Serena’s Review: “The Last of the Talons”

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Book: “The Last of the Talons” by Sophie Kim

Publishing Info: Entangled: Teen, September 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA convention!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

Review: So, I mostly grabbed this book at ALA with very little thought other than “oooh, is that a dragon on the cover??” Cuz you all know I’m always down for another dragon book! If I had read the book description more fully I might have been a bit more wary. Let’s just say, me and YA assassins have a bit of a checkered history. Beyond numerous other problems I regular find with this plotline, I’m beginning to question whether the two concepts, “assassin” and “young adult fiction,” aren’t just oxymorons that can never work well together by the very natures of their differences. “Assassin” would lead you to believe that your leading character is pretty morally compromised and things will get bloody. “Young adult fiction,” on the other hand, has at least a passing commitment to keep stories approachable for younger audiences. So….what’s to be done? Let’s see what this book has to say.

Shin Lina had once lived a blessed life, or what she considered one at least. Perhaps most people wouldn’t think making up ones family of gang members and gaining a reputation as the city’s most deadly assassin would count as “blessed,” but to Lina, it was enough. But now that has all been ripped away, and she has been forced to work for the very enemy who massacred this family, all to protect the life of her younger sister. When a job goes bad, however, Lina finds herself at odds with a powerful magical being. But more could be at stake than just her life. Perhaps even her heart.

Well, this book is not the one to disprove the theory I had in my intro paragraph. In fact, it exemplified many of the other factors that I think add to the uncomfortable pairing of assassin characters leading up YA stories. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the positive. If I zoom way, way out, there are the bones of an interesting story here. Unfortunately, any closer look renders these larger strokes pretty unsatisfactory. But the world-building itself had potential, with a fairly intricate political and magical system. And there were some genuinely funny moments with the dialogue, though, admittedly, these were few and far between for me.

However, again, when you dive even shallowly (let alone a deep dive) into how any of this works it begins to get murky. For one thing, because this is YA, Lina is, of course, a teenager herself. And yet, through a series of flashbacks, we see that she only joined the gang and learned her skills to be an assassin when she was an older kid. And then this story starts out several years after the death of everyone in said gang. Soooo, in a period of like 4 years she somehow became the most skilled assassin ever, even more so than the adults who trained her. It’s these time-related things that just really irk me about YA characters who derive their “specialness” through some skillset that is esteemable purely because of the sheer quantity of time and effort needed to excel at it. Not only does it stretch past my ability to suspend disbelief, but it also waters down what makes the skill impressive to begin with, if a regular farm girl can become the absolute best in two years.

Beyond that, we have yet another assassin who doesn’t really kill anyone? I mean, honestly, what’s the point of having a character like that if all we get is a lot of “telling” that they’re some amazing assassin, but no actual evidence of it (both in the actual skills of killing someone or the mental/emotional state of a character who makes a living dealing out death regularly)?

This book adds to the challenge of this particular qualm by the very nature of the main conflict of the story. For absolutely no apparent reason, Rui sets Lina the task of…killing him? In order to spare her life? I’m not going to even get into the weirdness of that situation to begin with and what it says about Rui that this is what he wanted. But it also creates a plotline that sets up our big bad assassin Lina to fail. Obviously, she can’t succeed at killing Rui or it would defeat the entire point of the story. That then leaves us with a character who has been toted as the best assassin ever having to fail again and again to kill someone through the entire book.

I’ll stop venting about this now. But I think the lackluster writing style and very bland leading characters left me with really nothing else to focus on than my annoyances in these areas. I do think there are YA readers who will like this, especially given the popularity of other YA assassin books. But this wasn’t for me. And if you’re looking for anything new in this particular subgenre, I don’t think this is it.

Rating 6: More of the same, with an assassin whose much more talk than action.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last of the Talons” can be found on these Goodreads lists: SF/F Assassins! and 2022 Book Releases by Asian Authors.

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