I find that Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy is occupying an uncomfortable place in my mind. Some books I read because the descriptions and the language are exquisite — Earthsea, David Copperfield, maybe Shakespeare (though I would argue that it only makes sense when performed) — other books I read because the story, characters and plot are gripping and powerful and the prose is good enough to not notice it. There are dozens of reasons why I read books but the majority of books are the second kind. Nobody can be as witty as Shakespeare, as descriptive as Dickens or as emotionally powerful as LeGuin. That’s fine. Sometimes the story and depth of what is being done and said are so exhilarating all that is required is that the words get out of the way.
The second category would include books like Harry Potter, Sanderson, Jordan, Connelly, Butcher, etc. The list is pretty much endless.
Then there are the kind of books where the writing is so bad that it’s hard to tell if the story is good, or if the characters are believable because the dialogue is so clumsy and the passive voice so prevalent that it’s impossible to wade through. Those books I put down.
With Shadow’s Edge (and also in The Way of Shadows) Brent Weeks is hovering on the cusp of being just compelling enough to keep me reading and being bad enough, wordcraft-wise to make me wonder if I want to. Never have I encountered storytelling this good paired with a prose style this bad.
Some lines of dialogue are physically painful to read, feeling like the flat affectless voices of a junior high drama production. Some descriptions are so poorly rendered that not skimming ahead feels like scraping my eyeballs down the page.
Yet somehow, in all that torture and pain Weeks makes me care about the characters, makes me feel that the pain I feel is their pain. I want them to succeed, to be happy, even as I see no hope for their future.
This is a story about the darkness and depravity of humanity. The ‘good’ guys are assassins and murderers and worse. But it’s also a story about redemption, that most powerful of all human needs, as the murderers and prostitutes seek paths that will lead them away from that life and into something better. It’s a very fundamentally Christian themed story even down to a small group of very chaste and honorable people who believe in ‘the One God’ instead of the ‘Hundred Gods’ that everybody else worships.
It begins with Kylar Stern, leaving his old life as an assassin and moving to another town to escape his past. But gods and kings conspire against him, the Night Angel can’t retire, and inexorably he is dragged away from happiness and back into his old life until all is lost to him except darkness and shadow.
The titles of these books are indicative, in a heavy-handed way, of the symbolism of the character arcs. In the Way of Shadows the characters sunk deeper and deeper into darkness until they used their own darkness as tools to meet their end. In Shadow’s Edge they are trying to move away, testing at the light, venturing out into it’s brilliance while still keeping in the dark.
Brent Weeks has improved some since his first book. Much of the emotional impact is shown in characters actions instead of explicated in lengthy passages that have little meaning. As a result this book feels much shorter and more impactful, while actually being longer and with less things happening.
It is that one things that makes me keep reading.
I like to use Star Wars as an example of what’s going on here. George Lucas created Star Wars, the story. It’s inarguably a cultural phenomenon for a multitude of reasons, most of them based on when it came out and what had been seen before. Lucas is the story builder, brilliant. He is not the writer or the story teller — those are the writers and directors of his films. The Empire Strikes Back — widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars films — was written by Leigh Brackett and directed by Irvin Kirshner. When Lucas decided to write and direct his own story we got Episodes I – III. I rest my case.
At this point (his second book) Brent Weeks is like George Lucas. He is a terrible writer — he’s a good storyteller, and a brilliant story builder — if he gets better he could be fantastic. If he doesn’t then we will get Episode I. Only time will tell.