Thursday, 24 June 2010

The allure of the assassin

As I mentioned in my review of Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son, it seems that assassins are becoming increasingly popular in epic fantasy these days. Of course, they've long been a staple of the genre: from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (1939 onwards), to M. John Harrison's A Storm of Wings (1980, part of his wonderful Viriconium sequence), to the likes of Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy (1990s) Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen (1999 onwards). No doubt there's plenty of other examples; I can't claim to be well read enough to be able to give a definitive guide.

Yet it's only in recent years that we've really seen a growing emphasis on assassins as the main protagonists in fantasy novels, perhaps most notably with Brent Weeks' popular The Night Angel trilogy. Col Buchanan's Farlander and Jon Sprunk's Shadow's Son have quickly followed, while Jon Courtenay Grimwood's The Fallen Blade is in the works.

This growing emphasis on the assassin - and the apparent popularity of such characters - has led me to ponder a question - why? What is it about these shady figures that readers find so appealing?

Assassins kill people in cold blood - for money. In real life, there's nothing remotely glamourous about it; it's a despicable way of making a living. Yet assassins are rapidly becoming the rockstars of fantasy literature; there seems to be a certain glamour about the way they live their lives on the edge, dicing with death every other night.

So how come there's such a distinction between real life and literature? Rapists are treated the same way in fantasy books as they are in real life: with disgust and contempt. Yet assassination in the real world is a heinous crime, it's murder, yet in fantasy literature it's somehow acceptable - cool even.

So how come? It's a question that I can't really think of an answer for. What sort of odd psychology is at work, that makes it acceptable to root for characters that kill in cold blood? Often these assassin protagonists have experienced traumatic events earlier in their lives that have shaped them into what they have become (this is true of both Weeks' and Sprunk's characters) but is this enough to justify what they do? Does it even matter?

Food for thought. If you've got any opinions or theories on the subject, I'm very interested to hear them.


Eric M. Edwards said...

The simple answer is that murder is sexier than well, sex. See our discussion over here: for more on that topic. But basically, murder is glorified almost universally across the genre. And not just in the speculative one either, action, spy, and dramatic movies and books all glorify and fetishize extreme violence with the body counts sometimes rivaling those found in a war-zone. War itself of course, is often glorified, even in many more modern, grittier depictions. How often does a secret agent or a solider of fortune spray or hack their way through mountains of unfortunate "others" to get to the goal or to win the cause, of his or her particular side? Is this any more justified than doing so for monetary gain? I'm not convinced that it is. Motives can be as murky as any paid-for hitman, and wars as despicable as any terrorist attack.

Assassins are revered by both fans and fiction writers alike, and I'd point out, always have been, for a number of reasons. Let's look at three of them in some form of order.

Mysterious quasi mythical origins: think of the original hashish smoking disciples of the "old man of the mountain" or ninjas, both whose very existence is part secret and part fanciful fiction designed to confuse and inspire maximum terror in those they stalk. They could be anyone and anywhere, and few traditional defenses will be able to stop them once they set their sights on their prey.

Mistaken ideal of the self-reliant lone gunman: there is a mystique to the single figure in black, hiding in the shadows, picking their target, planning their strike with painstaking care. A shot from the tower, a knife from the dark, a glimmer, and then gone before even others can react. An army of one whose actions, however mercenary, can do or undue the work of thousands. We can admire, even emphasis, however grisly its outcome, the pride of a professional in their work. In truth, an assassin is more likely to be a psychopathic loner with no friends, but fiction is fiction for a reason, and one of them is its often fast and loose handling of the facts.

Faux-medieval setting: by far the standard setting in the genre are these mock ye olde European worlds, and often the assassin is not some fat ex-bagman working for the local down-sized mob, but the tool of kings, priests, or political plotters. Crossbows and short-swords somehow make the work feel more noble than a silenced 9mm pistol to the back of some poor frightened witness' head. This goes along with the overall glamorization of violence by its connection with a supposedly more brutal and less civilized past.

