Book Review: “The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks

Overall rating: 8 out of 10

Ultra-assassins, corrupt kings, political intrigue, prostitutes and street urchins wishing side-by-side for a better life in a world that refuses to let them gain it…those are just a few of the better trappings of epic fantasy, and this first volume of the Night Angels trilogy is a book that uses them well. The tale of youngster Azoth and trained killer Durzo Blint proves a tantalizing twist on the “precocious youth is taught by a wise old man” trope, jolting it up with moral ambiguity and a tense, hostile relationship between the two of them.

Brent Weeks has begun a trilogy that I look forward to finishing. He had me hooked right from the opening scene. He did a terrific job of fleshing out his characters, and got me to care about them. More than a few scenes and character arcs were emotionally intense, and I appreciated how he gave his protagonists enough hell so their outcomes truly were in doubt. He doesn’t pull a lot of punches, develops this world adequately, and he makes sure we have an investment in the outcome. Even when he indulges in cliches of romance, royalty, prophecies, and mages, Weeks pulls it off so well that you don’t mind reading about the same thing one more time. It’s a gritty world, full of gritty characters, so if you’re tired of squeaky clean epic fantasy and have already devoured A Song of Ice and Fire, this might be a good book for you to grab.

Shadows is not without its weaknesses. Some truly intriguing characters are set up for their own great stories that could have been threaded through the next book, only to be killed in some arbitrary manner, a la George R.R. Martin. Not that that’s always a bad thing. It just made the experience of their deaths incredibly frustrating, rather than an intense part of the story. The quality of the writing itself is uneven. It normally doesn’t have standout description, and oscillates between pedestrian and wordy (something that isn’t as grating when you listen to an audiobook, which I did in this case). And there are one too many viewpoint characters, in my opinion, at least when it comes to the single-chapter minor viewpoints.

Another weakness here is that the villains are cackling cartoons who take delight in their overt wickedness. Even though I cheered whenever one of these evil creatures died, I wished they were characters who saw themselves as heroes and doing what was right or necessary, instead of R-rated versions of the mustache-twirling devils on a vaudeville stage.

My overall impression of this novel is that it gets its strength from the character development, which fortunately makes up for the elements that don’t shine quite as brilliantly. Still, it has to be said that Brent Weeks has kicked open the door and gotten us off to a great start. This is a series that I intend to finish. Thank you, Mr. Weeks. You have done well.

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