Monday, September 06, 2010

“The Black Prism”, by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

Untitled-1 The first instalment of The Lightbringer series

Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals.

But when Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.

The Black Prism is an epic story of leadership, warring nations, Machiavellian politics, and magic. A lot happens in the novel, however, which makes it somewhat difficult to review without spoiling a number of plot twists and revelations. I shall try to do so without any major spoilers.

Gavin is the Prism and nominal head of the Chromeria – the world’s magic school and guild, not to mention the most powerful political entity. The setting is a Mediterranean-style geography (the Chromeria, home of the Prism, is stretched over a small handful of islands), and the technologies and fashions match a 1600s-type time period. What differentiates it most definitely from our own world, however, is the magic system.

To discuss The Black Prism without mentioning the magic system would be folly – magic is a huge, integral part of the world Weeks has created. This seemed overwhelming to begin with, and was a bit more difficult to get used to: the fantasy novels I favour tend to have a smaller reliance on magic. However, as the story progressed, it became impossible to ignore the sheer level inventiveness on display here, which is truly impressive. Weeks has covered all the bases, and seems to have thought of everything related to the magic system he has created. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear just how integral magic is to the world, how it works, how varied it can be, and the layers of politics involved in its use.

The way in which magic effects its users is interesting, if also a little sad. As Gavin explains to Kip:

“When you draft, it changes your body, and your body interprets that change as damage – it heals what it can, but it’s always a losing battle, like aging. Most male drafters make it to forty. Women average fifty.”

Considering the intricacy of the world, its magic, and politics, Weeks does a great job of sprinkling details throughout the narrative, without either overwhelming us or leaving us adrift for too long. It never feels like an ‘info dump’ or excessive exposition (Kip’s newcomer-status allows for other characters to teach him – and therefore us – background, aspects of magic and its use). This allows the plot to rattle along at a fair clip – to the extent where, even though I could feel myself sinking into the story, it didn’t feel like I was reading a 600+ page behemoth-of-a-novel. I read The Black Prism over the course of a week, and each time I was able to sit down with it, I would stay up well into the night reading, oblivious to the time (the last three nights, the book kept me awake well past 4am).

If I had one criticism, however, it would be that for a little while after starting the novel, I could have done with just a bit more exposition to explain a few key elements of the world and magic that feature prominently from the very beginning of the novel. I quickly got over this, however, and became dazzled by Weeks’s world-building, the displays of magic and the ways Gavin is (and, to a lesser extent, others are) able to use it.

As can be expected from Weeks, his characters are all complex and well-crafted, each with an added quirkiness about them that differentiates his creations from many other fantasy authors. This lent itself well to some witty dialogue and amusing scenes between the main characters – particularly whenever Kip spends any time with a female (he has the always-amusing knack for being totally tactless and bumbling around women).

Kip’s world is turned upside down when a provincial king’s army decimates his home. He fights his way through King Garadul’s blockade, only to be caught – and rescued by Gavin, who has come to the region to investigate growing rumblings of revolution, new religion, and treason. It’s during his flight that Kip discovers his drafting capabilities (each time they seem brought on by stress and fear, an unconscious defence mechanism). Kip is an interesting choice for a protagonists: basically, he’s the fat kid who gets picked last in gym class, only with the nascent ability to draft magic. He has a very low opinion of himself, too (in no small part because of the considerable disappointment his junkie mother expresses), and this self-loathing is expressed frequently throughout the novel:

“what could he do? Face soldiers? If there was one, there might be ten, and if ten, maybe a hundred. Kip was no fighter, he was a child. He was fat, weak. ONE man would be one man too many.”

What’s most strange about Kip, however, is that he sometimes does or says things that should, as far as I could tell, be completely out of character (talking back to people, insulting them, not engaging his brain before saying certain things), which made it a little more difficult to get a bead on him. He develops well over the the course of the novel, however, and he certainly ends up endearing himself to the reader. Kip is an outsider, finding his way in a new, complicated and frequently dangerous world.

It should be noted here that the backdrop of the events of the novel is important. Fifteen years before, the False Prism’s War decimated Kip’s country; and pitted those supporting Gavin and those supporting his brother, Dazen (who shares Gavin’s prismatic talents). Resentments and biases remain, creating tension and conflict throughout the world.

“King Garadul hadn’t fought in that war, but he was aping the worst practices of it - on his own people.”

Gavin, the other prominent perspective we get the story through, is an equally complex character. Knowing his life is coming to an end, he is anxious about fulfilling his self-imposed great purposes. When he hears of his son, his world is rocked as it brings to light other, deeper and potentially more dangerous secrets, complicating his relationship with his colleagues and, most importantly, Karris – a member of the Prism’s elite bodyguard, and also a former lover. Of both Gavin and Dazen… Weeks has managed to inject a brilliant human story into the fantastical world he has created and, while the author does sometimes give a little too much description of the magic (at times confusing me of what was actually happening), kept this central to the story.

Perhaps the best explanation of this novel and its central themes (the synopsis is rather vague) is from a Powell’s article, written by the author himself:

“The Black Prism is a story about two brothers who respect and fear and admire and contend with and shape each other. In other words, it’s a story of normal brothers — who happen to be in extraordinary circumstances.”

As the story unfolds, Weeks gives the reader more information and back-story, filling in blanks and increasing our knowledge and understanding of Gavin and Dazen – their relationship, rivalries, connections, upbringing, and so forth. It is in this that the author manages to keep readers guessing and second-guessing our loyalties and presuppositions of which is the ‘good’ brother.

I came to this novel with extremely high expectations, and it would be fair to say that these expectations were met. The Black Prism is a different novel to the author’s excellent Night Angel Trilogy – in fact, it’s different to anything else I’ve ever read – so it would be difficult to offer a detailed comparison for those who are familiar with that series. Weeks’s writing is far more assured, and the humour is just as good and well-used (not too much, not too little, perfectly placed to not detract from the predominant, uncertain atmosphere).

Weeks’s style is excellent, and there’s clear evidence of his impressive imagination and inventiveness throughout the novel. The dialogue is great (witty, intelligent, brisk); his characters are complex, realistic, and likeable; and the story is highly imaginative and original, while also comfortably classic in feel. The last few chapters offer some clues as to what we can expect from the second book in the series, and one thing is absolutely certain: Weeks has raised the bar, jumped over it, and is looking higher still.

Utterly engrossing, The Black Prism is very highly recommended. Quirky and original, this is brilliant, epic fantasy.

For Fans of: Daniel Abraham, Scott Lynch, Brian Ruckley, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Kevin J. Anderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Adrian Tchaikovsky, N.K. Jemisin, Richard Morgan, Tom Lloyd


  1. Wow, this reveiw, in its entirety, made me want to read the book even more!
    Also, how would you say the book holds up against The Night Angel Trilogy?

  2. Difficult to compare them, to be honest, as they're quite different beasts... I would say the Lightbringer series has great potential to be as good, if not better than The Night Angel Trilogy (bear in mind, I LOVE that series). In many ways it's a slightly different sub-genre of fantasy: magic is just so important and central to the story, that it makes for a very different reading experience.

    The Night Angel Trilogy took me completely by surprise - I knew nothing about the series or Brent when I got the first book, and I was completely hooked very early on (it was also awesome that books 2 and 3 came out so soon afterwards).

    Both Black Prism and the Night Angel books do share some features, though: great characters, engrossing plotting and writing, and good humour.