I thoroughly enjoyed his assured narration and dialogue for the first half of the book – lovely wit underpinning everything, charming characters (despite the context), clever interplay with people talking at cross purposes. Here’s an example from a beautifully handled scene where our pampered heir is starting at his new (assassin school):
Teppec looked up. There was a senior assassin standing beside him…The man was pleasant enough. You could imagine him making sausages.
‘Are you talking to me?’ he said.
‘You will stand up when you address a master,’ said the rosy face.
‘I will?’ Teppic was fascinated. He wondered how this could be achieved. Discipline had not hitherto been a major feature in his life….
‘I will sir,’ said the teacher. He consulted the list in his hand.
‘What is your name, boy?’ he continued.
‘Prince Pteppic of the Old Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Sun,’ said Teppic easily. ‘I appreciate you are ignorant of the etiquette, but you should not call me sir, and you should touch the ground with your forehead when you address me.’
‘Pateppic, is it?’ said the master.
‘Ah, Teppic,’ said the master….He then turned away and homed in on another cowering pupil.
‘He’s not such a bad sort,’ said a voice behind Teppic. ‘Anyway, all the stuff’s in the library. I’ll show you if you like. I’m Chidder.’
Teppic turned. He was being addressed by a boy of about his own age and height…The youth was holding out a hand. Teppic gave it a polite glance.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘What’s your name, kiddo?’
Teppic drew himself up. He was getting fed up with this treatment. ‘Kiddo? I’ll have you know the blood of Pharaohs runs in my veins!’
The other boy looked at him unabashed, with his head on one side and a faint smile on his face.
‘Would you like it to stay there?’ he said.
I mean, this is fantastic stuff, and utterly worthy of the Wodehouse tradition. So many deft touches – like the casual racism of getting the name wrong, the delicious irony of, “I will?’, and bringing it home with that delightfully understated threat. Also the likeability of the characters, who realistically fit far more in a country house than among murderers in the cruel city – but realism is happily abandoned.
I felt, however, that the book lost its way when the plot, instead of being a vaguely ridiculous and largely ignored framework to paint such agreeable scenes, begins to start driving things. Previously we’d had a tacit agreement with the author that it was absurd, but more and more he seems to want us to take it – of all words – seriously. The action becomes much less engaging when it isn’t important to character and just an occasion intermission between (lovely) dialogue and rumination. And it just gets insulting when we’re supposed to be driven by suspense in a novel where rules of physics are constantly and casually broken.