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I'm trying to pin down a science fiction novel I once glanced at. English language, published in paperback, not by any "famous author" whose name I recognized at the time. "At the time" was in the mid-1990s; no later than 1996. The copy I looked at was not something brand new at the time; it was probably at least a year or two old before I stumbled across it.

I think I read the first two or three chapters, at least, and then skipped ahead to glance through the final pages to see if the story was going to improve any. (I'm pretty sure I decided the answer was "No!" At any rate, I never actually forced myself to read the entire volume.)

I remember nothing about the ending, but I do recall the basic plot of the first chapter or so.

  1. From the text, and perhaps the cover art (which I don't remember with any precision), I gathered that the first part of the book, at least, was set in the main city of a human-inhabited planet, definitely not Earth, a long time in the future, and that this planet (or the part surrounding the city, at least?) was mostly desert, with people bundling themselves up in loose clothing to try to block out the sunlight and dust in the air. Similar to "Dune," perhaps, but without any mention of stillsuits or giant sandworms, and (I'm pretty sure) without the Local Tyrant paying tribute to some far-off Emperor who had given him control of this world as a fiefdom.

  2. In the opening chapter, the main viewpoint character (third-person viewpoint; not narrating the story to us) is an important member of his homeworld's Assassin's Guild. At some time in the last few years, he had fought hard (politically) to get the planetary laws changed so that the Guild acquired solid legal standing and could accept money from anybody to assassinate anybody else. He evidently had hoped that this would bring about a brave new world in which being a professional assassin would mean you were an honest-to-goodness independent contractor, providing a legitimate service, without being under anybody's thumb.

  3. I'm going to call this viewpoint character "Mister Protagonist," since I can't recall a thing about his real name, nor his exact rank within the Guild. The author goes to a great deal of trouble, at least in the early pages, to stress the fact that Mister Protagonist had been very proud of his previous political victory at the time -- but is now facing serious disillusionment about the painful gap between his original expectations and the bitter reality of how things have turned out. The author went to so much trouble, in fact, that I was rapidly becoming convinced that the aforementioned political struggle had been at the heart of the plot in a previous novel. (Although I don't think the cover text on this book said anything so explicit as "Book 2 of the Assassin's Guild Series," so I had not realized I was getting a "sequel novel" when I first picked it up!)

  4. A year or two after the local rules had changed, the opening sequence of the book is occurring. Mister Protagonist is out in the streets of the city, on a new mission along with one or more of his fellow guild members. The general situation appears to be this: Ordering a legal assassination is expensive, and this world's most powerful man (hereafter called by the nickname "Local Tyrant") is the person who can most easily afford to hire the Guild, over and over, to go after any people who have angered him. Which means that, even as the assassins are kicking down the front door at the target's residence (or whatever their entry method is), an angry crowd of local residents gathers in the street nearby. These civilians take the position that the Guild is basically just the amoral hired thugs of the Local Tyrant, constantly at his beck and call to keep everyone else living in fear.

  5. Mister Protagonist tries to argue the point about his beloved Guild actually being "independent." But even he is painfully aware that his argument is far from persuasive in the light of recent events. Local Tyrant has far and away the deepest pockets on this planet, so he provides the vast majority of the Assassin's Guild's business. When they spend most of their time hunting down Local Tyrant's enemies and critics, it sounds really lame when they then say: "But we're politically neutral! We aren't on his permanent payroll!"

  6. As I read this first chapter, I believe I was far from clear on why Local Tyrant's worst enemies didn't just pass the hat and all chip in to pay the standard Guild fee for an assassination, and then direct the Guild to treat Local Tyrant as their new Designated Target! It seemed like the simplest solution to the problem that Local Tyrant was abusing his power and making lots of people hate him . . .

Anyway, while I didn't feel the writing was brilliant, I do find myself curious about just who wrote this book, and what its title was. It's conceivable that the book had hidden depths which might strike me more favorably if I gave it another chance after more than two decades. (Or perhaps if I glanced at the first book in the series first, if I'm correct that this one was a sequel.) Does anyone think this book sounds familiar?

Bearing in mind that it definitely was not written by anyone who was already a Very Big Name in the science fiction industry of the mid-1990s -- I'm sure this book was by someone I literally had never heard of before. That eliminates any stories about futuristic professional assassins which may have been written by such people as Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, Roger Zelazny, C.J. Cherryh, etc. (And I'm sure it was science fiction, rather than having "a medieval fantasy world setting" with professional assassins running around in it, such as we have seen in books by Robin Hobb, Tanya Huff, Steven Brust, etc.)

