Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Way of Shadows Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Brent Weeks
Publisher: Orbit
Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy
Series: Night Angel Book One
Pages: 659

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The Way of Shadows is a Tolkien inspired fantasy that at first glance doesn’t really appear to resemble anything like Tolkien’s work.  Weeks’ story is so dark and bleak, and there are so many morally ambiguous characters, it’s hard to find the classic good vs. evil Tolkien staples. But deep down this story is still about a young unknown child rising to become a powerful figure in a fight against evil.

Weeks writes a descriptive “hell on earth” type of scenario. His characters live in a place with depressing realities that echo the darkness’s in our own world. I found myself loving every bit of the book until the end, which had a number of twists in the plot that agitated me.  However, my personal qualms with the ending won’t stop me from continuing with the sequels. The Way of Shadows is a great introduction to a grim assassin centered fantasy series.

Azoth is a young orphan child growing up in the Warrens (aka the slums) of Cenaria City. His only means of survival is to contribute to the ruthless guild he has joined.  Fearing that the guild fist Rat may want to kill him and his friends, Azoth seeks out Durzo Blint a wetboy and the city’s greatest assassin for apprenticeship.

The Tolkien fantasy may be the model for which a lot of modern fantasy is based, but Weeks takes Tolkien’s model to an extremely dark place.  The Way of Shadows opens with some of the most traumatizing and emotionally scarring scenes in the fantasy genre, which is due to the fact that most of the inhumane atrocities are committed against children.  These atrocities include children being beaten, children starving, children being molested, children being disfigured, and children being raped. If these things ruin a story for you, don’t read this book. Weeks’ horrible treatment of people sits on the borderline of distasteful, but for me personally it never crossed over.

At first glance The Way of Shadows appears to be just an assassin training story, which it is at its core, but by the end it’s added a healthy dose of political intrigue, military battles, and magical artifacts to spice things up. Azoth narrates most of the story, however by the climax there are multiple narrators contributing to different parts of the plot. At times this makes things feel a bit unbalanced with the development of characters, but overall Weeks makes it work.

The political intrigue is particularly interesting as things progress. Cenaria is ruled by an incompetent king named Aleine, who throws childish like tantrums and only knows a single word of profanity – shit. Cenaria in secret is ruled by an underground group called the Sa’kage, which bares a lot of similarities to the mob at the height of their power.  In addition to this, Cenaria is threatened by her more powerful neighbor Khalidor, which is ruled by the God King, Gareth Ursuul.  Ursuul is a violent tyrant and a powerful practitioner of magic. He has world conquering ambitions.

With a bleak setting and a great amount of suffering inflicted upon him and his friends during his childhood, Azoth is a protagonist that’s easy to get behind. His transformation into wanting to be an assassin forces Azoth to make a lot of moral and personal compromises. Even more interesting is Durzo Blint the master wetboy whom Azoth seeks out.  Blint is an ambiguous character who can be both cruel and at times caring, and by caring I mean he can be caring in a twisted way. Above all though, Blint is an emotionally scarred man who believes life isn’t worth living.  His nihilistic mantras are disturbing; consider the quotes below which are repeated many times throughout the novel:
“A man’s greatest treasures are his illusions.”
“Relationships are ropes. Love is a noose.”
“Life is empty. Life is worthless. When we take a life, we aren’t taking anything of value.”
These quotes really sum up the tone of Weeks’ book. It’s really BLEAK! Despite being given so many reasons to dislike Blint, he’s the most compelling of Weeks’ characters.  How does someone continue to live with such a hopeless outlook on humanity?

The Way of Shadows is populated with a large cast of secondary characters.  They’re not all particularly well developed, but they are involved in some interesting going-ons.  There’s Mama K, a whorehouse owner and one of the nine leaders of the Sa’Kage; Logan Gyre, a large noble’s son who’s learning how to take care of his father’s estate; Count Drake, a minor noble who has dealings with the underground and upper-class nobility. All of these characters interact with Azoth at some point, and they develop into some adventurous subplots.

The major weakness of The Way of Shadows are the myriad of unwelcome plot twists and character resurrections at the end of the book.  To be fair, Weeks does kill some of major characters, and they do stay dead, but there are other characters that come back to life. Character resurrections are one of my least favorite fantasy tropes, especially when it happens to a major character. The character development has some weaknesses to it, too. This is mostly due to Weeks’ lack of subtlety in his writing, which allows his characters to resemble cut-outs at times.  This is particularly true with Elene, and her holier than though personality.  Elene’s lack of development brings up a lot of questions like why don’t the nobles ever mention her scars to her, why doesn’t she seem emotionally scarred by her time living in the Warrens, and why is she so religious? The latter question just seems to be thrown at the reader like a sudden gust of wind.

The intrigue and sneaking around make this feel like a thriller.  The hand to hand combat and battles are really exciting, and I’m reminded of Brandon Sanderson’s battles and fight scenes when I read this.  Say what you will about Sanderson, but his action scenes are top notch. The Way of Shadows will keep you reading from page to page while you lose track of time. It may seem like I’m laying on the flaws, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying it. If you can handle the cynicism and suffering, The Way of Shadows is an engaging assassin story.

Score: 8.1

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