Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Way of Shadows

My dear friend Death Glitter mentioned that she was reading this a month or so ago, so I decided to pick it up after about a year of thinking that I'd get around to it later.

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Somewhat hefty (677 pages)
Publication: October 1, 2008 from Orbit Books
Premise: Azoth is just one more guild rat among the slum children until he encounters Durzo Blint, the city's foremost killer for hire. When he becomes Blint's first and only apprentice, he is told to rename himself Kylar Stern and forget all traces of his old identity. But the ties of the past are hard to escape, and Kylar finds himself drawn back to old friends and old enemies as he tries to forge himself into the perfect killer. The city hangs in a perilous balance-- Kylar must navigate his way through a web of tangled loyalties and half-truths if anyone is to survive.
Warnings: rape, attempted rape (in one instance of a child), sexual assault, murder of civilians (including children), implied cannibalism, gore, deliberate mutilation of a child, torture....if you are easily disgusted or upset, this really isn't your cup of tea. These are just the warnings that stand out most vividly in a scan through the plot.
Recommendation: If you're really interested in assassins and morally ambiguous main characters, you might enjoy this one. That said, it can get a little lost in its own darkness at the expense of a streamlined sequence of events.

Why this one feels like such a darkly real universe:

Brent Weeks undeniably does a strong job of setting up characters who have made mistakes and done too many bad things to ever be clean again without losing sight of their humanity. Durzo Blint is the centerpiece of this tendency-- in one scene he's advising his apprentice not to let accidental witnesses talk before he slits their throats, and in the next he's risking his own life to protect a child he's never met. His past builds throughout the book, revealing one misdeed after another: to tweak at the Avengers quote, his ledger is a sea of red, so it's hard to believe that there's any darkness that he's unable to plumb (a distinct advantage when people are trying to piece together the truth of his past). Momma K, the city's Mistress of Pleasures, falls in a similar vein. She's capable of complete ruthlessness, but there's just enough compassion in her to make her vulnerable to blackmail that uses someone she loves as a bargaining chip. It would be easy to write her off as just a manipulative courtesan with no real loyalties, but instead she feels like a real person who has had years to linger on the harm she's caused and the lies she's told while resolving to value her present actions over lingering on the past. She and Blint aren't happy by any stretch of the imagination, but their bleak persistence gives the story a somber edge and wears away at other characters' protestations of idealism.

Although Blint's despair and rage can sometimes edge him out of morally ambiguous territory and into "cruel bastard" without a detour into proper evil, his duels and missions are undeniably some of the most vivid elements of the book. He infiltrates heavily-guarded buildings, sometimes just to make a point about how easily he could kill people if he wanted to. On one particularly memorable occasion, he sets up a needle trap and leaves a note nearby explaining that it could have been poisoned had he been so inclined. His identity is often illustrated most clearly though his choices about how to break in or choose an approach. He tends toward methodical setups and redundant backups, preferring to leave as little as possible to chance even when he has the Talent to help cushion the impact of any mistakes he makes. When he spars or truly fights with the fully-trained Kylar, it's difficult to look away from the page-- they're both strong and fast and skilled, but they're also playing a mental game of chess based on Blint's habits and past advice. Kylar has to sort out which pieces of wisdom to trust, whether to extrapolate Blint's next move from that advice or to look for another trap beneath the first. It's easy to take the words at face value, but he has to live inside his training and second-guess his more skilled and practiced master just to live through each encounter, because Blint has no interest in allowing a clumsy apprentice to get arrogant and shame him-- even with the advantage of magic, he wants to have to work for his victory.

The magic system in his universe works quite well, going for maximum flexibility. Kylar was chosen as an apprentice in part because he has the potential for the Talent, without which no apprentice can take on full-fledged status. This is because all wetboys (assassins with an edge) are under the command of the Sa'kage, the criminal organization that controls the city-- the Talent allows them to take a binding oath to the Shinga, the Sa'kage leader, and thus ensure that they are not a danger to their employers. Kylar is a risk because his Talent will not manifest properly, but he is receiving enough training to make hi perhaps the best non-magical assassin in the city. The Talent enhances existing skills, pulling a cleverly concealed movement into full invisibility and amplifying a prodigiously long leap into an impossible one-- it's not a cure-all, and in some ways Kylar is better off for having drilled the mundane skills so thoroughly, but it's enough to create a clear advantage over ordinary people.

Other forms of magic are more vague, particularly the vir. Wytches, magic users from another kingdom, somehow call on....dark glowing markings on their skin that look like tattoos and may or may not be alive in some way and are connected to evil power. There are a few eerie scenes that demonstrate just how effective the vir can be and how close they drive their bearers to madness, but not quite enough to really understand them. The same holds for the ka'kari, which are some sort of magical artifacts that can amplify or repair the Talent; they come out of the distant past and seem to exist mainly as distant objects for the characters to obsess over, since they provide immortality to their bonded bearers. This will probably clear up in future books, but it can make for a slower and needlessly confusing read in places. The Talent really does shine, though; at one point a secondary character gives an explanation of why it works and how the power builds, and it's far more streamlined than is typical of will-based magic systems without definite spells and structures. This power responds to creativity and focus, allowing characters to surprise each other with unexpected moves that they've just devised-- this works well with the constantly evolving nature of revealed truths in the book. 

