…by Brent Weeks
Sometimes you just want some good old fashioned sword-hacking, shadow-stalking, mage-fire hurling type fantasy. Plenty of action, high-school level romance, badass villains, and , familiar archetypes… In The Way of Shadows (Book 1 in the Night Angel trilogy), this is precisely what you get.
The novel starts with young Azoth, an orphaned street beggar, eavesdropping on the troubles of one Durzo Blint, the best and baddest magically enhanced assassin (weeks uses the term, ‘wetboy’ – a questionable choice) in all of Cenaria. This scene leads to Azoth’s attempt to apprentice himself to Durzo as a way out of the gutter. Azoth has enough challenges what with scraping enough pennies together to eat and pay his guild dues to a Fagin-like outfit, and he’s watching out for his friends Jarl and Doll Girl to boot. To make matters worse, Azoth, like all orphan heroes, is inexplicably brave, and stands up for his friends in the face of the bigger older bullying Rat. Rat responds by buggering Jarl and cutting Doll Girl (this book pulls few punches), and Azoth seeks out Durzo in an attempt to help his friends out of their predicament and take some vengeance.
Of course Durzo agrees to take on this new apprentice, but only if Azoth can prove himself by killing Rat. Then it’s on.
The master-and-apprentice section of the tale follows, with Durzo proving a harsh and demanding teacher. It’s very Jedi after a fashion, only in this story the philosophical approach is somehow less noble. Herein lies the problems with assassins as lead characters. They’re just not good guys. It’s hard to build much sympathy towards them. Durzo’s ethos goes something like this: life has no inherent value so it doesn’t matter if we take it. Yeah, chew on that one for awhile. Actually, Brent Weeks does a passable job illustrating how the strain of working as a paid killer could affect someone like Durzo, who still seems to have a soul. We can definitely see the chinks in his badass facade as the book moves forward.
Aztoh takes on the mantle of the impoverished younger son of some minor country noble and the name and identity of Kylar Stern (terrible punster spelling, but you get used to it). He learns to throw off his slum-side roots and makes friends with important people, like Logan Gyre, the son of an ancient noble family with a decent claim to the throne. Logan fills the role of knight/noble with a good and honest heart. Azoth-now-Kylar continues to try to look after Doll Girl, whom he managed to save, and have troubles fulfilling his role as a true ‘wetboy’. Says Durzo Blint, “Any punk can kill people, but a true wetboy learns to use his magical Talent.” You see, Kylar should have the talent, he has an abundance of midichlorians or chakra-juice or what have you, he just can’t seem to make the force work for him.
Weeks is at his best with the sequences involving Kylar/Aztoh and Durzo. The master-apprentice section is good. But eventually you have to get to some larger plot issues, and here’s where some of the weakness comes in. There’s political intrigue with an unstable king pointing towards a possible succession war. There’s the neighboring God-King to the north who wants to take out Cenaria. There’s the Sa-Kage, a sort of Jedi Council of Crime, to whom Durzo is beholden, who manipulates everything within the city from the shadows. There’s also a trio of powerful magical students – among them an honest to gods seer – trying to protect all the lands from impending doom. All of which is cool, fairly well conceived. I didn’t even mind the seer so much, and I’m on record as not liking the concepts of pre-destination and ‘it is written’ in fantastic fiction. The problem is these elements don’t flow together well enough, and you don’t get the sense of the overall major point of conflict, the uber-antagonist of this book.
While this allows Weeks to introduce some surprises and big reveals, it also makes the third act seem a little harried, and at some points contrived. Thus when a couple of major mysteries and plot points come to pass, they’ve lost some effect.
TWofS is strong on action in the R.A. Salvatore or even Robert E. Howard mold. Lots of deadly fighting between skilled warriors and dread mages. I dig it, but another problem rears up in the form of the protagonists seeming so deadly and powerful as to almost be invincible. As a longtime fan of superheros, you wouldn’t think I’d mind this, but the book doesn’t have enough equally powerful bad guys in opposition (some of them are alluded to, but we don’t see them much). You can do ultra-powerful characters and still make them seem vulnerable; look at Steven Erickson – hell, look at Superman when done right. And that element is lacking here. This isn’t to say characters aren’t put in mortal peril, and the odds against them aren’t great, but some of the melodrama has a certain feel of inevitability to it.
So it seems like I’ve spent most of the review here complaining, so permit me to backpedal. Weeks is a good writer with a firm command of his world and system of magic. He manages to infuse enough back story and mythology into the world without going overboard, and he blends a number of cultural elements into the mix. Cenaria can be dark an savage and place, dirty, mean, and squalid. Again, elements of contemporary fantasy writing I appreciate. Weeks has made a conscious choice to have his characters talk in a more modern fashion, which I also appreciated. It helps preserve the gritty feel. Also, despite my inherent problem with rooting for assassins, Weeks does manage to make me care about most of the main characters. There’s something to be said for that, and of course I wouldn’t have finished the book if this wasn’t the case.
The Way of Shadows is more of a Sword & Sorcery approach to the medieval fantasy novel – and it’s a welcome approach. Despite the complaints listed above, I enjoyed the read and will certainly check out Book 2 in the near future.