Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"The Way Of Shadows", by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

The start of something truly fantastic

Fantasy fiction has undertaken a shift in tone and style in recent years. It's darker, more realistic (oddly), and the characters are less polished, more flawed and human. The fairy-tale feel of older fantasy fiction has been purged from much the genre's new writing, and the world is better for it. Brent Weeks' new series not only fits perfectly into this new genre, but it surpasses much of what's already available.

The Way Of Shadows follows the struggles of Azoth (who later changes his name to Kylar Stern), as he attempts to escape his life as a guild rat. Life on the streets is hard, dirty, brutal and dark. Weeks is able to portray the fear and desperation his character lives through brilliantly, in some cases revealing only enough to let our imaginations conjure up the most horrible scenarios (Rat's treatment of Azoth's friends Jarl and Doll Girl, for example). This is not a novel for young children.

Azoth, tired of the terror and brutality of being a guild rat, manages to escape his life on the street by pursuing an apprenticeship with Durzo Blint, the most accomplished and skilled, of Cenaria's magically-gifted assassins (or "wetboy"). Azoth must learn the ways of a killer, separating his emotions from the orders and whims of those in control of the purse-strings - be it the Sa'Kage crime-lords or the political class in the city, living by Blunt's rules or suffering the deadly consequences.

The Way Of Shadows manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that usually weaken debut novels, such as excessive exposition that can tiresomely slow a story. Weeks has managed to not succumbed to this, using a number of excellent tricks to introduce us to the environment and the host of characters that make up Cenaria's various social strata - his best are through Blint's and Azoth's hunting/scouting trips, which give us insight into the politics and culture of the upper classes without interrupting the flow or atmosphere. If I have one personal complaint, though, it's that Weeks' has used the overly common fantasy trope of having names bisected by apostrophes.

The plot contains some classic elements: the coming of age, triumph over adversity, and character transformation, all done to a very high standard. There is also the internal struggles that define Azoth and Durzo, each of whom has his own issues with the life they've chosen. Azoth is unable to relinquish his attachments to others, despite it being necessary to be accepted into this new world of "wetboys" - who aren't just mere assassins, but magic-wielding killing artists. He often finds himself in a struggle between his training and his own morals, unable at first to fully relinquish his attachment to life and the innocent. While Durzo, on the other hand, most skilled of all wetboys, vehemently opposes personal relationships as a result of a tragedy in his past. It feels at first that there are a large number of plot threads to juggle, and it's not immediately apparent how they will link up, but Weeks manages to tie them all up deftly, making everything fall into place - an attempted coup, which affects all the characters differently.

At almost 650 pages (plus insightful bonus interviews, etc., after the novel proper), this is a pretty heft tome. But, like Scott Lynch and Alan Campbell (two others of the best of the new breed of fantasy authors), Weeks manages, with fluid prose and tight plotting, to keep the reader entertained and engrossed throughout: there's plenty of action, complex characters, occasional well-placed humour, and a twisting plot that will keep you guessing almost to the end and hooked until the very last word.

In The Way of Shadows, Weeks has created a vivid new world full of political intrigue, individual struggle, a dark and gritty complexity, and superb characters. Thankfully, books two and three will also be out this year (6th November and 4th December), so there's no need to wait too long to continue reading about the exploits of Azoth/Kylar Stern.

Solid, extremely well written, and deftly plotted, The Way Of Shadows is a promising debut from a talented new voice in urban fantasy fiction.

For Fans of: Scott Lynch, Alan Campbell, Richard Morgan, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie

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