One of the best fantasy writers of today dazzles in his debut trilogy.
There's a good reason why I'm a huge fan of Brent Weeks. He's writing some of the best fantasy fiction around these days. Good writing, impressive plotting, dynamic scenes, clearly written fight scenes, rich themes woven from start to finish to give the story resonance, and characters that constantly surprise you as a reader...Weeks has a voice in fantasy that I expect to last for a long, long time. It's hard not to love him.
I am definitely not immune to his charms. I fell hard for his writing with The Black Prism, the first novel in a series that he is currently in the midst of writing. (See my review of The Black Prism from April.) In fact, I fell so hard that I couldn't wait until book two came out, which is why I decided to read his debut Night Angel trilogy, beginning with The Way of Shadows.
Before I review the book, I want to share a little story about The Way of Shadows. Before I ever heard of The Black Prism, I remember browsing the fantasy and science fiction bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. A little paperback called The Way of Shadows caught my eye. The cover's white background with compelling character illustration on the front immediately jumped out and said, "Look at me." So I did. It's a beautiful cover, and it perfectly depicts the sense of magic and movement of both the writing style and the story itself.
But one small thing stopped me from buying it at the time. The main characters are assassins and prostitutes.
Okay, to be honest, the problem wasn't that they were assassins and prostitutes. The problem is that there is so much so-called "gritty" fantasy out there, and while I don't mind gritty, I do mind nihilistic, amoral novels because that's not why I read fantasy. If I want nihilistic amorality, I can turn on the news. I turn to fiction for a break from reality and for a reminder that there are places in ourselves and in the world where ethics, values, generosity, and sacrifice matter. My concern about The Way of Shadows was not that I couldn't stand the characters and their actions, but that the author wouldn't tell a story that depicted human nobility in spite of the darkness, or the way that we can look at our surroundings, as terrible as they are, and declare boldly like Maya Angelou, "Still I'll rise!"
But after reading and being tremendously impressed by The Black Prism, I decided to give The Way of Shadows a try. Not only was I not disappointed by the writing, which is as excellent as I've come to expect from Weeks. But also I was amazed at the level of beauty that Weeks is able to convey in the midst of the dark and gritty circumstances that his characters live out. Finally! An author who can use the grit to paint a portrait of the human spirit's ability to rise above filth, even if it's just in the choices we make, no matter how hard they are.
This isn't to say that the novel pussyfoots around the moral depravity you'd expect of assassins and prostitutes. People are killed. Others commit depravities that are disgusting. But you never lose the sense of ethical judgment. Not all acts are created equal, after all. Some are more evil than others. And if you have to choose between the devil and the darkness, it's clear that at least one choice is slightly more moral than the other. It's refreshing to read an author who can write wicked characters believably without either condoning their evil behavior or making them so simplistic that it becomes a morality tale.
Weeks doesn't preach. But he does make you think. And I respect that in an author, because not every author can do that well. You'll take out of his books what you choose to take out of them, but if you don't take anything out of them at all... Well, you're just not trying. In The Way of Shadows alone, Weeks tackles aspects of poverty, child abuse, sexuality, leadership, mortality, the afterlife, and love. Not bad for his debut novel. I hope I can do half as well with the novel I'm writing now.
In any case, I can't recommend The Way of Shadows highly enough. Even if fantasy isn't your "thing," I urge you to pick up this book and give it a try. The writing, the storytelling, the characterization, and the resonant themes make it worth stretching yourself out of your preferred genre. And if you do like fantasy, all I can say is, you must read Brent Weeks immediately. Don't wait another minute.
If you've read Brent Weeks, what did you think of his work? If you haven't, go out and read him, and then come back here. I want to hear your opinion!
Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.