As young readers will find in Saskatoon-based Arthur Slade’s new middle-grade fantasy, you can’t keep a good assassin down.
Slade grew up reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, and counts them as an inspiration for one of the central parts of Dragon Assassin, the first in a trilogy.
In it, Carmen is a young woman about to graduate from the Red Adept Assassin School, in a world of empires and city states. Her twin brother Corwin – responsible for the loss of her eye – always seems one step ahead of her. Their peers often look down on her for her disability.
But Carmen’s future is complicated when the graduation ceremony turns into a bloodbath, and even more so when she makes a deal with a captive dragon, Brax.
“What could be more exciting than an assassin riding a dragon?” says Slade. “And in terms of the world these assassins inhabited, I wanted it to reflect our world but a few steps removed. So there is a Greek-like city state. And an empire that’s a cross between the Roman and Assyrian empires.”
Carmen and her allies live a perilous existence. They don’t know who to trust, nor their enemies’ reach, nor whether seeking sanctuary will doom their loved ones. Sometimes the betrayals cut deep.
“Learning who to trust is such a big part of growing up,” says Slade. “And learning to be someone who can be trusted, too.
“My hope is that stories like these show how important friendship is when everything else is falling into chaos around you.”
The situations are often grim. Brax’s fate before Carmen finds him was, at best, death, and at worst, being exploited for the magical properties of his body parts. And the disaster at the assassins’ school would be enough to give any of the characters nightmares.
Slade says he worked to balance depictions of horror with narrative choices aimed at younger readers. “It is an odd mix of humour and dark turns (which I hope balance out),” he says. “I knew that I didn’t want to hold back too much in terms of the dark moments because they are assassins and, well, they have a rather unsavoury job to do.
“That said, many of the disturbing events happen offstage and then the characters have to react to them. This gives the reader a chance to imagine the event happening but not participate in it directly. I think that distance allows the reader a bit of a cushion from the reality of the event.”
Slade keeps his young audience in mind as Carmen faces defeat, capture, and even death.
“That’s the power of fiction,” he says. “It allows us to look at complicated things (like morality or family relations) in a safe way. Who doesn’t not get along with their sibling once in a while? But what if your sibling was truly evil? Would that change your relationship?
“In a story, these types of questions are writ large and allow readers to examine them on this other stage.”