The books of the Night Angel Trilogy were among the big releases of 2008. A brand new writer publishing a complete trilogy with only a month between the books. Something that, as far as I can tell, hasn't been tried by any major publisher. I don't know what it did for sales and the books certainly weren't unanimously declared brilliant by reviewers, but it did garner a lot of attention on Internet. I read several review of these books right after they were published but they didn't appeal to me enough to buy a copy, my to read pile is still rather large. Recently my girlfriend got a copy of the first book so after she was done with it I decided to give it a go. I thought it was a decent read but by no means the best début I've read.
The novel follows the life of Azoth, a boy growing up in the bad part of the city of Cenaria. Part of a gang of beggars and thieves, he grows up in a very violent, poverty stricken world. His chances of getting out are slim indeed. He pins his hope on the master assassin (or wetboy in Weeks' terminology) Durzo Blint. A man who has elevated assassination to an art. The price of becoming his apprentice is high. Azoth needs to prove himself capable of cold blooded murder and cut all ties to his old life. Love, friendship, compassion, these are weaknesses a wetboy cannot afford to get in the way of his business. Azoth adopts a new identity and learns his master's trade. Despite his master's warnings he is not able to completely let go of his past and the few friends he has made. Durzo is a hard master, any sign of weakness could mean his death. But ultimately Azoth needs to make his own decisions. As he gets more and more skilled the tensions between master and apprentice rise, eventually leading to a confrontation on one of the bloodiest nights the kingdom has seen in centuries.
The Way of Shadows aims for the gritty atmosphere many recent fantasy novels adopted. It is quite violent right from the start. This includes quite a bit of sexual violence, although the worst excesses of Azoth's world are only hinted at. Life in the slums is brutal and short and Weeks makes this abundantly clear. It doesn't help that as Azoth progresses in his studies, we're treated to a number of meticulously described and often bloody assassinations. As we near the end of the book these actions scale up to an superhuman effort in death and destruction by both Azoth and Blint. Especially early on in the book the cruelty seems to serve little purpose and in the final chapters I think Weeks is overdoing it. He is sailing right beyond gritty realism into the realm of action movie gore in the final part of the novel.
Don't get me wrong, I like a little action in a novel and Weeks' fighting scenes are pretty good. This novel however, leans too much on this one aspect. The motivation of the characters is often unclear and we get to see only the vaguest outline of what is going on in the wider world. Durzo in particular turns out to have quite a history. With all the trauma and loss he has suffered he could have turned into a very interesting character but Weeks never really develops that. Durzo remains the near perfect assassin, never allowing himself to feel anything, rarely letting anyone see him crack. At several points in the book he gets into fights with Azoth and lets something slip. These revelations usually come as a complete surprise and rarely shed much light upon his previous actions. Azoth has a different problem. He may be an assassin but he doesn't actually want to kill anyone. When push comes to shove he has to be forced into it, which is something of a handicap in his line of work and in the later stages of the book not entirely convincing.
The finale of the book involves an invasion by a foreign and rather nasty ruler styling himself god-king. His resources include the services of quite a lot of strong magic wielders but why he actually wants to rule, or at least conquer, Cenaria is a mystery to me. It seems to have very little of real value and if the little history we are provided with is correct, it is also pretty hard to hold. The plan to take the nation is quite ingenious but why it requires them to commit so much of their magical resources to it remains unclear. Indeed the magic in Weeks' world is only covered on a very basic level, it's limits remain unexplored and the price for wielding it unknown. It's almost like Weeks is telling a story that has no context, constantly keeping the reader off balance with unbelievable scenes, characters miraculously escaping death and unlikely plot twists.
Despite my criticism this first book in the Night Angel Trilogy is not a punishment to read. Especially readers looking for an action packed read will appreciate it, The Way of Shadows is quite a big book but it a quick read nevertheless. It has some good fights and the dark mystery of an assassin's world going for it. Weeks neglects other parts of the story to an extend that it hurts the story though. Maybe if you let yourself be carried away with the relentless action that takes place in the later chapters it is even possible to overlook the novel's problems. I was not able to do so. Weeks has a lot of exploring left to do in this world. Let's hope he gets to it in the next book. I'd say The Way of Shadows is an entertaining read but there is a lot of room for improvement.
Title: The Way of Shadows
Author: Brent Weeks
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2008