How much of a novel’s success or failure is predicated on its voice? I would argue there’s a compelling case to be made that it’s a primary one. The problem is that voice is an extremely subjective measurement defined in semantics. I ask the question because Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse is written in a voice that I couldn’t stand. Unfortunately, it’s not the only thing about the novel I didn’t like.
Assassin’s Curse is the story of Ananna, a teenager daughter of a pirate captain who runs from marriage with an allied clan. She wants what every pirate wants — her own ship. Her escape, while easy, has an unfortunate side effect when her scorned fiance’s father sends an assassin after her. In the process of being assassinated, Ananna triggers a curse that binds her to Naji, her former assassin and now begrudging protector.
Thus, the story is centered around breaking that curse, freeing Ananna to resume her pursuit of her own ship and Naji to continue being an assassin for hire. Naji is, of course, mysterious, dark, and mildly disfigured, with a gruff and unapproachable disposition. Is there any doubt that young, impressionable, Ananna finds herself hopelessly attracted to him, despite being deathly afraid of what he’s capable of? Putting that tired trope aside for a moment, let me delve into voice and why Clarke’s doesn’t work for me.
I ain’t never been one to trust beautiful people, and Tarrin of the Hariri was the most beautiful man I ever saw. You know how in the temples they got those paintings of all the gods and goddesses hanging on the wall above the row of prayer-candles? And you’re supposed to meditate on them so as the gods can hear your request better? Tarrin of the Hariri looked just like one of those paintings.
That passage makes a few obvious grammatical choices to give the narrator, Ananna, an ‘accent’. It’s assuredly done to highlight the fact that she’s not been formally educated. Double negatives, wrong verb choices and tenses, easily grasped metaphors, and few, if any, complex-compound sentences, establish what amounts to Clarke’s voice. Except, it isn’t. The novel has stretches without Ananna’s ‘accent’ before it pops back up again, almost for the sole purpose of reminding the reader that she has it. For comparison’s sake, this would be like Alex in A Clockwork Orange dumping Nadsat in favor of the King’s English and then returning to it at the drop of a hat. I found it jarring, almost always breaking me out of the narrative.
Inconsistency aside, the novel’s syntax and diction do Clarke few favors. In general, it reads too young adult. The simple sentences, pedestrian metaphors, and word choice makes for a believable teenage narrator, but only succeed in lending the world and characters only an ephemeral impression after 250 pages. Comparing it to Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, another 2012 young adult debut novel, Assassin’s Curse falls short, becoming young adult as a reading level, not a point of view.
Despite my struggles with the novel’s voice, it wouldn’t be enough for me to condemn it. Had it possessed a compelling story and vibrant characters, the voice would have been a nagging complaint, but I would have walked away from it with an acknowledgement that while Assassin’s Curse isn’t a book for me, it certainly is a book for someone. That isn’t the case.
I mentioned above Ananna’s attraction to Naji, her would be killer. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when the back cover jacket reads, “the growing romantic tension between them.” I should state up front that Clarke does a fine job of handling the romance. It’s not overly sappy and Ananna comports herself in a way that rings true for a teenage girl unsure of herself. However, the mere fact that she’s willing to consider a relationship with Naji borders on unbelievable and spills over into distasteful.
Clarke puts the two characters in a situation that compels them to be near one another. Naji must protect Ananna from subsequent assassins. The nature of the curse binds their lives together — if she dies, so does he. Clarke asks her reader to believe that mere proximity, a mysterious past, and some stressful situations are enough to kindle true romantic affection. It’s one of the most pathetic tropes in fiction, and I have no interest in stories that continue to fetishize it. These failures rob the characters of three dimensionality, leaving me disinterested in them and the plot they inhabit.
As a result, Assassin’s Curse is not a novel I would recommend to my daughter, not because it’s too mature, but because it’s not mature enough. Ananna makes an independent decision at the novel’s opening, taking her life into her own hands by fleeing a marriage she doesn’t want. She possesses great agency. As soon as a man comes along who can protect her, she cedes that agency. She does so for arguably necessary reasons, but she compounds it, falling for a man who has no redeeming qualities except he’s tall, dark, and mysterious.
I admit, it’s entirely possible Clarke will turn this tired romance on its head in the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish. Perhaps she’ll complete Ananna’s emancipation, deny Naji’s attraction and hold him accountable for his misdeeds. Perhaps not. I have every expectation that there will be a great number of readers who will enjoy The Assassin’s Curse. I’m not one of them.