Turns out, all my top recs are assassin-oriented. Like, guess what profession Fitz trains for in Robin Hobb’s ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE! (Go on. You’ll never get it.) The Will, the sorta-kinda villain of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s SAGA, calls himself a freelancer, but dude, he’s been paid the big bucks to put an end to Our Heroes, and we all know what category that puts him in. Mildmay, co-narrator of Sarah Monette’s MELUSINE, dodges his assassin roots but can’t escape them entirely. Jos, protagonist of Karin Lowachee’s WARCHILD, doesn’t technically kill people for money (except for the whole soldier thing), but he’s trained as an assassin-priest so he gets the title free and clear.
And so on and so forth. Assassins, they follow me around.
Soon as I noticed this trend, I challenged myself to make a recs list without a single assassin on it. No assassin protagonists; no assassin antagonists; no secondary characters who occasionally assassinate people. No assassins lurking the background doing nothing of any great importance, even.
No assassins. None.
I opened my LibraryThing account and scrolled through my top-rated books in search of qualifying titles. A wealth of possibilities spread themselves before me. I could rec THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater--except no, wait, the Grey Man is a hit man. Damn. Michelle West’s fabulous Averalaan novels were a clear choice until I remembered they’re packed with demonic assassins. I can’t immediately recall any assassins in THE SNOW QUEEN or THE SUMMER QUEEN by Joan D. Vinge, but neither can I swear to their absence given how that world works. The same is true of Kristin Cashore’s BITTERBLUE. And some of my other less frequently pushed top picks--A GAME FOR SWALLOWS by Zeina Abirached, THE MAGICIANS AND MRS QUENT by Galen Beckett, and THE SIREN by Tiffany Reisz--contain sneaky-ass, hidden assassins.
Even SKIP BEAT, my comic-du-jour, has an on-screen assassin tucked away in one of its storylines.
The hell, self? Why you gotta fixate on books about contract killers?
For that matter, why you gotta sneak a ton of assassin-laden recs into what is supposed to be an assassin-free recs list?
Moving on, I present to you five books I’m 98% sure are assassin-free, and which I loved and adored and think you should read:
Ned’s superiors want him to find this thing called the Bishop’s Bird Stump because they’re rebuilding Coventry Cathedral and it has to contain everything it used to contain, it just has to. So they’ve sent him on about a million trips back in time over the last little bit--far more than are strictly advisable--and now he’s got hardcore time-lag, and he can take a couple weeks off if he just does one more thing in Victorian England.
Except he’s so time-lagged, he missed his briefing on what that one thing is. And once he’s in the past, there’s nobody around to ask.
I don’t rec this book nearly enough. It’s fabulous: hilarious, insightful, and deeply immersive. The really great thing about Ned’s time-lag is that it reflects the reader’s own confusion with this unfamiliar situation. We know fuck-all about time travel and Bishops Bird Stumps and the ins and outs of Ned's undercover persona, and we catch on to what’s going on at pretty well the same time Ned does. It’s a thing of beauty.
Plus, Verity is perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Cath writes the world’s most popular Simon Snow fanfic. She also grapples with major changes to her everyday world when she starts college: a twin sister who wants to establish an identity separate from Cath; a roommate who doesn’t even sort of understand fandom; a professor who insists fanfic isn’t a legitimate form of creative expression; and a cute boy who’s always, always around.
Rowell blew me away with her gorgeous characterization and her nuanced look at Cath’s ever-shifting world. The book became my whole life as I read it. I freaked out at every little thing that Cath freaked out at. I fought hard to get over the thing Levi does. (NB: I’m still not entirely over the thing Levi does.) I wanted so much on Cath’s behalf.
Rowell’s other books are also great, but FANGIRL is my no-contest favourite. And hey! It’s totally assassin-free, even in the book-within-a-book part of things!
THE SECRET COUNTESS/A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS by Eva Ibbotson
Countess Anna Grazinsky’s family fled the Russian revolution for England, where they are now penniless. Never one to dwell on rough times, Anna takes a job as a housemaid at a country estate. She’s quite content to work hard and conceal her noble blood from her fellow servants, but before she knows it she’s in desperate, requited love with the estate’s impoverished owner. Too bad he comes complete with a fiancee whose wealth offers the only way to preserve the manor house and keep Anna's new friends employed.
THE SECRET COUNTESS (aka A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS if you’re in the US) has the distinction of being one of the eight books I’ve loved straight from the first word to the last. It’s a fairy tale without a hint of magic to it, beautifully written and deeply felt. I know I’m not the only reader who tears up whenever she thinks about the Honourable Olive’s limitless perfection, and Ollie is just one member of a gorgeously limned cast. Every single one of the POV characters is awesome, unless they’re absolutely repugnant in a love-to-hate-them kind of a way.
This book was responsible for one of my two Embarrassing Bus Crying Jags, during which I bawled my eyes out on public transit while everyone around me pretended I didn’t exist. (Sarah Monette’s CORAMBIS--an assassin-endowed title--is responsible for the other one, while Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN brought me mighty close to a third incident.)
Jo Hamilton is the oldest of twelve sisters who’ve spent their whole lives confined to the top floor of their loathsome father’s townhouse. Jo does whatever she can to help her younger sisters cope, whether it's assuming the role of Family Spoilsport to keep everyone safe or helping them sneak out to a speakeasy for a night of dancing, but her task becomes a hell of a lot more complicated when her father decides it’s past time he married his brood off to the “right sort” of husbands.
Okay, this one might be a bit of a cheat because it’s got a couple of gangsters in it and I can’t swear that none of them ever assassinates anyone on the page or in a flashback, but I have to hope it is, indeed, assassin-free because it’s frickin’ perfect. Valentine imbues every page with a remarkable depth of feeling. I cried throughout most of the book partly because I felt so much for these women in this terrible situation and partly because the whole thing was too beautiful to endure in any state other than full-on crying mode It’s a non-magical adaptation of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" set in 1920s New York, and you need it in your life.
I never expected to love FALL ON YOUR KNEES, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel. It was an Oprah book; it was Deep, Meaningful Literature; it was my ticket to a quick profit once I resold my cheap, used copy in my university’s student bookstore. But I always tried to read the books I purchased for resale, and this one quickly made twenty-year-old me revise my stance on Oprah picks and Deep, Meaningful Literature alike.
It was a life-changer, is what I’m saying.
FALL ON YOUR KNEES centres on a Lebanese family living on Cape Breton Island in the early 1900s. It’s about pain and secrets and music and love. It’s beautiful. It hurts. I need to reread it soon because it’s been far, far too long since I did so.
I can’t absolutely swear there are no assassins during the World War I bits, or amongst the gangsters, but we’re gonna pretend I can because I don’t recommend this one anything like often enough.