S.D. Tower, The Assassins of Tamurin (Eos, 2003)

I read this book almost by accident. Well, okay, I purchased The Assassins of Tamurin intentionally, and put it in my car for an undecided time in the near future when I'd get around to reading it. So when I realized I was going to have a few hours to kill at the DMV (that dreadful, banal government agency which regulates American drivers, for you non-Americans out there), I started rummaging for a book to take in with me. I picked up this one, skimmed the first few pages, and was instantly hooked. Two hours waiting for my number to come up wasn't enough, so I came home and went right back to reading. That there is the first sign that this is a top-notch book, given that I am generally capable of putting down a book and starting a new one, repeating until I have as many as half a dozen books in the process of being read. So what's it all about?

Lale has never known her true family. Found drifting on a boat near the shores of the impoverished village of Riversong, her elderly companions dead or dying, she was taken in out of a sense of begrudging charity, and that was practically the last kindness she'd see for eleven years. As another mouth to feed, she's a burden. As another voice to disrupt the peace, she's a nuisance. And when an accident on her part results in one of the harshest punishments imaginable, she realizes that her destiny does not lie in Riversong. She sets forth, determined to make her own way in the world. But the world, it seems, has plans for her.

Found by the Despotana of Tamurin, and enrolled in "Mother Midnight's" special school for foundling and orphaned girls, Lale at last finds a sense of belonging, and worth. She rapidly becomes one of the Despotana's prize pupils, hand-picked and groomed for a secret, treacherous purpose years in the making. But even Lale doesn't realize what a pivotal part she'll play in the Despotana's long-awaited scheme for vengeance against Terem Rathai, the Sun Lord, ruler of mighty Bethiya.

As time passes, Lale grows into a lovely woman, talented and creative, skilled in the ways of the theatre. Given the choice by Mother Midnight, Lale goes on to the school at Three Springs, where the very best of the Despotana's adopted daughters are turned into assassins and spies. And at long last, when deemed ready, Lale discovers the purpose she's been groomed for all her life: To seduce the Sun Lord, to warm his bed, turn his heart, and then help bring him down once and for all. Convinced that the Sun Lord is her "mother's" greatest enemy, Lale gives herself to the task whole-heartedly, playing numerous roles as needed to win the heart of a man recovering from tragedy. To worm her way unsuspected into the confidences of one of the mightiest men in the world, and tear him apart. To return his love with betrayal.

But the deeper Lale loses herself in the role, the worse the situation grows. For the Sun Lord has a plan of his own, to drive out the people known as the Exiles who have held much of the land in a tyrannical grip for a century, and to unite the squabbled Despots against a common foe. It's a political and military gamble that stands a risk of failure at the best of times. What will happen, though, when the one person he trusts above all is the one betraying him? Lale will have to weigh love, loyalty, duty, obligation, honor, and the dark magic which binds her to Mother Midnight, in order to do what's best for herself, and her world. Even if it kills her.

The Assassins of Tamurin is something one doesn't see a lot of, these days: a full-fledged fantasy story told all in one volume, as opposed to stretching the tale out over two, three, or more books. I could easily have seen this story being fleshed out even more, filling in a lot more details, or elaborating on certain sequences. I was actually surprised by the epilogue, which grants a relatively satisfying ending (and a classical one at that). However, I see a lot of room for sequels following other characters, or other events inbetween, so we may not have seen the last of a complex, fascinating setting. In a lot of ways, I'm reminded of the Kushiel's Dart trilogy by Jacqueline Carey, as both deal with some extremely complex political maneuvering, and both feature a strong-willed, accomplished, talented female protagonist. Lale is fiercely independent, well aware of her own faults, and smart enough to own up to responsibility (for the most part). The conspiracies and politics and plotting are all quite intriguing, filled with twists and turns that keep even the most obvious of revelations in the shadows, genuinely surprising me more than once. Even the foreshadowing comes at opportune times, one such event causing me to nod and go "Oh, good, the author's not going to insult my intelligence by pretending otherwise." Tower clearly knows when to drop hints, and when to outright sacrifice a revelation early on for a later payoff.

Reflecting on this, I've come away with an even better opinion of the book than when I started. With strong characters and a well-paced plot, The Assassins of Tamurin combines romance, fantasy, and intrigue for an exciting and occasionally harrowing tale, and I'm hoping we'll see more of S.D. Tower in the fantasy field.

[Michael M. Jones]