That's likely just three of many reasons for their lasting popularity, but I'd say assassins in general play to the genre rather well. Secretive pasts, quasi-religious origins, special powers to invoke fear and sow confusion, melting back into the shadows or their ordinary lives when the job is done, being seen as lone wolves (or just loners or sometimes, as lone agents of a larger cult) melded with their craftsmen like precision and cool professionalism, and the stamp of approval placed by a brutish fantasy world where life, if not the ending of it, is almost always cheap.

That's my poisoned two pence on the subject.


Patrick said...

Interesting topic. But I think one of your assumptions is off base and I think Eric sums it up nicely. What you are missing is that assassination and murder aren't the same thing.

Murder and Assassination aren't the same thing any more than Sex and Rape are. It's all about intent and motive.

An assassination is typically associated with secret plots, political upheaval, the start of wars. Those are the things that interest readers. If you just has a book where an assassin murders random people for pay, it won't be as interesting. While technically assassination, such killing doesn't have the weight of implication behind it.

Look at the Kennedy assassination and all of the mystery surrounding it. Murder? Anyone can be murdered. It takes someone special to be assassinated.

Gabriele C. said...

Here's another one for your list of books featuring assassins, coming out this summer (December in the US).

Sam Sykes said...

When was the last time you saw an assassin in fantasy fiction kill someone that might not have deserved it?

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of it has to do with the mystery surrounding the assassin. Humans, as a whole, I have found, are equally afraid of and drawn toward the unknown. The aura of mystery that has always surrounding the typical trope Fantasy assassin, as well as his motives and who controls him interests us, keeps us coming for more. At least it does me.

V said...

I strongly agree with Patrick in differentiating between murder and assassination, and I think it's important to realize that killing is a key aspect of almost any fantasy (I'm sure there are exceptions....I just can't think of one off the top of my head).

Further, I think the trend towards assassins has been growing for some time. Since the 90's, (and earlier, but I think it really became mainstream then) people have become at once disenchanted with true 'hero' protagonists and have felt much more empathetic towards anti-heroes....those who aren't quite noble enough to announce themselves to their enemy, or someone too broken to be anyone better.

Assassins can then become sympathetic characters rather easily, while still having enough connections to built an intriguing plot around. Just being a mercenary, while it obviously can be made into a story (and a good one at that) doesn't really have room for the same sort of...well, angst, that an assassin does. And they do tend to angst...and people seem to really like it. An angsty mercenary just doesn't really seem right. Logically, they can just stop. It's far easier to force an assassin to continue in that career path, even if he sort of wishes he could stop.

The Evil Hat said...

I think Sykes is onto it. Assassins are killers, yes, and there is nothing in their character that says that they should do good, and yet fiction very rarely explores the negative side. Yes, assassins are always wrapped up in killing people, but how often does the author not go through hoops to make their target even more of a psychotic, child-slaughtering monster than the assassin? If a work of fiction actually explored the assassin in a serious way (as in, removed the heart of gold and made their targets...if not sympathetic, at least less unsympathetic than the gestapo), then I think it would be unrecognizable if placed next to the practitioners of the cliche, in the same way that bodice rippers and "whores with a heart of gold" have almost nothing in common with actual abuse/rape/prostitution, etc.

Sam Sykes said...

Some authors pull this off very well; FARLANDER and the NIGHT ANGEL trilogy are no less entertaining because the targets typically deserve it, but I think that making such a stark morality present robs the story of what could be a very cool conflict.

What happens when an assassin picks the wrong target? What happens when he decides he's done with killing? What happens if he kills a good man that has personally wronged him?

As I say, a story doesn't necessarily suffer for the absence of this and it's totally a matter of taste, but it seems that "evil and greater evil" is just taking the black-and-white morality and moving it to a new playground.

Anonymous said...

WRT rape vs assassination, the difference is that the rape victims are usually women (and maybe children). It's difficult to write a romanticized rape book which wouldn't be a sexist book at the same time.

