Guiding Shadows: A Review of Assassin’s Creed The Golden City (LIGHT SPOILERS)
“They worked in the dark to serve the light, but were they never allowed to exist in it as well?” (AC The Golden City - Chapter 21)
LIGHT SPOILER WARNING for story themes and subjects
The tenets of the Assassin's brotherhood have been the guidelines for each holder of a hidden blade since before the series began, alongside the maxim and "working in the dark to serve the light". Yet, many Assassins have questioned what they are taught, as have the ones they have protected. Who are the Assassins to decide who lives and who dies? Who are they besides birds of prey that hide where the light is afraid to go?
The Golden City is the newest novel from Aconyte Books and is written by Jaleigh Johnson, a New York Times bestseller and chosen author for the ABA Spring Indie Next list. Within this tale is an isolated story following fan-favorite Assassins Hytham and Basim Ibn Ishaq in 867, Constantinople. The young Acolyte Hytham joins Basim to investigate the conspiracy plot of Emperor Basil I to kill his son Leo VI with the assistance of the Order of the Ancients, as well as spy on his mentor for the Brotherhood as they began questioning Basim’s priorities over the Creed.
Hytham has been a guide to the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla story for some time now. Previously, he was seen in Sword of the White Horse by Elsa Sjunneson, and soon he will return in The World of Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Journey to the North–Logs and Files of a Hidden One by Rick Barba. His character has been expanded upon and revisited multiple times in the Valhalla series, as an anchor to the Brotherhood for multiple mainline characters, but his persona has never been explored before this title; The Golden City. This is a Hytham, post Assassin’s Creed Mirage but pre-AC Valhalla. A Hytham that is unsure if he can trust his mentor and at times, himself. A man who doesn't question his skills, but strives to become more like his experienced mentor.
The story opens with a look at the relationship between Hytham and Basim, sparing as the Acolyte admires his mentor's skill and demeanor as he tries to figure out who Basim is as a person and Assassin. Within the first chapter, Hytham sees something in Basim that resembles a man who has “trod the same stretch of earth for decades or longer”. My thoughts immediately turn to the trailer for AC Mirage and the djinn that we as fans have speculated to be the Isu Loki invading the mind of Basim; something that Basim references (the djinn) when discussing the nightmares of the prince later in the story.
The story continues with the explanation of the plot, a mission for the “young eagle” to protect Prince Leo in an environment where anyone could be an enemy or pawn of the Order of the Ancients. It is in the palace of the Emperor where he meets Prince Leo and learns of the dangers surrounding the future leader of the city. A child that has experienced multiple accidents that in truth were poor attempts on his life, hidden by a paranoid father who believes the child to be an illegitimate heir to the throne.
Fatherhood is an underlying subject throughout the story with both positive and negative connotations. It is where I find Jaleigh shines the most as she weaves together a bond between a frightened child and the guardian assigned to protect him. A man who never had the chance to have his own family, but knows the sacrifice he must make to be a member of the Assassin Brotherhood. It's a relationship that he sees and questions between himself and Basim as a student and mentor. A journey of the Protector and Ward that echoes other media like Logan and The Last of Us. It is this theme that drives my opening quote as Hytham allows his personal feelings to fuel the mission he was tasked with by the boy’s mother, Empress Eudokia Ingerina.
The first signs of a tie-in to Assassin's Creed Valhalla can be seen via Basim’s interest in the Viking people as he yearns to learn more about the Eagle Clan, led by the warrior Thyra, head of the Varangian Guard, servants of the Emperor and his family. While it is not explained in detail, the players involved know that Basim is looking for someone specifically within the Vikings. This of course is what leads to the two Assassins seeking out Sigurd Styrbjornsson and his step-sister, Eivor Varinsdottir in AC Valhalla.
The Golden City has plenty of combat depicted in great detail and can be visualized with ease. This is something I have always enjoyed and looked for in the transmedia of the series. From the sparring between partnering Assassins to close combat melees in the streets, the action is plentiful but not overwhelming. Between the clash of scimitars and precision of knife throws, a balanced conspiracy plot is picked apart with each page turn alongside the caring scenes of Hytham and Leo.
Reflecting back on the story a few days after finishing, I found that the conspiracy was a good way to craft this standalone novel as it kept the elements of Hytham's mission contained and easy to keep track of. Looking at games like Valhalla where you have multiple storylines to remember, this book's focus on protecting the prince and investigating Hytham made a relaxing read. Even when the opposition was revealed, I found myself thinking about the surprise reveal, but not needing to double back and try to find missing clues. The same can be said about Basim. I learned multiple personality traits about the Master Assassin, but nothing that felt like an easter egg, or direct reference to another piece of media. Knowing that Hytham and Basim are alive in Valhalla made the potential worry of loosing a character to the Order of the Ancients non-existent. However, I didn't see that as a negative as I still had the full story to explore and fully admire the characters' individual world building and growth.
The story is similar to a DLC expansion to the story. I think a lot about Bonfire of the Vanities and Assassin's Creed II, where the story was isolated to a new district with supporting characters that we met previously as Ezio. You have a good story that is tied into the main campaign, or in this case Basim and Hytham's backstories, but if you didn't get a chance to play that DLC (or read this book) you wouldn't be missing out of any key elements. Does the book go into the depth of the two Assassin's relationship? It does, and that may give players of Valhalla a better idea of the thoughts the Assassin's have in the game. Yet on the other side, I could not tell you anything that gives a peak into Mirage outside the mention of Roshan and Basim's mention of the djinn which I noted earlier. It feels like Batman: Year One in many ways where Hytham has been an Assassin for a while, but is still an Acolyte in the story. This leaves a lot of room for more stories and the journal releasing this year with Journey to the North could fill in more of the time between Mirage and Valhalla.
Comparing The Golden City to other Aconyte Books titles, I would say this is a good title to be added to their expanding transmedia line of books, and while I would rank it towards the lower half of the releases (6 books including Golden City) it isn't bad; I still enjoyed it. However where Geirmund's Saga read like the novelization of one of the games, Sword of the White Horse focused on a story based on Arthurian legend, and The Magus Conspiracy was a multi-decade conspiracy thriller, The Golden City feels like a character arc for Hytham, developing him further, but it doesn't hinder the enjoyment of Valhalla or the series in whole.
Assassin’s Creed The Golden City is a great book for readers that enjoy drama, action, and stories of relationships without any prior knowledge of the Assassin’s Creed universe. Fans of the series will find a great introspective into the mind of an Assassin and a perfect read to excite for Assassin’s Creed Mirage. The book releases on April 4, 2023, in the United States and Globally as an Ebook. It will be available in paperback on June 22, 2023, in the UK.
About the Author
Mike Smith is a collector of all things Assassin's Creed and a major supporter for the transmedia platform for the series. With nearly a full library of Assassin's Creed media, he is exploring the universe in order of Genetic Memory and waiting eagerly for the next story to be released.
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