Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brent Weeks: The Black Prism Review

This will be a first for me: a review of a book. It's an experiment, so we'll see how it goes. Feel free to let me know what you think of my evaluation in the comments, even if you haven't read the book. An added note for those of you who follow me on Goodreads. On Goodreads, I do reviews and ratings based purely on my own enjoyment. Here, however, I will be attempting to evaluate literature the way I do movies: as objectively as I can. One more note for those who don't know me personally. I watch a lot of movies, so you've seen mostly movie reviews from me. With books, I read almost entirely sci-fi and fantasy, so if you have no interest in those genres, most of my book reviews won't mean much to you. But there won't be that many of them in the first place.

This time we have a new hardcover fantasy novel from NYT Bestseller Brent Weeks, The Black Prism, the first in his likely 3-book Lightbringer series. A significant departure from the world of his popular Night Angel trilogy, The Black Prism takes us to a new world in which magic is common and has a significant impact on peoples' lives.

The story follows two main characters and several other major characters. The main characters are Gavin Guile, the Prism (or Emperor, basically, or if you prefer, Battle Pope), and his presumed bastard son, 15-year-old Kip. When Gavin finds out he has a bastard, his world begins to crumble. Kip has been raised by a crack whore (equivalent) mother, until he discovers who his real father is and is swept into a world of magic and riches. Other characters give us a glimpse into family life, university (equivalent) life, and Gavin's past.

All of this happens very quickly. Weeks is known for fast action and short chapters. For this book, he slows it down a bit, but it still flows much faster than most fantasy novels. Nearly every chapter transitions to another character's viewpoint. This is something that Weeks handles very well. When we see the world through Kip's eyes, it is described as he would see it. If Weeks describes it from Gavin's perspective, he will ignore many of the details that make the world so woundrous to Kip. We also hear a lot of brief internal monologues, Robert Jordan style. This can get annoying in excess, but it generally works well and especially in Kip's case, it gives a good idea of what's going through the head of a socially awkward 15-year-old.

As interesting as Gavin and Kip's stories are, I think it's the supporting cast that makes this book stand out. Karris gives an important second perspective on Gavin and ends up being an interesting character on her own. Her story is not developed as much as I would have liked, but it is set up so that he can go into more detail in the next book, so I really hope he does. Liv is a student who gets forced into a tough situation. Her story provides some important conflicts for the other characters. Gavin's brother Dazen is perhaps my favorite supporting character. He only gets a little bit of screen time in the book, but he is frequently mentioned regarding his ties to Gavin. He begins the book in prison. Anyone who has read Shadow's Edge knows that Weeks handles bizarre prison scenes very well (either that or I have a strange fascination with them) and it is just as apparent here, but in a smaller dose.

A lot has been said about Weeks' world building and the unique system of magic in The Black Prism. I will agree that the world is both more interesting and more fleshed out than the world of the Night Angel trilogy. That said, he intentionally avoids getting as in-depth with world building as, say, Tolkein or Jordan. I prefer it this way because it keeps the plot moving when he doesn't have to subtly contruct everything in detail, but some people who like fantasy worlds that truly feel real might be a bit disappointed. The magic is unique and involved. My only gripe with it is that some scenes of dialogue are clearly written just so the reader can better understand how the magic works.

My guess is that people will either love or hate the ending of this book. Personally, I loved it because it is exactly the kind of ending that I think each installment in a series should have. It resolves all of the conflicts that are central to this novel specifically, but it leaves open the stories that will carry across the series. Some readers might call him out on a cliffhanger ending, but I would argue that everything important to this novel's story is over with; if you don't want to read on, you don't have to and you still got the whole story. But it makes it abundantly clear that there will still be more to come if you want to read on. To me, this is a perfect straddling of the middle ground between Terry Brooks' first series, in which each book had no direct connection to the others, and Robert Jordan's, in which each book is more of a chapter in one very very long story.

I haven't really seen any of this myself, but I would imagine that many readers will find Kip very annoying. Okay, I admit it. Kip annoyed the piss out of me to the point where I got tired of reading his chapters. But here's the thing. Kip is one of the best representations of a 15-year-old male I've ever seen in literature. I'm not sure if you remember being 15 (especially if you were socially awkward), but Kip should annoy the piss out of you, especially since you're not only hearing what he says but also what's going on in his head. It might sound like his annoyingness just isn't worth it, but we do get two important things from it. First is some humor, which is appropriate, in its place, to the novel's tone but wouldn't fit well with most of the other characters. Second is the youthful perspective. Without Kip, Gavin would have very little to grow on as a character and the reader would lack his sense of wonder and slowly growing understanding of the world. And Kip does get his small share of badassery down the road. I don't really think it was necessary for me to take a whole paragraph to defend him because I think Weeks handles him well enough that most readers will understand why he's a main character and just maybe even relate to him a bit. But I understand, there just might be a bit too much of him and he can get tiring.

Fantasy readers know there's a lot of quality stuff out there, if they know where to look and what their own tastes are. Weeks is difficult to compare with some of the classics and masters, but I think he manages to stand out, probably even more than he did in the popular Night Angel series. I also think The Black Prism is much more accessible than The Way of Shadows, which could be polarizing. I hope that wider audiences will take notice and give it a chance. It's not exactly groundbreaking, but it is a great story that's well-thought-out and a lot of fun to read. I certainly recommend it to anyone who liked The Night Angel, and also to anyone who likes non-military fantasy.

Caius's rating: 4 stars

No comments: