robot, Oasis, both of whom consistently and inconsistently lie to and manipulate the protagonists, who have wandered unwittingly into a deadly but obscure game between two people – or have they?
But Oasis’ story didn’t stop there – she goes on to make repeated appearances throughout the years, a frustratingly mysterious but clearly central part of the core plot, with layers of foreshadowing carefully put in place years or even decades before their payoffs. On the surface, of course, this importance seems out of all proportion to the sophistication of the character: Oasis, at least as we generally see her, is not a deep thinker, and remains deceptively close to the adolescent male fantasy suggested by her naked, lacustrine first appearance. She’s (possibly) a beautiful gymnast-turned-assassin, who wears implausibly little clothing much of the time, and spends years infatuated with a main character. This is, of course, intentionally misleading: when Torg initially responds to her nudity with gawping and adoration, she replies by trying to drown him. The very next page reveals her stash of cute woodland animals killed with her bare hands, and for most of the following two decades she is a ruthless antagonist who inflicts considerable suffering on the central cast.
But the genius of her character is that… she’s not a character. For whatever reason – madness, brainwashing, programming, I won’t go into too many spoilers – Oasis is effectively not an agent, but a tool, not only lacking self-control but lacking even a stable personality. If she ever was a real person, her introduction story is also her swansong – or perhaps only an imitation of one. To make such a central character an agencyless cipher is a bold but ultimately brilliant move, because it dilutes our fear of and enmity toward her with an equal and opposite current of pity: the worse she is and the worse the things she does, the more we pity her, trapped (perhaps) in a hell not (we assume) of her own making. That would alone make her memorable, but gradually, over the years, in glimpses here and there, often only tangentially connected to the main cast, we see her grow, not perhaps by overcoming her lack of agency, but at least by gaining an increasingly deep understanding of her own lack of agency (or has she?), and what seemed at times like a cartoon threat has become one of the most moving and tragic of the comic’s characters. Not bad for someone who at any moment might well murder any of the protagonists.
Oasis is, quite intentionally, a walking cliché – but she’s a cliché treated seriously enough (in the long term) to seriously examine its implications. Which is why she’s at least the second-most-memorable mysterious beautiful assassin woman in the webcomic. [but we’ll save Kusari for another day]
- Arakasi (Daughter of the Empire (1987), et seq.; Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts)
Oasis is a cipher by (probably) circumstance; Arakasi, on the other hand, is a cipher by something perversely approaching choice. The spymaster to (eventually) the Acoma is, like Chade, primarily a manipulator and a politician, but he is also not above getting his blade wet with the blood of enemies. Or allies. Or probably himself.
The Empire trilogy is set in an exotically ‘oriental’ world loosely inspired (I gather) by mediaeval Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, and that setting allows the authors to really cut loose with tropes of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, even beyond what is normal for the genre. The books are filled with pious suicides, mortifying shame, fidelity unto death, and the occasional perfectly respectable human sacrifice. And at the edges of all that – both furthering and implicitly rebelling against, undermining and relying upon this all-consuming code of honour – are the trilogy’s assassins, the merciless Tongs, and specifically the Hamoi Tong and their incongruously obese master, the Obajan. Throughout the books, the Tong kill by blade, by cord, by subtle poison, and occasionally by wave after wave of fanatical canon fodder. If their devotion to their Tong – which may ultimately by underwritten by cash but which (like every institution in this world) seems not far from a religion or an extended family – may at times stretch the credulence of the modern Western reader, the assassins are at least better than par in the believability of their ruthlessness; unlike many fantasy assassins, these are not nice, ultimately fair and merciful people. They kill women, children and the elderly – whoever they’re paid to kill. In a way, they’re the ultimate assassins of the genre.
Arakasi isn’t one of them. Instead, he’s a disgraced ‘grey warrior’, a servant of a destroyed House who has failed to commit suicide, but who is treated as an outcast by all. Until he meets Mara, our heroine, who decides the man may have something to offer a new employer – and from then on, Arakasi becomes the central figure of Mara’s continued improbable survival, not only a respected political advisory but also the shadowy master of an immense spy network. It’s a network he built himself, and one he cares for like a devoted parent. But you don’t get to run a nationwide spy network by being gentle – Arakasi is completely anonymous to the outside world, and will dutifully murder any of his most trusted agents to keep it that way if the need arises. That because everything Arakasi does is dutiful: the man has, essentially, no visible character traits beyond loyalty and paranoia, in some combination of societal honour-obsession and personal sociopathy. It’s his greatest virtue: being nobody, he can be anybody, and he spends much of the trilogy immersed in an array of perfect disguises inhabited with limitless dedication. So what if he needs to spend a day or two raking sand for a thirty-second meeting? It’s not like anything else in life might matter.
He employs exactly the same patient approach to cold-blooded murder, relying on intelligence and time in place of mere physical prowess; his careful and courageous Bond-esque infiltration scene in the third book is one of the highlights of the trilogy.