In The Assassin of Grins and Secrets, the debut dark fantasy from K.E. Andrews and a semi-finalist in the 8th Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO8), the notorious assassin Serein is known for wearing a surreal smile while she kills her victims with a legendary efficiency.
Does Serein smile because she derives some sick pleasure from killing, or because she has created a persona to mask the trauma of her past? While Serein’s external scars are evident from the opening scene of the novel, her inner wounds are revealed more gradually.
The Assassin of Grins and Secrets has two additional protagonists: Rameses, the somewhat naïve crown prince of Sarddon who rescues Serein from prison to become his personal bodyguard, and Uriah, his longtime friend and confidant who also serves as captain of the city guard. Rameses and Uriah make for excellent foils, with the idealistic, outgoing prince clashing with his distrustful head of guard who questions Serein’s motivations.
The Assassin of Grins and Secrets is fundamentally a character-driven novel, and K.E. Andrews excels at creating complex, relatable characters. I especially enjoyed the nuanced relationships among the three protagonists, particularly the slowly emerging respect between Serein and Uriah and the development of Rameses as he comes to grips with the atrocities committed by his father against Serein’s people. One of the main uncertainties throughout the story is whether Serein will remain faithful in her service to Rameses, or if she will seek revenge on his father for the crimes perpetrated against her people.
K.E. Andrews skillfully subverts the tropes normally associated with a female assassin lead. There is no love triangle here, no seduction, and no romance whatsoever. Serein excels as a female assassin in a male-dominated world because she is so good at what she does.
A unique aspect of the novel is that Serein experiences chromesthesia, a condition where hearing sound evokes visual perceptions of color, with different colors associated with different types of sound. The use of colors in The Assassin of Grins and Secrets reminded me of Warbreaker, the early Cosmere novel from Brandon Sanderson, where the magic system involves perceiving colors more vividly. K.E. Andrews has captured this extrasensory perception beautifully and shown how it can enhance and deepen Serein’s awareness of her surroundings.
Although this is her debut fantasy novel, K.E. Andrews has already published three volumes of poetry. Andrews writes beautifully, and her experience as a poet shines through especially in her descriptions of the colors that Serein sees coming from different types of sound.
Although the worldbuilding in The Assassin of Grins and Secrets is inspired by various cultures around the world, there is definitely an Arabian flair that recalls the Tower and Knife Trilogy by Mazarkis Williams. This is a refreshing change from the usual high fantasy worlds inspired by medieval Europe. K.E. Andrews provides a lot of helpful information about her world at the front of the book, which I consulted frequently while reading the story.
The plot of The Assassin of Grins and Secrets is a slow burn and strikes a good balance between the characters’ inner and outer conflicts. By the second half, I became fully invested in the story, especially as a terrifying figure from Serein’s past returns with a menacing plan. My only criticism of The Assassin of Grins and Secrets is that the pacing feels inconsistent, with some parts dragging a bit too long and the ending coming too abruptly for my taste.
K.E. Andrews weaves a colorful tapestry of intrigue throughout The Assassin of Grins and Secrets. The author shines in her character work, particularly with Serein’s complex motivations as an assassin with a mysterious past. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Assassin of Grins and Secrets and recommend this book for fans of nuanced, character-driven dark fantasy.