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    Vetinari's fee is set at one million dollars. When it becomes apparent that some people are willing to pay that much, they simply take him off the menu entirely. – Valorum Mar 8 '17 at 9:46
  • Some googling has turned up some similar details to your description here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreigner_universe – Ross Mar 8 '17 at 17:53
  • Definitely sounds like a Discworld book but I don't know which one. – MissMonicaE Mar 8 '17 at 19:06
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    @Valorum -- I had to Google for "Vetinari." I've never become a huge fan of Pratchett's Discworld, and could remember almost none of the names of characters. According to Vetinari's Wikipedia article, what happened was that the Assassin's Guild, after several painful failures to fulfill a contract by killing him, finally gave up entirely. I don't think "we already tried, and failed miserably, so we gave up," was the case with the Local Tyrant in the science fiction novel I described above. (Granting that I only read a small portion of it.) – Lorendiac Mar 8 '17 at 23:46
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    @MissMonicaE -- it definitely was not Discworld. There are lots of "Assasin's Guilds" and "Thieves' Guilds" in SF/Fantasy, but I'm quite sure the novel I saw was science fiction. Also, I was reasonably familiar with Pratchett's Discworld by the mid-1990s (had read at least 3 of those books, I think), so his name would have meant something to me at the time. Instead, I'm sure that the book I described above was by someone I had never even heard of before. – Lorendiac Mar 8 '17 at 23:50
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I think you're talking about the second book in Stephen Leigh's Hoorka Trilogy (also known as the NewEden Trilogy): Slow Fall to Dawn, Dance of the Hag, and A Quiet of Stone. The trilogy has been collected and reprinted in a single omnibus titled Assassin's Dawn.

ASSASSINS' DAWN is the omnibus edition of my first three books (below), which comprised a trilogy about a group of "ethical assassins' called the Hoorka. They live on a backwater world called Neweden, whose culture and society tolerates assassinations and violent confrontations, and so the Hoorka fill an ecological niche in this society. They don't guarantee the death of the contracted victim, only that the attempt of the person's life will be made... because only the gods can decide whether a person should live or die.

This works for Neweden, but Gyll, the creator of the Hoorka, has aspirations for the guild to go offworld, into the realm of the Alliance -- a new and growing organization that is trying to knit back together a shattered and forgotten empire. But will the Hoorka be able to co-exist on worlds whose social structure is not the same as Neweden's? Can they survive the transition, and will the Alliance permit them to do so?

The second book, Dance of the Hag, specifically follows Gyll.

Book Cover - Dance of the Hag

On the bloodsoaked feudal world of Neweden, the Hoorka assassins' guild has survived by adherence to a strict code of honor. Lethal killers, shadowy black-robed agents of destruction, they are pledged to give Fate a chance to free their victims from the claws of Hag Death.

But now the Alliance has allowed Hoorka to operate offworld, the assassins' code is breaking down, and Ulthane Gyll. founder and former leader of the Hoorka, finds the deadly fighting force he created turning against him....

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    Can you provide any more details which suggest similarity? Snippets of the text which makes parts described by the OP? Fear not of spoilers, people are looking for a book they've already read, they likely won't be upset by spoilers! – Edlothiad Sep 11 '17 at 13:07
  • I downloaded the Kindle version of the Assassin's Dawn omnibus, and it looks like I was actually remembering a scene in Chapter 1 of Book 3 -- A Quiet of Stone. I must have picked up a copy of that one in paperback, once, glanced at the first chapter, and didn't buy it. If you care to edit your own answer to say "Book 3" and perhaps offer a few more details on why the first chapter fits my description, then I will feel comfortable with officially accepting your answer. – Lorendiac Dec 11 '17 at 1:58
  • @Lorenmdiac That's interesting, I actually own a copy of A Quiet of Stone which I've never read, because after buying it I realized it was the 3rd book in a series and I didn't have the others. It's sat on my shelves for 30+ years. Maybe I'll look into the omnibus that Gyll mentions. Thanks to both of you! – LAK Jan 3 '18 at 20:40
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Sounds like an early trilogy from the Foreigner universe. From the Wiki:

assassination is a legal and accepted means of settling disputes, provided proper protocol is followed. One files a document of Intent which liberates the target to file one back.

  • I realized this might occur to someone. That's why, in my final paragraph, I specifically mentioned that C.J. Cherryh was one of the big-name SF novelists whom I was certain had not written the particular book that I was remembering. (I am sure the name on the front cover was one that meant nothing to me at the time, and by the mid-1990s I had read several things by C.J. Cherryh.) – Lorendiac Mar 8 '17 at 23:41
  • Missed that. :) – Ross Mar 9 '17 at 2:18
  • Also, in Foreigner the main viewpoint character is a translator, not an assassin. – Mike Scott Sep 11 '17 at 13:20

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