Brent Weeks


The Way of Shadows


OK, bad timing for this book – hard on the heels of too many juvenile fantasies. See my reviews of Croggon, Goodkind, Kay, Paolini,Taylor, or references to Jordan, Feist, Brooks – just for a start…


Sure, this is a slight variation in the Teen fantasy genre (although ‘assassin fantasy’ is probably a well established sub-genre by now). He’s got plusses and minuses that I could go through according to this standard – as I have with the earlier ones I just listed – but this time I’m just going to have a more specific rant about one area of this book which is pretty common, almost definitive, of this sort of fantasy. Oddly it’s not anything to do with the fantastical – dragons or magic swords or faux-medieval settings or whatever – it’s more about a failed attempt to mix genres, deliberately taking some of the gloss off the classic/heroic/larger-than life model.


We are meant to see the raw human side of our (problematically stereotypically superlatively talented/dangerous/shrewd/magical etc.) characters and settings, portrayed not as mythic, but as hard-bitten realism. Some of these guys (particularly, say, Goodkind, Kay and Taylor) set themselves up as going beyond the shiny archetypes of Tolkien’s noble settings, and dealing with the gritty, dark and complex aspects of violence and sexuality. They would see their characters as being more layered than merely heroic, acknowledging their inner demons, trauma and struggle. We don’t just trot by the poor villagers or the slum area of the city, but are confronted with stench and homelessness and abuse.


This may not have to be bad – although I’m not sure. One problem is that if you keep the larger-than-life aspects – the peerless fighting skills, the eon shaking magical abilities or artefacts, dragons for goodness’ sake – this is no longer our world. Some elements of our mundane world just make no sense and jar in these contexts: if you are the one true prince, blooded in battle, touched by the gods and the only hope to turn back the numberless hoards of chaos descending on the ancient citadel, you’re not going to work to the same motivations as the high school kid who’s reading about you. You don’t have to to be: Gandalf is ‘realistic’ to his world – only a demigod (or earth-walking angel) could do what he does, and while he feels fear, joy, pain, fatigue, he is different given his powers, experience and responsibilities. The more I read of the books I’m carping about here, the more I’m impressed by, say, LeGuin’s Ged, a magician who starts like the characters in these books – headstrong, playing with his abilities to impress, unaware/unconcerned with how his actions affect others – but then radically changed by his experience, by the real fallout of his choices. He matures – not something that can be said of the eternal teenagers of the books I’m bitching about here. Wolfe and Gemmell deal with this differently – but ably – creating heroes that might not mature or change, but have legendary personalities as essential to their legendary feats and prowess as their washboard abs; if you dump an everyman character on a hero, he could never have become a hero. Yet, for example, despite years of gruelling training and phenomenal gifts, Azoth emerges with the same insecurities, motivations and reactions.


But putting aside the issue of whether you even can successfully mix earthy realism with fantasy realms, my real beef is that these guys can’t actually do earthy realism. Different story in SF – where you can get an outstanding author like Iain Banks who can write a character based straight ahead novel like Espedair Street, then turn around, add his middle initial, and play with the galactic scope of the Culture series. And the ‘earthy’ bits enrich the mind-bending stuff, such as the exploration of third and first world responsibility, seen in both genres (e.g.The Business and Inversions). One of the greatest improvements in SF since the early days is the (general) development of character depth. I’m sure there’s stuff out there, but I have not seen the same trend in fantasy. Definitely not in this fantasy. To put any of these supposedly developed characters in a novel would be laughable. Likewise Tolkien’s – but they were always designed to be larger than life. Rather than coming across as subtly flawed and more human, rather they’re childish – in contexts (and at ages) where childishness is implausible. Similarly the mean streets: here Weeks’ ludicrously over the top opening of blood and sexual abuse has much more in common with the nonsense of Harry Potter’s exaggeratedly vile step-family (one of the weaker elements of that series) than with, say, Walter Mosley’s gritty urban sketches. I’m not saying there aren’t places that brutalise children, where life is cheap and abuse commonplace. But I am saying these authors haven’t lived in them, don’t really know anyone who has, and only imagine TV/movie stereotypes of prostitutes and criminals.


Generally the novels I’ve read that impress me, and here by ‘novel’ I’m meaning character based books (as opposed to, say, horror/crime/pirate/whatever ‘novels’), are set in contexts that the authors are familiar with. So Lodge’s people are academics, Hornby’s central characters age with him and live in the UK, Eliot  and Austen have much to say about marriage and class. Whereas the fantasies I most enjoy are deliberately in a different dimension to the everyday, consciously drawing on mythic realms, and containing characters that could rub shoulders with Arthur or Ulysses. I don’t know if Banks’ is a musician, but I am, and  aforementioned ‘Espedair Street’ moves very comfortably within the band setting. But for Weeks or Kay or Goodkind et. al. to think they can present insights into the effects of, say, sexual abuse, is just insulting.


I think part of the appeal to teenagers relates to comments I made relating to Eddings, unfavourably comparing him to Voight, for grooming his audience’s ego in thinking a superficial view is a profound one. The Guardian Film Show review of ‘The Fault in our Stars’ really resonated with what I’m getting at. The reviewers bridle at the film’s claim that, ‘This is the truth’ – supposedly going beyond cliché about the tragedy of dealing with cancer – while airbrushing, even accessorising this awful disease – which seems to barely even inconvenience our two A-list attractive leads: they’re not fatigued, they’re lifestyles aren’t shaped around extended, debilitating treatments, and they look just great!


So if going for truth, do some research, or draw on your genuine experience. If going for fantasy, you can leave that behind. Just don’t hand me derivative cliché and call it truth.


This happens at a plot level as well as a character one. The point of no return for me (i.e. when I shut the book and moved on) was where supposedly mega-assassin Azoth tries to inconspicuously get into a private function, nobles only, using a constructed alias, to have access to his target. On the way in he even ducks back into his carriage briefly to avoid being recognised by a colleague. And then he has a massive public fight with one of the, say, top five celebrities in the city. I was waiting to read how this was something he carefully engineered as part of a clever strategy … but straight after he’s just decked the king-in-waiting in front of everyone … he thinks something like, “OK, better get back to work now. I’ll just go melt invisibly into some shadows.” !! This is, and I never thought I’d have a chance to say this, even dumber than Tom Clancy having the President’s son as the top secret assassin, doing a hit in the bathroom of a café where he’s just drawn particular attention to himself by spilling drinks all over the place. There’s other clangers too (e.g. apparently super-player Momma K has always known about Azoth’s messianic importance, yet inexplicably left him in constant danger of dying from malnutrition or commonplace assault). There’s Donaldson/Cherryh style tortured melodrama treating every conversation or interaction as climactic. There’s annoying repetition of the terms ‘wetboy’ and ‘deaders’, mistakenly thinking they hold more currency and impact than ‘assassin’ and ‘target’.


There’s other books I should be reading.


June 2014