Also, IRL, murder isn't regarded to be as bad a thing as rape. I've heard that rapists are the scum in prisons.

James said...

THanks all for your comments.

Eric - some interesting point there, certainly. The idea of mystique/mysticism certainly goes some way to explaining the hold such characters have over us.

Patrick - it's not so much that they're not the same thing, I think it's more the fact that the context is different for each one. The act is the same, the motivation and consequences perhaps totally different.

Sam - "When was the last time you saw an assassin in fantasy fiction kill someone that might not have deserved it?"

The last time was in Sprunk's novel, when a young noble gets a knife in his gut simply for being in the way. Sprunk even hints that the guy was meant to be a better person than his father, which makes the protagonist's lack of guilt even more strange.

And I totally agree with your point that there are so many other pyschological aspects that could be explored, but aren't - too often assassins are these kick-ass uber-powerful people that don't seem to have any psychological trauma at all. I'd like to see an assassin character that struggles with their role and the implications it brings.

Mimouille said...

I indeed agree that assassination and murder are different.

Murder has always been present in Fantasy as clearly illustrated in Holstock's brilliant Mythago Wood, the hero is by essence violent as it's hero nature is accomplished by deeds of battle and therefore killing.

As for assassins, they are part of a larger trend going beyond literature : people are tired of "regular" heroes with no darkness and no flaws as they just emphasize their own mediocrity. Anti-heroes and anti-conformist heroes are increasingly popular : would Dexter have been possible 10 years ago (the Series "Profit" was canceled in the 90's because it was shocking for the public then, while it would be totally standard today).

Assassins are even better : they are secret and mysterious by nature, and the author makes you privy to their lives...very exciting. But let's be clear : as some of you said it, few of these fantasy heroes are true "assassins". I liked Weeks trilogy, but his character is such a goody goody, he wouldn't last 10 minutes in my neighborhood. Few books feature really "unlikable" assassin heroes(Hobb's Fitz is ok).

I think the truly dark characters are the torturers such as in Abercrombie's trilogy, or my favorite, Severian in Wolfe's New Sun cycle. These people make a living off suffering, not death.

But if you consider the true, dark characters, there is a difference between being fascinated and wanting to read about them, and thinking that what they do would be cool in real life.

Anonymous said...

I'll go with the ninjas. And most stories make sure that they're not THAT bad, have a revelation, or take on only a certain kind, or the whole society isn't much better, or they have some higher heart-breaking goal and will eventually pay, or it all just symbolizes a mystical struggle...
For modern world examples see the movie Léon The Professional.

Paul said...

The other thing about most assassin's these days is they all seem to have some unique gift or magical power. Very few seem to actually rely on their human skills. So does this make them true assassin's since they have this extra advantage? The notable exceptions (David Gemmell's Waylander and Steven Erikson's Kalam) to this are usually regarded as being all the greater for it. I would prefer to see more of this type of character rather than the 'heroic' assassin. Incidentally does anyone know when the idea of a heroic assassin was first introduced to fantasy? Waylander dates back to 1986 ...

Glenn Kiwi said...

There was a lot of interesting anthropologial research (if that isn't an oxymoron) done in the 90s about the place of schizophrenia in society. The basic question was: if schizophrenics aren't as likely to have kids as non-schizos, and if we assume for the moment that schizophrenia is a heritable trait, how come the perecentage of the population with it isn't reducing?
Whether or not you buy the genetic cause assumption, some hypotheses that came out of this line of thinking included that people who are heterozygously (just a little bit) schizo are actually extrememly attractive and therefore make up for the complete nut jobs in the genetic heritability stakes. They tend to refuse to obey cultural strictures, are often artistically gifted or otherwise savant and are roguish risk-takers.
So here's my point: the assassin is like a heterozygous schizo; just bad enough to be titllating but not so bad (they're just fulfilling a commission, after all) that the full force of moral judgement weighs against them