My blog is all over the place now, ain’t it? I’m doing a book review! A non-anime-related one, too, though there’s a degree of weeb-ness in Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. One of his fictional countries outright uses Japanese names and architecture, and the secret society of assassins that run shit in the main city are called “the Sa’kage,” with an accent mark over the “e.”
When my brother read this book, I thought, “Assassin’s Creed,” but it’s far from that. It technically isn’t even about assassins. Hilariously, the book’s blurb features the sentence, “for Durzo Blint, assassination is an art.” Durzo is actually a wetboy—a step up from an assassin in that he can use “the Talent” (read: magic) to be more awesome. Durzo is ultra-elitist (but only a bit pretentious) about this, and hates being called an assassin. His first lesson to the main character, his apprentice, Kylar, is that, “killing is not an art.” Well.
The Way of Shadows starts off as ultra-grimdark as a story can be. It opens on an eleven-year-old boy crawling through the tight, muddy space underneath the bamboo floor of a pub. A deadly spider crawls over him, and an errant bit of wood jabs into his back. When anyone crosses the floor above, they plunge his face into the mud, threatening to drown him. While he’s crawling around looking for copper coins, the greatest wetboy ever, Durzo Blint, kills a shitload of dudes, then threatens the kid’s life by stabbing his huge sword through the cracks in the floor just in front of his face.
The kid (his name’s Azoth, though it changes about a fourth of the way through to Kylar) needs four copper to pay guild fees. “Guilds” are groups of kids, lead by teenagers, who let you live in their shitty shacks and feed you bread if you pay them. If you don’t, they beat the fuck out of and rape you. So the early part of the book is largely kids beating, raping, and killing one-another in a town so shitty I almost pictured it as Blighttown from Dark Souls.
All this grimdark is readable because the book keeps an ultra-quick pace, never wallowing in angst for more than a moment. Seriously, it reads like a fucking tornado, only slowing down towards the end of the book for the huge, hundred-page set pieces that make up the last third (about two days in-universe).
At first, the pacing and sheer brutality of everything was what kept me reading. I never felt bad about what was happening, in part because I’m one of those guys who’s seen too much grimdark in fiction for it to have any impact, and also because it was so over-the-top that it was amusing. Not to say that it lacked in verisimilitude, because it had that (with only a couple of hiccups in later parts), but so many terrible things happened at such breakneck speed that I usually felt like, “well, that happened. So what happens next?”
Certain characters were likable right off the bat. Momma K, the aged but all-powerful and all-knowing prostitute who fucked everyone in town on her way to taking it over, was an instant favorite. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to ultimately *do* much in the story. She always guided the characters along, but the one time she takes action, it’s a *SPOILER* betrayal, and one that takes her out of the story for most of the climax. *END SPOILER* There’s also Durzo Blint, a big bundle of the best kind of fail.
Logan Gyre was another interesting character, and opened up the book’s first sub-plot (which was a good way to avoid being overwhelmed by grimdark). Not long into the book, he became Kylar’s best friend. Logan is one of those gigantic dudes with a heart of gold who never does any wrong to anyone. What intensifies his likability and intrigue is that he was like that already when he was twelve years old, just spoiled and ignorant enough to be flawed, but not annoying. Logan is the only truly predictable character in the story, and he allows a breather between all the other shit that’s always flying around.
The book’s intrigue begins in the second quarter, when Kylar begins his quest to become a wetboy, the heavy political plotlines start to work their way in, and tension mounts.
There’s little buildup to anything in this book. Rather than be suspenseful and then shock with a twist, the book will present a twist, and then shock with another twist, and then shock and at times confuse with a succession of ten more twists. Everything is twisted constantly until it’s difficult to trust anything.
Therein lies one of my problems with The Way of Shadows. Some of the twists are so big that they don’t seem to fit with what we’ve been told up until their arrival. Weeks knows how to use Chekhov’s guns, and hides them all over the place. Sometimes, they lead to very satisfying reveals and twists that we’ve been waiting for. Other times, it seems like the gun was shoehorned in as an excuse to reveal a twist, when that twist actually doesn’t fit with things.
Then again, the story is narrated in third person, and is often unreliable. The narration combines itself with the mind of whichever character is in focus, and feels things the way the character does. It may tell you that a character was stung by a bee if that’s what the character thought happened, then reveal a moment later that it was actually a needle.
