Review: Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby

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Assassin’s Gambit by Amy Raby (Hearts and Thrones #1)
Fantasy Romance
April 2, 2013
Berkley

Reviewed by Mandi

This book caught my eye because I love an assassin heroine. A couple of my favorites being Gin from Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series and Shadow Kin by MJ Scott.

The description of the heroine in the blurb sounds pretty awesome:

Vitala Salonius, champion of the warlike game of Caturanga, is as deadly as she is beautiful. She’s a trained assassin for the resistance, and her true play is for ultimate power. Using her charm and wit, she plans to seduce her way into the emperor’s bed and deal him one final, fatal blow, sparking a battle of succession that could change the face of the empire.

Except she isn’t awesome. She is half Riorca, half Kjallan, two lands that are fierce enemies. She considers Riorca her home, having spent a brief amount of time there as child, yet she looks Kjallan, which is why she was taken at a young age by the assassin group, The Obsidian Circle, to be trained to become a deadly assassin. Her mission since she was a young girl was to be trained to kill the Kjallan emperor, Lucien, to then set in motion chaos, hoping to free her Ricora people that are enslaved. Her training is two parts – first Lucien is a war mage which means he can anticipate when something bad is going to happen. To be able to stick a death shard in him, she gets trained to stick it in when the man is climaxing on top of her. Apparently in the throes of an orgasm, he doesn’t pay attention to the incoming warning danger. Her second task is to learn the game Caturanga (like chess) which is Lucien’s favorite. He always invites the annual Caturanga champion to play him at his palace.

So Vitala completes her training, (where she practice kills soldiers) wins the Caturanga championship, and finds herself in front of Lucien ready to play her roll. But here is where the story completely falls apart for me.

While Vitala has to seduce Lucien into bed (so they can have sex and she can stick the death shard into him) she gets seduced herself. She becomes attracted to him about five minutes after she meets him. Huh? She has been trained almost her entire life to kill this man and she gets all goo-goo eyed over him already?

Then before she can get him into bed, Lucien’s second in command stages a rebellion, and tries to kill Lucien. Now before Vitala really knows what is going on, she has a chance to kill Lucien. But she doesn’t take it (I weep). Later she realizes Lucien might be better use to her Riocra people if he is alive. But let me make this point – I never see her act like an assassin. She never comes across as someone who has had a vicious assassin training (yet we are told she has). She falls for Lucien right at the beginning? Where is the intrigue? The suspense? And almost as worse as this, Lucien trusts Vitala pretty much from the beginning. These events would have made more sense if one: Vitalia and Lucien had each hated the other, or tried to kill the other. At least once! And two: Had these events slowed down. The rebellion, the raid, Lucien switching sides all takes place at the beginning of the book. Slow down and let us get to know each player before switching it all up on us.

As the book goes on it continues to go downhill. Vitala is determined to keep it a secret that she works for the Obsidian Circle but slight pressure from Lucien and she folds. Again, not kick ass assassin behavior.

The rest of the book flounders. Letting enemies go when they should have killed them, Lucien not really acting like the strong emperor he says he is and most disappointing, Vitala never coming across as a true assassin.

Rating: D

Recent Reviews:
The Bookpushers – A/B
Ruby’s Reads – 2/5
All About Romance – B
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Comments

  1. says

    Great thoughtful review, Mandi. I read Assassin’s Gambit and had a different reaction to Vitala. I found her to be such an interesting character because she was so clearly a fabulous choice for an Obsidian Circle assassin in some respects (her intellect and appearance) and so poor a choice in other respects (her reluctance even as a trainee to kill and her tendency to have nightmares after her practice kills). Going forward with the plan to send her to assassinate Lucien proved to me just how desperate the Circle was. I’m not sure they really believed she would succeed.

    I thought the author presented a strong rationale for Vitala’s decisions. I was thoroughly sympathetic to her and loved seeing her plans for assassinating Lucien fall apart. She had to put the strategic mind she used to master Caturanga to use when the Kjallan empire falls apart unexpectedly and the “board” chages.

    By far, my favorite thread in the book was the romance. Vitala clearly has PTSD from being forced to kill men using sex, a task she’s not cut out for by any stretch of the imagination and one thrust on her out of Riorca’s (and the Circle’s) desperation. She’s horrifically damaged and has never had a sexual experience result in anything but nightmares. I was so touched by her unexpected and almost unrecognized attraction to Lucien. I didn’t interpret it as goo-goo eyes as much as stunned curiosity and confusion. I mean, the guy gives her her first orgasm for goodness sake. Any woman would be taken off guard by that.

    Vitala’s journey from that unexpected attraction to falling in love with Lucien hit all the right notes for me, and I loved that it happened while she and Lucien had to put their heads together to save two nations. I’m looking forward to more stories in this rich fantasy world.

