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.