Medium: ebook (361 pages in print)
Overview (No Spoilers):
Aside from the entertainment industry, my only exposure to assassins (that I know of anyway) has been limited to those participating in live-action games on my college campus. Let’s just say that it involved a lot of nerf guns in studious places. Now, if I asked you to picture an assassin, what comes to mind? What qualities and abilities would you expect them to possess in order to be successful in their chosen profession? Perhaps it entails an individual shrouded in mystery and clad in black who sticks to the shadows. Maybe it’s someone skilled in the art of deception who’s capable of turning the most innocuous item into a deadly weapon. Your fictional fiend may reflect someone whose work is instantly recognizable and whose name alone instills terror in the hearts of everyone who hears it. These represent the kind of persona Longinus Pendergast aims to achieve with his alter ego, The Viper. What sets him apart from your everyday, garden-variety hit man? The eponymous bloodless assassin has an aversion to blood, not only because employing any method that spills a single drop of it is uncouth for any self-respecting assassin (there are far classier ways to dole out death), but also because he experiences a visceral, debilitating response whenever any of his senses are exposed to it. Assassins – they’re just like us!
Originally released in July 2015 under a different name (as The Viper and the Urchin, now the name of the series instead), The Bloodless Assassin by Celine Jeanjean is book one of eight published works thus far. The striking steampunk-stylized cover drew me in, and the blurb sold me on the story within. To start, this narrative features two interesting and well-developed main characters. Jeanjean has crafted Longinus as an eclectic individual who slays figuratively in his outfit choices and literally in his work. He is an avid rule follower when it comes to things like whom thou shalt not kill, the proper etiquette in a duel, and the appropriate attire to don for a window exit – although, most of these rules he cites are probably known only to him. Given Longinus’s mannerisms, I envisioned him as someone like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. In this tale, Longinus (The Viper) reluctantly shares the literary stage with Rory (The Urchin), a sarcastic young woman who’s blackmailing him after she discovers his repulsion to blood. After observing his skills with a blade, she sees it as an opportunity to finally achieve her dream of becoming a revered swordswoman who travels to far-off places. Her character reminds me of Lila Bard in the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab as someone focused on reaching their end goal and seemingly one insult away from making a rash decision, giving in to anger. While Longinus and Rory see most things differently and make assumptions about each other, they soften each other’s edges.
The supporting cast, though limited in their ‘screen time’ (I was using the Kindle app, after all), have enough of a presence to evoke a full range of emotions (Ughhhhh, Jake). As for the setting, the reader explores only a sliver of the world, limiting the scope to the city of Damsport and its history. Within this Victorian-esque locale, Jeanjean has done a wonderful job of describing and incorporating many diverse venues for Rory and Longinus to frequent. The writing style in general is expressive and entertaining. And I would be remiss, as a critiquing chemist, if I didn’t note the use of alchemy throughout the tale, most prominently as the method for preparing and analyzing Longinus’s poisons. Other more fantastical feats are also achieved by alchemically-enhanced means, although I would’ve liked more details as to how they worked. For me, it felt like it took a while for the story to really take off – I was less interested in the blackmail plot point and more so in the goings-on beyond Longinus and Rory’s bubble. The first third of the book underscores the quirks of our two anti-heroes, the next third introduces mysterious deaths and conspiracies, and the last third takes out all the stops, barreling toward the ultimate conclusion. I would be interested in seeing what happens next in The Black Orchid!
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound!):
- It’s interesting how, as a trading hub for surrounding areas, Damsport honors other currencies by setting prices based on the weight of any combination of coins (and coin portions) rather than requiring someone to convert between currencies or deal with exchange rates. But this process ignores a coin’s actual value (both from its country of origin and the rarity of the elements in its chemical composition) and probably renders the cut coins only usable in Damsport – unless folks dabble in smelting. It seems straightforward, but wasteful.
- I, too, like the story behind the formation of the Varanguards. With their gear, how often do they get nicks and cuts on their bodies from the concealed knives simply from walking and moving about? Have they ever accidentally stabbed themselves during a fight? And for all the talk of blades hidden in horsehair throughout the book, they never use them.
