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I read this novel somewhere around 2010 (2006-2016, can't be much more precise than that). It was in English, probably an American writer. It might have been the first in a series, probably for young adults.

The main character is a young woman who's a somewhat skilled/notorious assassin. Somehow she ends up in the hands of the prince and a military officer (captain of guards?), both of whom are sympathetic characters although the prince's father the king isn't. I don't remember if the story starts with her capture, or if she was in prison and they get her out, or what. Anyway, they want her to take part in a contest, which most of the book is about.

The contest involves 24 people competing in various physical feats: speed, strength, endurance, etc. People are eliminated one by one as they lose (or die), and the eventual winner is promised some kind of position (royal bodyguard? leading an expedition? something prestigious). Our heroine takes part under a false name, since nobody is supposed to know that she's this famous assassin. She's already capable enough that she could easily win every competition, but the prince and officer tell her to play herself down, end up in the middle rankings each time: not at the bottom to be eliminated, nor at the top to draw attention to herself. The other competitors don't take her seriously (maybe because she's a woman?) There's a massive guy who wins most of the competitions and is thought to be a favourite to win overall, but he might be using some underhand tactics. Sort of Hunger Games vibe, with 24 competitors and the underdog female heroine vs the giant a'hole guy.

Some kind of love triangle begins to develop between the assassin, the prince, and the officer. (Sigh, YA fiction.) I remember it being unclear which of the two men she really had feelings for. Also some complications arose during the contest - some competitors being mysteriously murdered? Maybe the giant guy ended up being responsible.

At the end of the contest, when there's only two competitors left, of course it's the heroine and the giant guy. They fight a duel in front of everyone, and he uses some kind of dirty trick against her (poisoned sword? drugged drink?) so that he's about to win even though she's better. I don't remember how it ended: maybe the prince or officer stepped in to kill the giant guy? Anyway, he died and she won, but the story more or less ended there. That's why I feel it might have been the first in a series, although I didn't read any more. I think there was some unresolved plot arc involving the king as well: he was portrayed as really evil, and maybe even his son was against him. Maybe the whole idea of this assassin enrolling incognito in the contest was a hope of bringing down the king from her new position.

That should be enough detail for someone to find the story ...

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Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas

Quotes are from the Fandom wiki's plot summary/synopsis, and are [sic] as I copy-pasted.

Name glossary for the below, because YA names are weird:

  • Celaena Sardothien is the main character
  • Prince Dorian Havilliard is the prince
  • Captain Chaol Westfall is the captain of the guard
  • Cain is the massive guy

The main character is a young woman who's a somewhat skilled/notorious assassin. Somehow she ends up in the hands of the prince and a military officer... they want her to take part in a contest, which most of the book is about.

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

The contest involves 24 people competing in various physical feats: speed, strength, endurance, etc.... There's a massive guy who wins most of the competitions and is thought to be a favourite to win overall, but he might be using some underhand tactics.

Twenty-three other men in the king’s court were allowed to choose a competitor, and Celaena realizes that while many are inconsequential, several will be stiff competition, especially the giant and brutal Cain.

Her opponents are men: thieves, assassins, and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom.

Our heroine takes part under a false name, since nobody is supposed to know that she's this famous assassin.

She finally agrees to compete and also agrees to use the alias Lillian Gordaina to try to keep her infamous identity hidden.

She's already capable enough that she could easily win every competition, but the prince and officer tell her to play herself down, end up in the middle rankings each time: not at the bottom to be eliminated, nor at the top to draw attention to herself.

Chaol tells Celaena to stay in the middle of the pack.

Some kind of love triangle begins to develop between the assassin, the prince, and the officer.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it's the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Also some complications arose during the contest - some competitors being mysteriously murdered?

Evil things are happening in the castle as the contests ensue. One champion is turning up dead before each contest. They are being murdered and mutilated in a way that seems brutal and out of the ordinary. No one can turn up clues as to whom or what may be doing this, and Celaena starts quietly investigating on her own.

At the end of the contest, when there's only two competitors left, of course it's the heroine and the giant guy. They fight a duel in front of everyone, and he uses some kind of dirty trick against her (poisoned sword? drugged drink?) so that he's about to win even though she's better.

Celaena competes very well and ends up in the final contest against Grave and then Cain. At Duke Perrington’s and the king’s request, Kaltain spikes Celaena’s drink before a required toast with the king between the two fights. Celaena unknowingly ingests this poison before the final battle against Cain. This dulls her senses and makes it seem like it’s going to be an easy win for Cain.

I think there was some unresolved plot arc involving the king as well:

The book closes as Celaena signs the contract with the king. He threatens to hurt Chaol, Nehemia, or even Nehemia’s family if she does not fulfill the contract. But if she serves him well for four years, then she will be free.

Found by Googling assassin contest book, which brought me to this list of YA books about assassins, of which Throne of Glass seemed promising. I then checked the wiki for confirmation.

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    That's it. I recognised the name Calaena Sardothien instantly, and I was even going to mention in the question that the prince might've been called Dorian. (I think it's more fantasy names are weird than YA names are weird!)
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 1 at 18:42
  • YA fantasy names are doubly weird, though :)
    – bobble
    May 1 at 18:46

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