The red pen:

In a novel this intricately dark, the villains need to be extraordinarily nuanced, but the book falls short on this point. The main antagonist is Roth, a young criminal capable of extraordinary sadism; he should be terrifying, and has a few moments of sincere darkness, but he unfortunately slides a little too far into mustache-twirling in places with the way he tortures and manipulates people just to see them suffer. Explaining all of this motivations would edge into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that hi work in the city is supposed to be a proving ground of sorts. The way he wastes effort explaining exactly how he murders starving homeless people and has them cooked into his food doesn't quite have the Hannibal Lecter vibe that Weeks might have been trying to hit. There's so much potential here to show how Roth sees the loyalties and weaknesses of the city that he's slowly destroying, but he spends enough time in melodramatic speeches during the little pagetime he gets that it's hard to understand him past that surface layer. It's implied that the main villain behind his operation is much better, and Blint's one recounting of that character's dark mind game is promising, but this person barely shows up in the first book.

Some of the characters' best moments center on Logan Gyre, heir to his house and just a few paces away from the royal throne. He's young, overeager, and actually believes in the noble ideals that his elders have abandoned at best and scorn at worst. He and Kylar becomes friends when they're young, largely because Blint wants Kylar to have an entrance into the world of the nobility, but it blossoms into genuine affection and respect. Given that Logan lives for openness and honor while Kylar excels at killing people for money, there's a rift between them that Logan doesn't even know is there, and Kylar has to live with the knowledge that he may be forced to betray or hurt his friend if his master demands it. This frames Logan as the innocent in all this, an oblivious friend whose role seems like it's going to be limited to dying horribly to make a narrative point, but he's forced to grow up suddenly near the end of the book. He's spent years cherishing hopes and visions of his own future, but then the kingdom needs him and people he respects ask him to sacrifice all of that for duty and the slender hope of stability. Weeks shows off his emotional range here, and Logan gets some excellent scenes that would absolutely be Oscar bait were they to appear in a movie (although any movie based on this would be four hours long, X-rated, and incomprehensible).

This sounds like praise, but these emotional moments come out of nowhere, tend to center on characters we only met properly five or so pages ago, and these moments are sparse compared to Blint's overly frequent speeches about how successful killers can't have weaknesses and friends, or grisly near-death scenes for minor characters who are probably important somewhere in the sequels. The narrative introduces a character, adds just enough context so make the reader understand that this person is sympathetic or worthy of life, and then either kills or nearly kills the person for dramatic effect or to add darkness. Weeks is capable of strong characterization and juggling a decently large cast of characters, but in trying to flesh out so many, he ends up overextending on those and shorting the main cast. This unfortunately makes it feel like three or four of the main characters are playing Dramatic Revelation Bingo in unveiling another layer or version of the truth. These bombshells tend to be either trite or revealed as lies within a few hundred pages anyway, so it's difficult to stay invested in guessing what the truth behind all of this is. The narrative would have benefited from a more focused cast, a less convoluted web of lies, or both.

Despite the possible benefit of a tighter focus, one of the best-developed relationships could have been trimmed or cut without much loss to the story. As an adult, Kylar slowly falls in love with Elene, once called Doll Girl, a child from his gang who was mutilated for being close to him. His apprenticeship with Blint allowed him to pay to find her a good home, somewhere safer than she could have lived otherwise, but he's still wracked with guilt and spends time spying on her from a distance. They eventually meet in person, but not before he's been through a stack of her letters that she sent to the benefactor who gave her a better life-- for reasons of really flimsy plot, she addresses her benefactor as Kylar because she saw him once or twice at her friend's house and assumes that he is really kind and sweet, just like her benefactor, and then it's the same person and Epic Teenage Angst ensues. It's trying a little too hard to live up to the depth of the other arcs in the story, but it's hard to make a romance stand level with the fate of a kingdom in even the best of relationships. In fairness, she has a lot more spine than is typical of delicate flower love interests who carry moral purity around in their apron pockets, but it's hard to see this as high drama. It worked best when they didn't actually see each other in person, but once they meet as adults it's a lot of Elene being indignant and hurt and Kylar feeling guilt when good assassins don't have feelings until it's just impossible to care.

There are other small complaints, mostly woven into the landscape of the story. For example, some of the terminology can be labored: assassins in the service of the Sa'kage take offense at being called assassins because their own skills are higher, so they refer to themselves as wetboys and their targets as deaders. The distinction isn't bad in theory, but the slang feels in places like something that children made up rather than the intimidating slang of adults. Other elements, particularly the various other nations, fall by the wayside and leave the reader wondering whether to remember something that doesn't show up again in the book at all. Some of my the best minor characters get one good scene and then wrap themselves up in plot points, moving away from what made them so interesting in the first place. Most of these, though, fall into the problem with longer epic fantasy works: it's difficult to simultaneously keep all of the major characters fresh, make sure that the readers don't forget about the minor characters who have to be important later, and provide a steady stream of information to keep the plot moving forward.

All in all, The Way of Shadows presents a darkly compelling world, but it tries too hard for an all-encompassing cast of characters and intricate universe at the cost of fully explored character development and time to let new revelations percolate. Odds are I won't be going back to the rest of the trilogy, but Weeks is conceptually a strong enough writer that I'll investigate his other work in the future. 

Prospects: This is the first in the Night Angel trilogy; the second is Shadow's Edge, and the final volume, Beyond the Shadows, came out in 2008. Weeks has since started the Lightbringer series, which started with The Black Prism and continued with The Blinding Knife last September.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Across the Nightingale Floor isn't quite so dark and full of despair, but there's a bleak lack of choice for the characters that resonates as similar, and both books feature supernaturally gifted assassins. 
~Steven Brust's Dragaera books, starring the assassin Vlad Taltos, ask a lot of difficult questions about the humanity of a killer and manage to keep the character pool to a more reasonable size. These get intricate, but it's a joy to watch Brust pull out creative writing tricks and conceits to add more depth and texture to the story. These books also have a beautifully black sense of humor to set off the death. 
~Watch Hero, an absolutely gorgeous movie that pulls off the transition from lies to truth with effortless grace.

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