Let it not be said that I don’t try to be educational on this blog. Last year we all learned about the way of kings together (until we got bored), and now here comes Brent Weeks to tell us about the way of shadows with the first book in his Night Angel trilogy.
After Wheel Of Time this is easily the most-requested book among y’all. I initially refused to cover it because I tried reading it a while ago and barely got past the first chapter, but with the new Quick Reads format anything is possible. Your imagination is the only limit, unless you’re imagining me reading more Brandon Sanderson, in which case that’s the limit.
Before we get started, let’s talk about that cover. Around the time this book came out I noticed a trend of fantasy novel covers involving badly photoshopped models in black cloaks. I’m not going to say The Way Of Shadows started it, but it was the first example I noticed and still easily the worst.
You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Here’s a secret: that’s bullshit, people do in fact judge books by their covers. Publishers, put in a bit more effort instead of just getting a photo of a guy in a cheap ninja costume and sticking purple fog effects over him. And stop using that font that makes your book cover look like an ad for a country-music themed steakhouse. You know the one I’m talking about. Yeah, that one.
Anyway, the book opens with a somewhat baffling page that seems to be a brief excerpt from later in the story, followed by a blurb from someone named Dave Duncan praising the book. I’m not entirely sure why this is here. Maybe it was meant to be on the back cover and my version put it at the front for some reason.
A fantasy map! God, I love a good fantasy map. I could write an entire blog post on this one.
This is sort of a mashup of classic elements and newer trends. On the old school side we’ve got locations with names like Khalidor and Lodricar and The Dragon’s Teeth and The Summer Isles that sound like they were taken from World of Warcraft, and there’s your standard not-Japan poking in from the left over there as per usual. There’s even a maelstrom, because all fantasy worlds need a maelstrom.
But keeping up with modern fantasy tropes we’ve also got some steppes off to the east (an oddly large number of recent fantasy settings have prominent steppes in them for some reason) and the intriguingly-named X!zassu.
Also, there is a place called Skone. I badly want the characters to go to Skone.
Like nearly all fantasy maps, this feels like a haphazard jumble of vaguely-reskinned real-world locations mixed in with singlular geographic features (A Big Mountain, A Desert, The Steppes, The Cold Place, A River). It’s good to know that no matter how much changes in this crazy world of ours, some things stay the same. You can count on epic fantasy authors to still be filling their maps with volcanoes and oceans named after colours until the sun collapses.
Are you excited? I’m excited.
Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes.
I gather from context that Azoth is our protagonist (or at least a protagonist) and not some sort of demon. He’s currently scrounging for coins in a poor district of a large city, similar to our old buddy Kvothe.
Can you guess what the district is called? Yes, it’s called The Warrens. Now we just need a location to the north called The Reach and we’ll be made up.
The guild’s bigs were too big and the littles were too scared to squeeze into the suffocating darkness shared with spiders and cockroaches and rats and the wicked half-wild tomcat the owner kept.
A guild, you say? Is it some sort of thieve’s guild? If so, will it behave like an actual criminal organization, or will it be a bunch of dudes in black leather who hang around dingy bars for no apparent reason?
Besides, Rat was collecting guild dues tomorrow, and Azoth didn’t have four coppers. He didn’t even have one, so there wasn’t much choice. Rat wasn’t understanding, and he didn’t know his own strength. Littles had died from his beatings.
The guild has an evil guy named Rat in it. This is perfect. I’m in heaven right now.
Azoth is crawling around under the floor of a tavern when he spots a dude with a sword through the cracks in the floorboards. Then someone else arrives and a Portentious Conversation ensues.
“Why Durzo Blint, you never fail to surprise,” the weight above Azoth said.
Durzo Blint. Durzo Blint. Please tell me this guy is a main character (I’ve forgotten pretty much everything from my last attempt to read this). I desperately want to follow the adventures of a guy who sounds like a brand of weed.
Azoth slowly caught up with what they’d been saying. The lanky man was the wetboy Durzo Blint. A wetboy was like an assassin—in the way a tiger is like a kitten. Among wetboys, Durzo Blint was indisputably the best.
The wetboy. The wetboy, Durzo Blint. Durzo Blint, legendary wetboy.
That phrase brings to mind several potential occupations, but I can assure you “badass assassin” isn’t one of them.
Azoth feels something crawling up his leg and somehow figures out from the weight that it’s a White Wolf Spider, which is super duper poisonous. Going to make a prediction right now: Durzo the Wetboy will fire a crossbow bolt through the floor or shove his sword through it or something and kill the spider.
