The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

October 2008, Orbit Books
ISBN 0-316-0337-7
688 Pages

Brent Weeks bursts onto the fantasy scene with his debut novel, The Way of Shadows, the first volume in his Night Angel trilogy. The story, on the surface, is a fairly typical assassin-with-heart-of-gold bildungsroman. Weeks’s plotting, chararacter development and overall stortytelling ability help to make the novel rise above those somewhat clichéd trappings into an impressive debut novel.

Young Azoth is a street urchin in an unstable gang looking for a way out. He is constantly beaten, shamed and only cares for two other people in the group – Jarl and Doll Girl. At this stage in his life, his tormenter is the sadistic Rat who beats everyone smaller than himself. Azoth sees a way out though, if he can apprentice to the legendary assassin Durzo Blint, then surely Azoth can make a better life for himself. Of course the story wouldn’t really go anywhere if Azoth didn’t apprentice to Blint, but Weeks plays out Azoth’s struggles engagingly well. The first quarter to fifth of the novel deals with Azoth on the streets and coming to be Blint’s apprentice. Once Azoth becomes Durzo’s apprentice in full he assumes the name Kylar Stern, both becoming who he feels he is meant to be and casting aside all ties to his former life.

Even though Azoth/Kylar has the desire to become a killer for hire, or a wetboy as they are called in Weeks’s harsh world, he is not a morally unlikeable character. Much of the same can be said for his mentor Durzo Blint, but again, Weeks does a good job of both working within the cliché of the cranky mentor and making Blint stand on his own. Weeks surrounds Blint with an air of mystery not unlike Chains from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Chade from Robin Hobb’s Farseer saga. Indeed, the relationship between Kylar and Durzo is very reminiscent of the relationship between Fitzchivalry Farseer and Chade throughout her excellent Farseer saga. This isn’t a groundbreaking revelation by any means because I suspect Hobb and Weeks (and Lynch to another level) are mining some of the same sources. Weeks does an admirable job of making this relationship and these characters work on their own merits within his saga.

Weeks’s story follows the growth and maturation of another staple character of the genre – the young regent. In this case, Logan Gyre is the young prince who is ‘destined’ to grow into the noble ruler. I though Weeks’s characterization of Logan was just as even as it was with Blint and Azoth/Kylar. Kylar and Logan, on the surface, are polar opposites. Where Kylar grew up on the worst of streets, Logan was gifted with a royal lineage. Where Logan is large and blunt, Kylar is smaller and less obvious.

The Way of Shadows is a big fat novel and I mean that in all good connotations of those terms. The world Weeks depicts in this novel is harsh: the protagonist is a killer-for-hire as is his mentor, his best friend is a male prostitute who serves both men and women, one Durzo’s closest companions, the enigmatic Momma K., is the head of a brothel, and ways of killing are spoken of very matter-of-factly. In addition, The Way of Shadow contains many of the elements of a solid fantasy novel: magic, murder, an über-powerful enemy pulling the strings, a nigh-omnipotent enchanted sword, and a chivalrous knight. By no means; however, is this simply a paint-by-numbers novel. In many ways, I would liken Weeks’s approach to some of the new fantasy authors who are embracing these standard elements of the genre and spinning them out with an entertaining voice of their own. I’m thinking of writers like the aforementioned Scott Lynch, as well as Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, and Brandon Sanderson. In other words, if somebody were to ask me for a recommendation on a well-written, high fantasy that exemplified the expected elements of the genre, I’d pass them a copy of The Way of Shadows.

Granted, the novel is a debut and isn’t without its flaws however minor they are. At times, the characters tend to speak anachronistically. That is, some of their phrasing and objects to which they refer seem out of synch with the implied technological level and societal advancement. Some of the names struck me as less than original. I doubt Weeks was aware of Joe Abercrombie’s novels which also feature a character by the name of Logen when he was writing The Night Angel trilogy. However, the name Logan is already very popular as the comic book character Wolverine. That said, Brent Weeks is off to a solid career as a fantasy novelist with The Way of Shadows, the most impressive debut novel I’ve read this year.

© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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