Coming from a family of assassins, Amastan has to grapple with the reality of killing someone. In The Perfect Assassin, K.A. Doore explores this in a fantasy novel set in an inhospitable landscape. She talked to Den of Geek about desert world-building, writing LGBT characters in a fantasy world without prejudice, and drawing inspiration from the Arizona desert.
Published by Tor Books on March 19, The Perfect Assassin will be followed by a sequel, The Impossible Contract, in November and The Unconquered City in June of 2020. Doore wrote The Impossible Contract first, then returned to the same world to explore Amastan’s character.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Den of Geek: Your main character is Amastan, an assassin by family trade who isn’t certain he actually wants to kill anyone. What appealed to you about the idea of a reluctant assassin?
K.A. Doore: I was originally drawn to writing about assassins in general just because they seem so cool! It’s that ‘competence porn’ aspect of it, honestly. They usually are really good at what they’re doing. Specifically, the reluctant assassin trait stemmed from him as a character himself. I ended up writing this book in a roundabout way. I actually wrote the second book first, so I had already written about this family and about Thana, one of his cousins, who is a little bit more gung ho than he is.
So when I went back and wrote this book, which is a prequel to that, I wanted to explore who he was. In a way he already had that characterization in place, that he was quieter and sort of a foil to Thana. So exploring him as being reluctant to it was the opposite of her, but also it was exploring the idea [that] you can be really interested in something, you can go through years of studying something, and then suddenly realize you don’t actually want to apply that knowledge.
I’ve actually talked to a few friends, since writing this, who have said they saw themselves in Amastan in that they would go and do master’s programs or PH.D programs, and were really interested in studying biology or what have you, but when it came time to actually find a job and apply it, they were like maybe this isn’t actually what I want to do. So I took that route in assigning that to an assassin type. Of course learning about how to strangle people and poison people would be interesting to somebody, I’m sure! Everybody. But actually whether or not you can go through with it is, I feel a bigger question.
You listed “violence isn’t the answer” as one of the AO3 tags when you described this book on your website. Talk abut how that informs a story about assassins. (Note: AO3 tags are a way to list what kind of scenes a reader can expect to find in the story. They originated on the fanfiction website Archive Of Our Own.)
I really wanted to get away from the type of stories where you can kill a bunch of people and there are no repercussions. It’s in direct conversation with … I played a lot of games where you go around and rack up a body count. This book specifically was questioning that. Trying to reassert that racking up body count isn’t the answer. And what does that mean? When you end up killing all those people, they have families, they have lives. Those are giant holes that you just created, and there should be some sort of repercussion to that. The whole second half of the book basically has a whole history there, coming from how one death, however many years ago, has continued to have repercussions. Whether or not it was right that it happened doesn’t matter so much as [the fact that] there are consequences.
What came first for you in the writing, the world-building or the characters?
Technically the world for me was already done! But at the same time, going back and writing this book after the first gave me the option to really dig down into the world-building. But at the same time, it was the character, because it came down to the publisher being like we want more than one book, and I was like okay I will write a prequel for you, I just don’t really know what about yet. They were like ‘Why don’t you write something about Amastan?’
So in a way it was character first. I thought it would be cool to do a spy vs spy thing, but assassin vs assassin. It didn’t really turn out that way in the plot, but that was the framework I initially started with.
What was your inspiration for the desert city of Ghadid and what research did you do for it?
I lived in Arizona for six years. I’m actually originally from Florida. The world-building originated from moving to Arizona and thinking it was cool, and wondering why there aren’t more stories set in the desert. Of course, it ended up being a different type of desert than the Sonoran Desert. I did three months of intense research using the University of Arizona library and my wife’s library privileges to get inter-library loans. I read as much as I could on desert ecology, and also specifically the Sahara, the history of the Sahara, and the peoples who lived in and around it. So that’s where a lot of the world-building came from, this idea of people who live out in this very harsh area and what kind of culture or rituals would come from that isolation as well as from that environment.
Specifically, the jaan, the spirits, are kind of a mixture of djinn and several religions that are very spirit-based out in that area. It seems to come from being in the middle of nowhere, it’s really quiet all the time. You can go for days and days or weeks and weeks without seeing a city or a town. Mirages are something everybody knows about. You see things, you hear things, and it lends to that idea that there are spirits out in the desert.
What would you like readers to know about sexuality in your world?
That it’s not a big deal. That was one of the biggest impetus for writing this series. I wanted to write something where people could love who they wanted and no one would give them shit about it. The whole reason I wrote the first book was I was so, so tired of the hetero dude falling in love with the one woman who happened to be around. So this time I was like there’s going to be a dude, and there’s going to be a woman, and they’re not going to get together! It’ll be very explicit they’re not going to get together. They will have their own people. So that was built into the world-building that they don’t give a shit.
Part of that is that they are living in a size-limited city. Population-wise it’s not good for them to expand, so there isn’t that pressure to be straight and have kids.
Anything else you want readers to know about the romantic relationship that is part of Amastan’s journey?
Asexuality has a lot of gray areas, so I wrote this understanding that. One of my friends is ace and they helped me tweak it, but that doesn’t mean I might not have gotten something wrong. But also it isn’t the only representation of asexuality, and we really just need more of that. It just runs a whole gamut.
What other books are you reading now that you would recommend?
I’m currently reading Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons, which is a monster of a book but sounds amazing and I just started it. I’m 50 pages in. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it has ridiculous footnotes. She’s an amazing human being, so that helps too.
Lord of Secrets, by Breanna Teintze. That is a second world fantasy that comes out in August and has so much beautiful necromancy! It’s kind of amazing. There are bone monstrosities that haunt mazes, and it’s one of those really fun fantasies I feel like I don’t find as much lately.
Anything else you’d like readers to know before they go into The Perfect Assassin?
That it is not as stabby as perhaps they would expect from the title. We talked about how violence is not the answer. I think that if people go in with the expectation that it is a slightly quieter book, it is not 300 pages of running around killing people, that tends to help people’s expectations.