Durzo and the other dude argue about someone named Vonda, a fight ensues, Durzo kills a bunch of people and the spider escapes alive. Damn, I was really sure about
He was a foot from the opening when something bright flashed in front of his nose. It was so close, it took a moment to come into focus. It was Durzo Blint’s huge sword, and it was stuck through the floor all the way into the mud, barring Azoth’s escape.
Eh, close enough.
I’m starting to remember why I never made it past this point: the writing is Not Good. It’s not egregiously, outrageously awful or anything, but it’s the kind of writing that makes me instantly toss a book aside. Even if the prose itself wasn’t stiff and unremarkable, the events it’s describing are both juvenile (cool awesome assassins with swords!!!11!!) and very rote.
It’s time to get Gritty as Azoth gets shaken down for guild fees by Rat. Azoth has enough for himself, but he also has to pay for someone named “Doll Girl”.
Is the story trying to do some sort of noir-fantasy mashup? That’s the vibe I’m getting here.
Doll Girl was tiny, with huge eyes, but beneath the grime, her features were as fine and perfect as her namesake’s.
Actually, this is more like noir-parody. This character feels like she should be in a send-up of the kind of story this book is trying to be. Not that her features are “fine and perfect”– is she a future romantic interest for our boy Azoth? The protagonist’s love interest always looks perfect no matter how caked in dirt they are or how impoverished or malnourished they are.
Azoth hated Rat, hated the guild, hated himself.
You’re just going to tell me that? Instead of showing it? Yeah? Well, okay.
Azoth spits in Rat’s face and gets beaten up for his trouble.
“Hey-ho, Jay-Oh,” Azoth said.
“Hey-ho, Azo,” Jarl said, coming to join Azoth and Doll Girl.
Oh my god I hate these characters already
“He wanted me to be one of his girls,” Azoth said.
This really is like Kvothe and his oh-so-gritty life on the streets of Tarbean.
The smells of baking, though less intense this late in the day, covered at least some of the smells of sewage, rotting garbage piled on the banks of the river, and the rancid bite of the urine and brains of the tanneries.
OH SO FUCKING GRITTYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY
If Ceuran architecture was all bamboo and rice fiber walls and screens, Cenarian architecture was rougher, heavier, lacking the studied simplicity of Ceuran design. If Alitaeran architecture was all granite and pine, Cenarian architecture was less formidable, lacking the deliberate durability of Alitaeran structures. If Osseini architecture was
Okay hang on, shut up for a second.
This is exactly the kind of world-building I hate, and here’s why: this is the second chapter of the first book in a trilogy. I have no idea where any of these places are, what their culture and histories are like and what it means that their architectural styles exist alongside each other, or if it means anything at all. For all I know Brent Weeks could have just made these names up on the spot.
There’s a time and a place for this sort of thing, and it’s not at the start of your novel when the terms you’re throwing around are totally incomprehensible and meaningless.
The plot abruptly happens when Jarl reveals he’s been saving money for years, and instead of using it for himself he’s going (for some reason) give it to Azoth, who’ll use it to pay for an assassin apprenticeship with Durzo Blint. Which I guess is a thing you can do.
I feel like I probably should be praising this, given all the times I’ve castigated fantasy novels for faffing around and not getting to the point, but the plot is actually moving too quickly. We haven’t been given any reason to care about any of these characters, and Jarl’s motivations for giving Azoth the money are a complete mystery. The book is also falling into a nasty habit of telling and not showing in the worst way possible, having the narration just blurt out Azoth’s feelings.
IT’S DURZO TIME
I was kind of hoping we wouldn’t actually get POV chapters from Durzo– the guy seems kind of annoying– but here we are. Mr. Blint sneaks into a big house belonging to a guy named General Agon.
The yard was small, and the house not much bigger. It was built on the Ceuran design, with translucent rice paper walls.
Okay so Ceuria or wherever is fantasy Japan, got it.
The wetboy slid into the room, using his Talent to soften the sound of his footsteps on the hardwood floor.
“Wetboy” is annoying me too much. Please suggest alternate names in the comments so I can substitute it, Edema Ruh style.
Durzo’s contract is to assassinate general Agon’s wife so that his client (a prince) can play matchmaker and pair said general off with a rich noblewoman, presumably as part of some sort of zany scheme. At least, I think that’s what’s going on. The way everything is worded is kind of clunky and confusing. For example:
It was a love match. After her murder, Aleine Gunder had planned to offer the general a quick remarriage to a rich noblewoman.
At this stage I don’t know who Aleine Gunder is, as this is the first time the character is being brought up, and since Aleine isn’t a common name I don’t know whether it’s masculine or feminine. As a consequence of this, when first reading this sentence I thought Aleine was the general’s wife and she was somehow going to pair her husband up with another woman after her own murder.