    • says

      “clearly a fabulous choice for an Obsidian Circle assassin in some respects (her intellect and appearance) and so poor a choice in other respects (her reluctance even as a trainee to kill and her tendency to have nightmares after her practice kills). Going forward with the plan to send her to assassinate Lucien proved to me just how desperate the Circle was.”

      I don’t know if I ever got that the Circle was desperate though. I understand Vitala’s PTSD and her nightmares, and even her reluctance to kill (although she did kill, right?) but I never got the impression the Circle thought she might fail. They invested years and years into her – why would they continue to stick with her as their lead assassin if they thought she wouldn’t be able to handle the job?

      If Vitala had been presented to me at the beginning as an assassin with faults, (or at least, more faults than what I saw) then I would have understood her actions more. I think it comes down to my need for the story to have unfolded at the beginning slower. I needed to learn about Vitala more and the hero more..before rushing into the main event. I wouldn’t have minded that these two fell for each other and sided together, had they not jumped right to that moment so early in the book.

  2. Barbara Towle, Seattle, Washington says

    I agree that the cover is kick-ass! Made me want to read the book. The above comments about the heroine are both interesting. I thought I’d add my opinion to the mix. Vitala was trained to kill a specific target in order to help the Riorcan people. She was told that killing Lucien would destabilize the Kjallan Empire. When she was presented to Lucien she noticed that the “warder” was only pretending to put the magic wards on Lucien. As an expert Caturanga stategist, she was quick to recognize that things were not as the Obsidian Circle believed, and therefore her mission might not actually help her people. The game had changed and she had the courage to adjust her mission knowing that it could mean the Circle would send an assassin after her. Her instincts proved to be right. In saving Lucien and helping him regain his kingdom from an evil man, she kicked some serious butt proving she was strong and capable. She did have flaws, but she was unstoppable inspite of them. No wonder Lucien fell in love with her.

    • Mandi says

      OK. I DO concede to your point about her seeing the “non-wards” and questioning what was really happening. Good point there.

      Buttttt….the beginning still didn’t work for me. I just didn’t buy into it.

  3. Barbara Towle, Seattle, Washington says

    I agree with aurian that conflicting opinions are the best. After all, no book is going to please every reader. Our tastes in book content may differ but we all have the same passion for a good read. So thank you, Mandi for hosting this informative chat about Assassin’s Gambit.

  4. Lexi says

    Great comments on this post! The wide variety of opinions has me wanting to pick up this book even more than I did before!! I can’t wait to see where I will fall *rubbing hands together in glee*

  5. says

    Okay. Your review helped me to understand one of the problems I had with this book (and which I did not touch on in my review). It told me all kinds of things instead of showing them to me. What exactly did Vitala’s training include? We’re told she’s this kick-butt heroine, but I never believed it because it’s never shown. Lucien’s a kick-butt war mage? Okay, let me see a little bit of that in action rather than telling me it’s the case all the time.

    But what I really hated was that the way Vitala’s PTSD from the rape went from A-Z with nothing in-between. It felt completely manufactured and unrealistic and I definitely didn’t feel that she was traumatized, even if I was bashed over the head with being told that she was.

    But, by far, the biggest issue for me was my lack of connection to the characters. I could have forgiven a lot if I had liked Vitala or Lucien more. Or maybe I couldn’t have. At any rate, it’s a moot point.

  6. Mandi says

    Yes..the show but not tell bothered me.

    The PTSD was not fleshed out and their…solution..at the end didn’t make sense.

    And with showing and not fleshed out characters, you aren’t going to have a connection. Yep.

  7. Barbara Towle, Seattle, Washington says

    Lucien assumed that Vitala’s PTSD was caused by the rape and she let him believe that because she was reluctant to trust him with the real reason behind it which was the incident where she had to kill a young soldier as part of her training. She had to seduce him and then kill him at the highpoint of the sexual encounter. She was very young at the time and he was only 17 (if I remember correctly). She jumped off of him and retreated to a corner of the room and watched him die a painful death that she had caused. She never understood why she was commanded to kill this boy who did not appear to her to be a threat and it consumed her with guilt. Early in the story she was reminded of the soldier when she saw a guard at Lucien’s palace that looked like him. Later she had the vision when she got to the point of a climax while making love to Lucien because he did remind her of the soldier and she experienced the horror of what she had done all over again. She was not traumatized at all by the rape and was not at all sorry to kill her attacker. Once Lucien figured out that Vitala’s problem involved a traumatic event in her past that she felt guilty about, he told her about a traumatic event in his past which continued to haunt him. She was then able to open up to him and tell him the whole story.

    I know that this explanation won’t make those who already don’t like the book, like it, but hopefully anyone who hasn’t read the book will understand that Vitala’s PTSD was a result of a much more horrific incident than the rape and happened long before the rape. It wasn’t a sudden thing that made no sense.

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