- I’m surprised that the Airnian Emperor grants the Marchioness’s request for Damsport’s independence without a fight (at first), even though the city is a thorn in his side. Also, where is Damsport located relative to Airnia?
- Where does Myran travel to after Rory first meets her? The Airnian Empire? How does she get tangled up in the Three Day Battle feud? Does she actually believe what she’s saying about the Emperor being able to bring her mother back?
- How did Myran and Longinus’s mother get into the assassination business? What name did she go by? Why was she loyal to the Marchioness? Does that mean she worked for her or just that she didn’t cross her?
- When was the deadbolt to Longinus’s childhood room added? Before or after the bloodshed? Was it to lock him in as a punishment, or is it to protect him from his memories?
- It’s kind of odd for Longinus to synthesize and store his poisons in what is essentially his living room – sure, he refers to it as the weapons room, but he also naps and drinks port there. I think a fume hood would be a wise investment to prevent accidental exposure (with the aerosols, at least)…
- Whose gravesite does Longinus use to learn of his marks and receive payment? How do folks even know how to contact him? Is this a business that thrives on word of mouth? Is it based on a flat fee per assassination? Are there limits to who he’s willing to kill?
- After Longinus goes to the barber to modify his moustache through alchemical enhancement, is his hair actually changed, or is the effect equivalent to using a spray to cover bald spots? What are the limits for these kinds of enhancements? Is it permanent? Time-sensitive? Does something, like water, deactivate it?
- How is knowing the composition of the poison that killed Dr. Corian supposed to help identify the copycat assassin? Would the complexity or correctness direct Longinus to specific folks? Could he identify them from their own signature added to the copycat poison? Does Longinus even know (of) any other assassins in Damsport? And Longinus still choosing to analyze it after deducing that Dr. Corian, a fellow alchemist, has died from his own product (because the copycat is tying up loose ends) seems like a lot of work just to prove his artistic signature is still undiscovered.
- If Longinus is supposed to be familiar with the Persuader poison, shouldn’t he also be familiar with the antidote?
- It was interesting how Rory parts ways with Jake one day, is told to reconsider this decision for her own safety the next, is strangled the day after that, and then is largely ignored until she stumbles upon things herself later on… Why escalate the situation and then just disappear if she’s still in league with Longinus?
- When Rory realizes that attacks on the Marchioness and her daughter could come from random, desperate folks, why doesn’t she vocalize this to the Varanguards? Why not share that she and Longinus may not recognize the next threat? I was also disappointed when Rory momentarily doubts Cruikshank and then waits to see what happens next instead of acting on her concerns. Where is her drive for self-preservation?
- I doubt that killing the Marchioness is enough to return Damsport to the Airnian Empire outright. But if the Emperor knows that the Marchioness is set to be assassinated at the Revels, wouldn’t he want an army at the ready to assume control amidst the chaos? Also, why does everyone let their guard down after one failed assassination attempt by Myran, as if she wouldn’t have a contingency plan?
- What does the Marchioness decide is Norman’s punishment for his inadvertent part in the assassination attempt? Where is Jake now?
Baldric: an often ornamented belt worn over one shoulder to support a sword or bugle
Brocade: a rich silk fabric with raised patterns in gold and silver
Burnish: to make shiny or lustrous especially by rubbing
Cloche: a bell- or dome-shaped cover
Crush: crowd, mob
Febrile: marked or caused by fever; feverish
Frisson: a brief moment of emotional excitement
Harridan: an ill-tempered scolding woman
Marchioness: a woman who holds the rank of marquess (a nobleman of hereditary rank in Europe and Japan) in her own right
Offal: the waste or by-product of a process, such as the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in preparing it for market or for consumption
Pillion: a pad, cushion, saddle, or the like, used as a passenger seat on a bicycle, motor scooter, etc.
Preceptor: teacher, tutor
Rakish: dashingly or carelessly unconventional; jaunty
Simpering: marked by insipidity or by affected or ingratiating timidity
Strop: to sharpen (a razor) on a strop
Termagant: an overbearing or nagging woman; shrew
Unctuous: having, revealing, or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality
Whit: the smallest part or particle imaginable; bit