Thursday 13 November 2008

Book review: The Way of Shadows

The Way of Shadows

Brent Weeks

(Orbit 2008)

After releasing both books of Karen Miller's Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology within the space of a few months (and, it must be said, achieving considerable success with such a method), Orbit decided to do the same with Brent Weeks' The Night Angel Trilogy: all three books are to be released within a month of each other.

This is a particularly clever marketing ploy, as it means that fans don't have to wait long for each instalment, while the author's reputation and presence is built all the more quickly (or destroyed, depending on the books!).

Quite a bit of buzz has been steadily growing online around The Way of Shadows, so it moved rapidly up my reading list. I must confess I had my doubts about this debut, one being that it might veer too far towards bubblegum fantasy territory. Having finished the novel, I've found that some of my concerns were justified while others were not.

In short, The Way of Shadows is something of a mixed bag.

The weakest aspect for me was the worldbuilding, or to be blunt, total lack of it. What we have is a standard medieval-esque world of kings, princes, assassins and soldiers. There's even a magic sword and a prophecy. In short, there is absolutely no innovation whatsoever. For some readers this is not a problem; the issue of worldbuilding vs characterisation is an old one, and many fans of the genre are quite happy as long as the story and characters are good. That's fair enough, but personally I like fantasies where the author attempts to push the boundaries a bit, do something a little different. Failing that, the world needs to at least come through well in the writing; I need to be able to become absorbed in it. Weeks' world fails on both accounts for me - it's neither particularly interesting and it just never reeled me in. There were hints of a more Asian influence (rice paddies, tantos, etc) but this was never built upon. Subsequently, the world became a backdrop and nothing more, rather than a vibrant, living place.

The writing at first seemed little better. Again, this may just be my personal taste, but I found the prose a bit simplistic. There was some really clunky exposition and I felt certain events badly lacked context. For example - without giving anything away - there's a scene early on where a certain individual overhears two men discussing the dynastic succession. Maybe it was just me, but I struggled to really grasp the importance of the situation or what was at stake - there were too many names flying around for me to really appreciate exactly what was happening. On top of that, certain words - Momma, helluva - are too modern and are subsequently jarring.

Having said that, the writing improves considerably over the course of the book and the final third displays some much better descriptive prose. There was one scene in particular that I thought Weeks handled extremely well and was clearly the stand-out moment in the book for me, though obviously I can't reveal what it is. While I never fully took to Weeks' style, it is at least accessible and I saw enough to believe that the next books in the trilogy will contain superior writing to this one.

The characterisation was a little bit hit and miss for me. Some characters - Durzo Blint, Azoth/Kylar, Momma K (still don't like that name) - were handled and developed well, but others (Solon/Feir/Dorian/Duke Gyre) were less so. Azoth/Kylar does make for a good, engaging protagonist, and Blint is a very strong support act, so ultimately Weeks does manage to create an entertaining cast that hold the reader's attention.

The plot is what really saves The Way of Shadows from total mediocrity. To his credit, Weeks has constructed a plot that generally moves at a good pace and has a high number of twists, some of which most readers will never see coming. It's been a while since I've read a novel with this many surprises, so credit to Weeks for that. On the other hand though, I do think the best authors are able to drop hints prior to the twist/secret being revealed. For example, George R. R. Martin is very good at doing this, so you're able to flick back over the novel and think "Yeah, all the signs were there - I just didn't see them." The twists in Weeks' novel aren't as subtle, and for me one or two of the twists seemed a bit hollow. Still, when all is said and done Weeks has created an absorbing plot.

I had one or two other minor complaints: I would have liked to have seen much more of Azoth's/Kylar's training, as the plot jumps ahead by two years more than once, which threw me a bit. I did at times feel that Azoth/Kylar was too skilled - to the point where it lessened the tension. Still, relatively minor complaints.

In all, despite the world being rather standard (and not coming through as well as I'd have liked), the writing being clunky at times and the characterisation blowing hot and cold, there was something that appealed to me about The Way of Shadows. I can't quite put my finger on it, though the plot certainly helped me to enjoy the novel. I've read much better fantasy novels, but then again I've read far worse. For a debut, it's not bad at all and I think it has all the right ingredients to appeal to a lot of readers.

I've heard Weeks compared to Scott Lynch, though I think that has more to do with the similar nature of their debuts - Lynch, for me, is a better writer in all departments. That said, I'll probably check out the next book in The Night Angel Trilogy, as I think Weeks does have potential.

Verdict: ddd


RedEyedGhost said...

I've seen so much hype that I've nearly bought this 3 or 4 times, but I was really burnt by Karen Miller's trash last year so I've been very hesitant. How does Weeks compare to Miller? Or were you lucky enough to avoid her?

The mention of a prophecy in this book almost makes me NOT want to buy it. It's not a Prophecy with a capital P is it?

Anonymous said...

It's more a Prophet with a capital P. Likely so he can be kilt in a later book and offer suitable cryptic advice.

ediFanoB said...

I read half of the book so far. I bought it after reading first to chapters online and not because of the hype.
Of course you find better world building in other books. But in this case it is not that important for me. I'm really fascinated by the description of development of Azoth/Kylar. All his inner conflicts and so on. I it is so for not one of my top 3 books I ever read in my life but it is a lot more than average to me.
In the end it depends on your likes and dislikes.

Anonymous said...

Hey reg,

Don't worry about this being anything like Miller's horrible abomination. I really ended up liking this book, and you know that if it was anything like Miller's crap I would have burned every page to keep it from reaching anyone else.

James said...

Redeye: Not read Miller, which - given what I've heard - is probably a good thing. Then again, her novel was the best-selling debut of 2007...

The prophecy element isn't too strong, though the actual prophet character does allow for some rather deus ex machina moments.

Edifanob: Absolutely. Everyone has different tastes, and this book didn't cater enough to mine, hence the average review I gave it. But plenty of people do like it, and that's fair enough.

RedEyedGhost said...

James: You've been lucky so far then. Do yourself a favor and stay the hell away from Miller's book.

Myshkin: Cool! I'll wait until I the reviews for books two and three start showing up before I'll commit to buying them, but it sounds like his skill improved from the start of this one to the end. So, I'm positive that the reviews for 2&3 will be good as well. I have too many unread books already, so I can hold off for now.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Like your line of thought James; thanks for not making me want to read this book before so many better ones :)