I’ve had a hard time coming up with relevant and fresh topics lately, and I’ve been giving thought to putting my review of books I’m reading on here, so I think I’ll start that tonight. I doubt this will be a real regular feature on here simply because I’m not a professional critic, so I don’t know how to do it very well. But I think I can manage to talk a little about some of the ones I’m reading, if only to give you an idea of the kinds of books I like.
The first one I want to talk about is The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks. It was published in 2008, and it’s the first part of The Night Angel trilogy. It’s my understanding that all three books were already written and were published a month apart by Orbit, and they’re New York Times bestsellers. I can see why.
Shadows is a fantasy, and the cover was what intrigued me in the first place. Ever since I saw Shogun back in the Seventies as a mini-series, I’ve had a vague interest in things like this, and seeing a fantasy about an assassin made me pick the book up. And when I read the back, I knew I had to have it.
It’s the story of Azoth, a street urchin who lives in Cenaria City in Midcyru. When the book opens, he is approximately eleven years old, living on whatever he can find in a run down section of the city known as the Warrens. This alone should tell you this is not a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and dwarves and battles of good and evil. Yes, there are good guys and bad guys, but when the protagonist wants to become an assassin, you have to anticipate a somewhat more gritty book. And Shadows delivers just that.
Actually, the most skilled assassins feel it is an insult to be called an assassin. Anybody can be an assassin, because all they do is kill people. The kind of assassin Azoth wants to become is known as a wetboy, and they use magic to help them take out their deaders, as they term their victims. Azoth, naturally, wants to apprentice to the best wetboy in the city, Durzo Blint, a man known to have no conscious, who can hide in shadows and not be seen unless he wants you to.
Through a convoluted series of events, he manages to achieve this goal, only to find out being a wetboy isn’t exactly what he thought it was. It’s lots of hard work and training, and Weeks takes us through this in the middle of the book roughly a chapter at a time, skipping several years each time. In order to become a wetboy, Azoth has to leave his past live behind, becoming Kylar Stern, with a cover story of being a minor noble from the far edges of the country whose lands have been taken away due to debts or some such. He is sponsored by a minor count whose last name is Drake, who has a few secrets of his own that I won’t reveal here (this is a review, but I won’t throw in spoilers).
Suffice it to say that, if you like stories full of intrigue, where every layer of the plot reveals yet another layer underneath, read this book. I’ve started on the second in the trilogy (just finished Shadows this morning), and it’s looking to be every bit as good as the first. The characters are authentic and definitely have individual personalities, including a king who’s not smart and is prone to long strings of profanities that are all versions of the same word (“Shit on you, you shitting shitters,” is one of his utterances, or something close to that). He’s laughed at behind his back, pretty much an ineffective “boy king,” as he’s referred to by some of his more charitable critics. Of course, with a king this weak, there’s an impending invasion and many of the characters have to make choices between bad and worse.
Magic in this world is authentic and consistent. Wetboys use what they call a Talent to help them, which aids them in such things as hiding in shadows and adopting more effective disguises. One of Kylar’s problems throughout his training is that his Talent doesn’t seem to be manifesting itself, and without that he will always be doomed to being a simple assassin. The Talent is what makes wetboys different. Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, yes there can be female wetboys.
Weeks’s world of Midcyru is also well-realized, with different cultures and religions and magic working, or at least interpreted, differently in the various cultures. Despite most of the characters being the kind of people we might normally find distasteful at the very least, they can still be sympathized and identified with because each of them is flawed and conflicted, even the seemingly cold, callous Durzo Blint. In fact, it’s the more “noble’ characters you end up despising because they tend to be spoiled royalty of one sort or another who are oblivious to what many of the characters are going through. Granted, in the case of Kylar, that’s just as well because he’s a wetboy living undercover, but there are still many in here you’d like to see Durzo or Kylar chop up just because they’re wasting good air.
So, without taking the risk of revealing some spoilers, I’ll finish off by saying: go get this book and it’s sequels, because if it’s any indication, Brent Weeks is a good writer who’s bringing us a little different type of fantasy.