The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

The Way of Shadows by Brent WeeksBrent Weeks has been making quite a stir in Fantasy for the last few years. He started out with a complete trilogy that was released in a single year which got people excited and landed him on bestseller lists.

He followed it up with a more stately release schedule of books that are purported to be getting better with each volume.

Being the completionist that I am I had to try the first books first. Way of Shadows is the beginning of a trilogy that, if the titles of the books are any indication, is written to be a redemption story of sorts.

It starts with a young boy named Azog who apprentices himself to a master assassin in order to get himself out of the squalor and homelessness of living on the streets.

The book hits some powerful emotional beats and maintains a series of likable, if cliche, characters. Weeks seems to have dipped into the bucket of tropes for this book and pulled out the most common ones at random. None of the characters are anything that we haven’t seen before, though Weeks has a way to telling us about them that makes the story feel like it’s more interesting than it actually is.

This is an interesting part of Weeks’s style, actually. He practices a deft sleight of hand with his prose so that several hundred pages in we know who are best friends and lovers and rivals but none of those things are actually shown. In most cases it’s just a few sentences or a paragraph that say these two hate each other. The magic trick is that it’s almost unnoticeable in the moment.

Weeks has a significant number of weaknesses as a writer in this first book. His proclivity with telling how people feel instead of showing it, his inability to portray unique characters that are interesting on their own, his juvenile views on male and female interactions. Combine that with a realistically brutal view of life on the streets and a strangely naive view of the consequences of that life on the main characters and it’s hard to say if this book is good.

On the other hand, I can see something here. The story being told is solid and complex and slowly unfolds a world with politics and intrigue and mystery that isn’t immediately apparent at the beginning. The plot is complicated enough that it is actually fascinating to watch it come together like a particularly clever piece of origami and somewhere in the madness and shallowness a story emerges that pulls the reader along and begs them to keep reading.

Nearly every writer gets better the more they write. That’s just the nature of being human. It’s exciting, then, when a first novel is fantastic right off the bat. It’s saddening when a first novel is so bad that no hope is apparent for the future because it’s impossible to imagine the author getting better enough to be readable.

Brent Weeks is somewhere between those. He’s got the story and the world down. He knows how to string together elements of a story to make it feel like a real world and he knows how to hit emotional beats with readers (using subpar characters, even). If he can learn to tighten up his prose, show some of his characters interactions, and give us some more variety in females then he could become truly powerful.

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