There exists the possibility that the narrator lies to make us feel a certain way about certain events, while actually giving improper context and diverting our attention from the truth. This kind of writing is like a shield against plot holes, and I’d have to read the book again to decide if there really were any. But more importantly than the actuality of holes in the plot, it’s the feeling that a twist has come out of nowhere which makes those twists feel shaky as I’m reading the story.
Continuing with complaints, here’s the big one. There are times when I had no fucking idea what was going on. While there are a number of exceptions to this, which make the better scenes in the book, there are parts wherein Weeks doesn’t do enough to set the scene, and the spatial relationships between objects are utterly confusing. The worst case is an action scene wherein Kylar is trying to dislodge a huge wrecking-ball sort of thing full of oil so that it can hit a ship on a nearby river and explode. A lot of shit happens in this scene, and trying to make sense of it all gave me a headache. It was pointless, too, which was a little infuriating.
Back to the good. This is the kind of story wherein things happen by the Rule of Cool. Weeks works a fuckton of weapons, poisons, other ninja shit, and situations into the book that he seemed to find entertaining. All of the important men and women are gorgeous, unless they’re evil, and then they’re grotesque. Weeks might have a thing for busty blonds, because a number of them get to show their breasts or otherwise get laid. Sexuality becomes a big element as the main cast grows older, and it’s handled in some interesting ways, though those scenes are presented tongue-in-cheek.
There we come across the weirdest part of the book. Between the first and second halves, from Kylar growing up, to being twenty years old (as he is throughout the second half, which takes place in a very short time span), the tone completely changes. There was always some humor to it, but it had a grim outlook, and Kylar was always a touch moody, his narrator following suit. Then, when he’s older, he suddenly has a sense of humor about everything, and the narrator even moreso. Gallows humor is name-dropped in the book as a totally unsubtle nod to its ever-presence, and sex is suddenly everywhere.
I wasn’t bothered by this, but one scene came so out of left field that it had me scratching my head. *SPOILERS* Kylar wakes the morning after the first huge, chaotic set piece has taken place. He knows he has to skip town, but he starts the morning chatting with Logan and Count Drake, whom he lives with. Neither knows about the night before, and Logan has just proposed to his girlfriend, so they’re in a celebratory mood, contrasting Kylar’s needing to leave. This wasn’t weird.
A new, hot, young maidservant comes into Kylar’s room, and even though he should really, really be going, he decides, “you know what? I’m gonna hit that, and finally lose my virginity.” As things get steamy, suddenly it turns out the girl is a wetboy’s apprentice (who’s been mentioned), and she’s got kylar at knifepoint. They exchange this utterly terrible Diablo Cody-esque rapid-fire back-and-forth of witticisms that makes both of them look like fucking idiots, until someone comes to rescue Kylar, and the wetgirl-in-training takes off to never be seen for the rest of the book. The plot proceeds as scheduled. Um… what? Could that not have been handled at a better time? *END SPOILERS*
The epic set-pieces which encompass the second half are at once awesome, and complete clusterfucks. The first is so chaotic as to be brilliant. Not only is a lot happening at once, but most of the characters have contesting information, and leave the scene thinking that different shit had gone down. One out-of-the-blue murder serves as a red herring, not for the reader, but for the characters, which causes all of them in their confusion to intensify the chaos leading into the big finale.
Said finale is massive, with twists and turns everywhere. Some scenes are nothing short of amazing; some are strange; a couple feature humorously blatant deus ex machina. I was glad that enough characters died so that it was easier to get a sense of what the hell still mattered by the time the chaos was over.
Not a huge amount of closure is given, because after all, this is a three-book series. There’s an emotional resolution, and the feeling that this was the end of one story, leading into the next, while the plot had more than enough open questions to chain right into the next book. Kinda brilliant.
All in all, The Way of Shadows is hella fun to read, if at times headache-inducing. I read it all at once, so I wonder if it may be easier to digest if you took your time with it. (Personally, I’d have lost track of too many plot threads if I’d read it slowly.) There are characters whom I enjoyed, but none that I found memorable; however, there are still two equally-long books to expand them further.
I feel there’s room for revision to make some scenes less confusing, and to tighten everything up—make it feel like all the twists are justified. But what do I know, I can’t even write a twist to save my life.