2008 may have been a banner year for Orbit. They released an impressive number of fantasy mass-markets (not not mention an impressive number of other quality titles in hardcover and trade) featuring new or newish (at least stateside) authors like Karen Miller, Russel Kirkpatrick, and of course Brent Weeks. Other bloggers/reviewers have spoken well of Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy and I’m here to report that it looks well deserved. The Way of Shadows is a dark swords and sorcery action fantasy with memorable characters and fantastic pacing. Read on for more…
In The Way of Shadows we are introduced to Azoth a street urchin struggling to keep himself and his friends in tact while not-so-secretley hoping to apprentice to the city’s foremost wetboy (magical assassin) Durzo Blint. It isn’t long before things go south for Azoth and a series of tragic events force onto the same path as the cynical and enigmatic Blint. Apprenticed to Blint, Azoth takes the name Kylar Stern and assumes the identity of an impoverished lord entangling himself if political and diplomatic plots that far outstrip his lowly origins.
Azoth and Durzo are the glue that holds the book together. Durzo’s cynicism (“When you take a life you take nothing of worth”) makes an excellent contrast to Azoth/Kyler’s unconcious refusal to accept that sentiment despite his intellectual acceptence behind Durzo’s reasoning. Damaged characters abound in the novel from Durzo’s rejection of human connections, to star-crossed love of a Duke and Queen, to the harden Madame Momma K. Weeks’ leaves no character untouched by horrors and the difficulties of his world. At the same time he infuses Azoth with a stride inability to shirk both his humanity and the responsibility he finds in his destiny; despite the monumental damages it causes both to his own emotional state and to those he cares about. Weeks’ characters are all about finding light in dark places, even if that light is depressingly grim, and is an effect he manages with out veering into the realm of cornaball melodrama (ok, there is some melodrama but is tolerable and arguably necessary).
Weeks’ intense focus on characters and how they deal with the events unfolding around them leaves little room for worldbuilding beyond what occurs naturally over the course of the action. For the most part this works and provides the novel with a skeleton of world that hints at greater depth. Cernea, where the bulk of the novel takes place, is revealed as a decaying kingdom not through explicit description of those facts but through implications garned by the various civilians, nobles, and sordid characters Weeks’ focuses; it is a place defined by the characters that live there. The sparing attention paid to the world and its background manages to work and there is only one instance I can think of where Weeks’ pauses for expositionary sidebar. The moment involves a mage explaining the how magic works. It takes up maybe a page and a half and is followed by an extremely fast-paced section that is, for me at least, one of the most memorable sections of the novel. I won’t wax philosophical about it too much but the whole “magic explanation” section seems to me a staple of many fantasy novels and I have come across few, if any, books that manage to handle an explanation of magic in an organic fashion that doesn’t feel so didactic (Kvothe’s musical wanderings early in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss comes to mind but further exploration later in that novel, though in a university setting, is more didactic in nature).
Weeks’ focus on Azoth and Blint (and a couple of others) means some of the other characters don’t get a chance to shine. Notably the mages Solon, Feir and Dorian hint at an exciting and interesting shared history but their relationship and motivations are never explored or expounded upon. I don’t know if the next two books feature more from these three but I found myself wanting to know more and disappointed that they were utilized as MacGuffin’s more than anything else. However, the fast moving plot was never boring and leaves little room for exploration of characters beyond the movers and shakers changing that would destroy the pace of the novel and I found myself willing to sacrifice detail in the name of adventure and excite. Maybe that makes me a bad reader but I found my disappoint was frequently assauged by Weeks’ single minded drive.
While the weak worldbuilding might turn off some the fast action-packed plot a strong cast of main characters make The Way of Shadows an enjoyable read for fantasy fans. The novel is fairly self contained and while I probably will, don’t feel necessarily compelled to continue on the next. It helps that Weeks’ and Orbit released all three books in the trilogy in consecutive months meaning as of today you can pick up all three at once with no waiting in between. The Way of Shadows was the first book in a while that had me up until almost 2 AM reading so take that for what it’s worth. Highly recommended.