Introducing “Turn back 10” & Another Look at WAY OF SHADOWS by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

TurnBackTimeManOnClockApril 8th will mark the tenth anniversary of Civilian Reader. Which is a surprise. I thought it might be interesting to post one old review per week, working back to the first — which I will re-post on April 8th. I’m going to call these “Turn Back 10” posts. The first three don’t feature content that is actually ten years old — I only wrote three reviews in 2006, after all, which would make this a pretty short exercise. Not to mention a bit dull. Each post will feature a review from the first three years of CR (2006-08). And it’s a nifty title, so I’m sticking with it. The reviews are, of course, mostly terrible in terms of style — I was still figuring out how I wanted to write them. They are often rather more hyperbolic than I would like now.

I will do some minor editing and adjusting, in order to make them fit in with the current style, and fix typos, but other than that they are re-posted as they first appeared. If I enjoy posting them, I may continue the practice after the anniversary, but try to feature reviews more relevant to what I might be reading at the time, or what I’m posting about.

Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows was the first fantasy novel I had read in a very long time, which wasn’t set in a shared universe or Discworld. I remember it blowing me away, too: it did things that I had thought one wouldn’t find in fantasy novels (remember, I barely read any fantasy at the time). It was, to use words that have fallen completely out of favour, grim and quite gritty. (Especially the ending, and one storyline in the second book.) Certainly, more grim and gritty than I was familiar with. I remember noticing it because Amazon recommended it because I had also bought Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora.

It was also the first fantasy novel I received from a publisher for review — up until that point, it had been predominantly non-fiction and Star Wars novels. It also marked the point when Civilian Reader started to take off — in terms of readership and also how much time and effort I poured into the site. I also remember, after publishing the review, incessantly pestering Orbit’s publicist for the next two novels in the series… (Thankfully, the then-publicist has the patience of a saint.)

WeeksB-NA1-WayOfShadowsTHE WAY OF SHADOWS by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

The start of something truly fantastic

The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets. 

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly — and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics — and cultivate a flair for death.

Fantasy fiction has undertaken a shift in tone and style in recent years. It’s darker, more realistic (oddly), and the characters are less polished, more flawed and human. The fairy-tale feel of older fantasy fiction has been purged from much the genre’s new writing, and the world is better for it. Brent Weeks’ new series not only fits perfectly into this new genre, but it surpasses much of what’s already available.

The Way Of Shadows follows the struggles of Azoth (who later changes his name to Kylar Stern), as he attempts to escape his life as a guild rat. Life on the streets is hard, dirty, brutal and dark. Weeks is able to portray the fear and desperation his character lives through brilliantly, in some cases revealing only enough to let our imaginations conjure up the most horrible scenarios (Rat’s treatment of Azoth’s friends Jarl and Doll Girl, for example). This is not a novel for young children.

Azoth, tired of the terror and brutality of being a guild rat, manages to escape his life on the street by pursuing an apprenticeship with Durzo Blint, the most accomplished and skilled, of Cenaria’s magically-gifted assassins (or “wetboy”). Azoth must learn the ways of a killer, separating his emotions from the orders and whims of those in control of the purse-strings — be it the Sa’Kage crime-lords or the political class in the city, living by Blunt’s rules or suffering the deadly consequences.

The Way Of Shadows manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that usually weaken debut novels, such as excessive exposition that can tiresomely slow a story. Weeks has managed to not succumbed to this, using a number of excellent tricks to introduce us to the environment and the host of characters that make up Cenaria’s various social strata — his best are through Blint’s and Azoth’s hunting/scouting trips, which give us insight into the politics and culture of the upper classes without interrupting the flow or atmosphere. If I have one personal complaint, though, it’s that Weeks has used the overly common fantasy trope of having names bisected by apostrophes.

The plot contains some classic elements: the coming of age, triumph over adversity, and character transformation, all done to a very high standard. There is also the internal struggles that define Azoth and Durzo, each of whom has his own issues with the life they’ve chosen. Azoth is unable to relinquish his attachments to others, despite it being necessary to be accepted into this new world of “wetboys” — who aren’t just mere assassins, but magic-wielding killing artists. He often finds himself in a struggle between his training and his own morals, unable at first to fully relinquish his attachment to life and the innocent. While Durzo, on the other hand, most skilled of all wetboys, vehemently opposes personal relationships as a result of a tragedy in his past. It feels at first that there are a large number of plot threads to juggle, and it’s not immediately apparent how they will link up, but Weeks manages to tie them all up deftly, making everything fall into place — an attempted coup, which affects all the characters differently.

At almost 650 pages (plus insightful bonus interviews, etc., after the novel proper), this is a pretty heft tome. But, like Scott Lynch and Alan Campbell (two others of the best of the new breed of fantasy authors), Weeks manages, with fluid prose and tight plotting, to keep the reader entertained and engrossed throughout: there’s plenty of action, complex characters, occasional well-placed humour, and a twisting plot that will keep you guessing almost to the end and hooked until the very last word.

In The Way of Shadows, Weeks has created a vivid new world full of political intrigue, individual struggle, a dark and gritty complexity, and superb characters. Thankfully, books two and three will also be out this year (6th November and 4th December), so there’s no need to wait too long to continue reading about the exploits of Azoth/Kylar Stern.

Solid, extremely well written, and deftly plotted, The Way Of Shadows is a promising debut from a talented new voice in urban fantasy fiction.

For Fans of: Scott Lynch, Alan Campbell, Richard Morgan, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie

***

Such grand statements I made in this review! How the novel “surpasses much of what’s already available”, and how the “purge” of fairy tale sheen had made the genre better — as if I was so well-read in the genre at the time? I can’t help but cringe as well as laugh at that. I still stand by my review, of course, as I did love this novel and the two that followed — Shadow’s Edge and Beyond the Shadows. I also enjoyed the prequel novella, Perfect Shadow. But maybe, if I was reading it for the first time today, I might be a bit more reserved/measured in my comments.

Despite my slight unease at the bold statement, I think I still agree — for me, “grimdark” fantasy has always been more appealing than fantasy characterized by whimsy (which seems to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment). I do also like subversive fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unrelenting grimdark can be exhausting, and cross that fine line between graphic and gratuitous.

I know a fair number of critics didn’t like the novel so much. For me, though, it’s an important one in my then-new-and-growing passion for fantasy fiction. Amusingly, at the time of writing this, of the “For Fans of” authors I picked, I had read only one novel by Richard Morgan. (I took it on faith, though, as my girlfriend at the time had read Lynch and Campbell and suggested they would be good fits.)

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