Every now and again I find myself reading not just one book in a series as an ARC, but several, and the Assassins series by Erica Cameron is one of them. I originally picked it up because I write about teenage assassins and that’s my thing: you can read my review of book one here.
Although it bears the same “Assassins” title as the first book in the series, in many ways Nemesis is a slightly more traditional story of trying to save the world from supervillains. It just involves a bit more illegal activity and a little bit of murder in the process. The difference is that while book one focused on Kindra who was raised to kill (in a very screwed-up family), this one focuses on Blake, who had a much more conventional upbringing. While Blake knows how to use a gun, that’s a very different state of affairs than being a literal assassin, and makes for a more relatable protagonist in many ways.
Blake is also intersex and gender-fluid, with pronouns changing from he/him to she/her throughout the book depending on how Blake’s feeling at the time. Which I really liked, because it’s something that you rarely see in books even as diversity continues to thrive, but which makes writing a review a little tricky. Although Blake doesn’t use neutral pronouns in the book, preferring to change them regularly, I’m going to go for ‘they’ here just to make sure it’s clear I’m talking about a character who doesn’t fit into binary categories. So anyway. Blake is multiethnic, not straight, and trans — Nemesis definitely continued with the diverse themes of the first book.
At first, not having remembered the ending of book one made it hard to tell whether this followed on directly, but as time passed I remembered more and more, and once familiar characters like Kindra and Dru appeared, I was able to match it all up in my head. The shift of focus means in some ways it doesn’t feel like a straightforward sequel, especially because it changes the tone of the novel quite a lot. Blake is in many ways far more innocent than Kindra and the other characters who were the focus of the first book; they feel unwell when they shoot somebody for the first time, and have a lot of reservations about violence. Moreover, they don’t have the training that allows the others to work these missions, which means their narrative viewpoint is probably closer to the average reader’s, and helps keep things easy to follow without them devolving into technobabble.
That was definitely something I found easier in this book — the first one had a lot of very technical language, especially with regard to guns, and as I’m British and know literally nothing about guns, I found it hard to follow. Some of this was still a little complicated for my usual speed-reading, but it was nothing that got in the way of the story.
Although Blake didn’t have the same skills as the others, they were still given the chance to shine, even using knowledge of Shakespeare to help the others out, which was nice to see. Moreover, they grew and learned as the book went on, and the Blake we saw in the final chapter was very different from the one in the first, without having lost their essential personality. I appreciated that. I also appreciated that Blake in the first chapter had a skirt with pockets large enough to fit a gun in them. I don’t wear skirts much, but if they had pockets that size, who knows, maybe I would.
This book is plotted on a big scale: it’s not a single person that’s in danger, but the entire world, and the focus isn’t on one city or even country but on a truly global scale. That might have made the story feel unfocused, but I found there was a surprising amount of detail and close focus on each location that allowed me to feel grounded as a reader. There’s one scene that takes place during a major storm / tycoon, and the writing was incredibly visual — I could definitely picture that as a cinematic Pirates of the Caribbean-style scene in the rain.
That said, I didn’t think all of the writing was as polished as it might have been, though this could be an aspect of personal taste; a few of the jokes in dialogue also seemed a little bit clunky or self-indulgent, as if the author found them amusing and didn’t want to cut them even when they didn’t entirely fit the mood. Some of the big conversational moments where all characters are exchanging ideas could maybe have been easier to follow, but I know it’s hard to do major ensemble scenes like that and on the whole those kinds of things were handled well, especially considering Blake’s shifting pronouns.
I can’t decide if I liked this book more than the first one or not. On the one hand, I’m a sucker for actual assassins, and there were fewer of those in this book (or rather, they weren’t the focus, and when they were, they were mostly trying to save the world rather than coldheartedly assassinating people, which kind of defeats the point, right?). I also like f/f stories and enemies-to-friends and all that, which were features of the first one.
On the other hand, I am DEFINITELY a sucker for stories of found family and people gradually overcoming distrust to find unlikely friendships and start caring about people. I’m also a sucker for supportive parental figures (whether or not they’re actually the person’s parents), and for Shakespeare nerds getting to use their skills. All of those were features of the book, plus, did I mention it has an intersex protagonist? Because like dude. How many books do you know that feature an intersex protagonist without being books about being intersex? I can think of about two, which is … not very many considering that I read around 330 books LAST YEAR. So yeah.
I know I blather on about diversity a lot, and for those who are less personally affected by it, that may get dull. But it is something I definitely enjoy about this series, as in the course of two books there have been a huge range of relationships and identities, including multiple queer characters and racial diversity. Book one had a young f/f couple; this one features an older m/m couple as well as a budding relationship between Blake and Daelan (what with Blake being genderfluid and intersex I’m not sure how you’d define this one in terms of gender, but it’s queer whatever happens).
It also featured a minor character with an anxiety disorder so severe it resulted in agoraphobia, and a Muslim character who wears a hijab, and I’m sure there are other characters I’m forgetting about who add to those diversity levels. It creates an additional layer to the story, so that even elements that might have been well-worn or unoriginal have new aspects and details. (This is what I mean when I say diversity makes stories better!) Plus: a book full of death and assassination and queer characters and yet somehow the queer characters live? Like, dude. DUDE. Amazing.
So anyway. I feel like I’ve rambled a lot. My general impression was that there was less actual assassination, but this was still an enjoyable and exciting read with lots of drama, both in terms of plot and in terms of emotions and character development. Plus it’s got one of the most diverse casts of characters I’ve come across in a while. All in all, I’m glad to have picked it up as an eARC, and I’m somewhat regretting not having got on with reading it sooner.