Obviously that makes no sense, but keep in mind this is a fantasy story. I don’t know how this setting works yet. People getting shit done after their death could be a thing for all I know. To add an extra degree of confusion, I looked it up and apparently Aleine is an actual girl’s name in some parts of Europe. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or what.
Durzo figures out that the general married for love rather than ambition, like the prince assumed, and is therefore unlikely to be amicable to the idea of a hasty remarriage. For some reason he decides he needs to clarify this issue before going through with the assassination. I’m not sure why. Is he personally involved with whatever plan the prince has going? Being a professional assassin makes him sound like a strictly contract killer, in which case you wouldn’t even expect him to know the motivations behind his target’s murder.
The wetboy sheathed the knife and stepped into the hall
You don’t have to keep calling him “the wetboy”, just use his name.
“Dammit, man! King Davin’s dying. I’d be surprised if he’s got a week left.”
Whoever had spoken was mostly right. The wetboy had given the king his final dose of poison tonight. By dawn, he would be dead, leaving a throne in contention between one man who was strong and just, and another who was weak and corrupt. The underworld Sa’kagé was not disinterested in the outcome.
The… wait, what? Who just spoke and where are they in relation to Durzo? What’s a Sa’kage?
The voice had come from the receiving room downstairs. The wetboy hurried
STOP CALLING HIM THE WETBOY
The man across from him was Duke Regnus Gyre.
Is that some kind of a name or what
General Agon and Duke Badass O’Coolname have a convenient expository conversation while Durzo considers taking them both out to “end the Nine’s trouble’s”, whatever that means. I thought Durzo was killing Agon’s wife so the prince can pair him up with someone else though, won’t the prince get pissed if Durzo kills Agon as well?
“If we do nothing,” the general said, “Aleine Gunder will become king. He is a weak, foul, and faithless man. The Sa’kagé already owns the Warrens; the king’s patrols won’t even leave the main roads, and you know all the reasons that’s only bound to get worse. The Death Games entrenched the Sa’kagé. Aleine doesn’t have the will or the inclination to oppose the Sa’kagé now, while we can still root them out. So are we deceiving ourselves in thinking that you’d be a better king? Not at all. And the throne is yours by rights.”
Blint almost smiled. The underworld’s lords, the Sa’kagé Nine, agreed with every word—which was why Blint was making sure Regnus Gyre didn’t become king.
There’s your plot setup. It’s a pretty okay premise as far as fantasy politics goes, although I have no particular reason to actually care about any of this yet.
Durzo barely stifled an overpowering urge to throw the daggers.
The suddenness of his rage shook him. What was that about?
It was Regnus. The man reminded him of another king he’d once served. A king worthy of it.
Oh my god this is so clunky. Durzo suddenly feels an overpowering urge to kill Agon and Regnus, then he’s like “Man why did I get angry all of a sudden???” before figuring it out. This isn’t how you write emotions.
There’s some more waffling about politics (Regnus was engaged to Aliene’s current wife before the king broke off the marriage and fobbed her off on the prince instead).
If he plots rebellion, I’ll kill him now, I swear by the Night Angels. I serve only the Sa’kagé now. And myself. Always myself.
Dude he’s already heavily considering it. Kill him just to make sure, even if he has no intention of going through with it. Is there any reason not to?
Eventually Regnus decides he doesn’t want to be responsible for the deaths the coup would bring and declares that he won’t commit to Operation Kill The Total Shit Out Of The King.
The wetboy slid the daggers back into their sheaths, ignoring the twin feelings of relief and despair he felt.
It’s that damned woman. She’s ruined me. She’s ruined everything.
Male protagonists who blame all their problems on women really aren’t endearing to me.
On the way back from his aborted murder-adventure Durzo wanders into an ambush set up by Azoth’s gang. He easily kicks the guild leader’s ass and strolls off, and Azoth follows.
Durzo Blint was everything Azoth wasn’t. He was powerful, dangerous, confident, fearless. He was like a god. He’d looked at the whole guild arrayed against him—even the bigs like Roth and Ja’laliel and Rat—and he’d been amused. Amused! Someday, Azoth swore. He didn’t quite dare even think the whole thought, lest Blint sense his presumption, but his whole body yearned for it. Someday.
This book seems pretty terrible.
The writing’s bad and it’s not drawing me into the characters at all. It’s all tell and no show. Azoth wants to escape poverty and stand up to the bullies! His best friend Jarl gives him four year’s worth of money because… I don’t know, because! Now Durzo is angry because of reasons!
Added to all of that is the fact that Durzo seems like another wish-fulfilment character for nerds to identify with, and God knows we don’t need another one of those.