Monday, October 20, 2008
The Way of Shadows
688 pp. Orbit. $7.99
Pub. Date: 10/1/2008
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
“I remembered the name of every person I killed outside of battle. Then it was too many. I just remembered the number. Then I remembered only the innocents. Then I forgot even that. Do you know what punishments I’ve endured for my crimes, my sins? None. I am proof of the absurdity of men’s most treasured abstractions. A just universe wouldn’t tolerate my existence.” – Durzo Blint “The Way of Shadows”
If a just universe won’t tolerate the existence of Cenaria’s best wetboy Durzo Blint (who sounds more like a pastry than an assassin), then we should all be thankful that author Brent Weeks created the morally challenged world of Midcyru to house him. Clearly, the dystopian city of Cenaria is a perfect fit for Durzo; a city controlled by a criminal oligarchy that lovingly encourages as well as employs Blint for his top-notch assassination skills, ultimately allowing him to evolve into an unforgettable character of epic proportions. Durzo Blint is less a man than a force of nature, a delicious combination of the utmost professionalism, nagging self-doubt, malicious nihilism and an excellence in assassination that borders on the magical. However Durzo Blint is only one half of the murderous equation which makes Brent Weeks’ highly entertaining debut novel “The Way of Shadows” such a remarkable and unforgettable romp.
The other half of the equation would be Durzo’s equally badass apprentice Kylar Stern. Both men are similarly conflicted by the demands that their profession imposes on their lives; however Kylar in the face of his gnawing self-hatred refuses to lose hope in eventually finding redemption for his evil deeds. Durzo serves as a counterpoint to Kylar’s position, embracing at least on the surface a more nihilistic outlook. And while Durzo looms large in the heart of the novel, “The Way of Shadows” is essentially Kylar’s tale, a wonderful coming-of-age story that details Kylar’s tragic loss of innocence as a child and his subsequent struggle to regain some portion of his humanity.
Along with his two friends Jarl and Doll Girl, Azoth lives orphaned and impoverished in the slums of the city. Struggling to feed himself and survive, Azoth receives only meager protection as a guild rat in the Black Dragon guild. Mostly he’s terrorized and violently punished by the Black Dragon Fist, Rat.
Soon, Azoth has a chance encounter with the renowned wetboy Durzo Blint. Envious of Durzo’s aura of invincibility and legendary status, Azoth dreams of one day becoming a wetboy whose skills would rival Durzo’s. In order to realize his dream, he begins following Durzo, pleading with him to make him his apprentice. Durzo initially declines, but later offers Azoth a deal—murder Rat within a week and Durzo will take him on as his apprentice.
But Azoth hesitates to kill Rat, leading to a stunningly violent incident that leaves emotional scars on Azoth for the rest of his life. Fueled by a need for vengeance and the understanding that a valuable lesson had been learned, Azoth finally disposes of Rat, and is accepted by Durzo as his apprentice.
Azoth exhaustively trains and studies for years under Master Blint, molding himself not only into a fearsome assassin who nearly rivals his Master, but also into a new man entirely. A man named Kylar Stern. Yet on reaching the fulfillment of his childhood dream, Kylar discovers something missing within himself, a piece so essential his very life may depend upon him finding it.
Azoth’s reinvention of himself as Kylar Stern is thematically significant in the novel. As hard as Azoth tries, he can never fully become Kylar. His incredible love for Doll Girl guarantees that a small piece of Azoth always remains alive. Ultimately, Stern is not real, but a dark, murky reflection of Azoth; Kylar is only a shadow. Interestingly, Azoth is not the only character in the book living with a shadow identity. The majority of characters in “The Way of Shadows” are not exactly who they seem to be, having at some point in the past assumed a different identity. And their mysterious pasts eventually all find their way to light, revealing the real person behind the shadow often at the most harrowing and complicated of times. In fact, Weeks relies heavily on character misdirection to accomplish the plethora of plot twists in the book. Make no mistake, the title of the novel is extremely significant and it goes beyond the idea of assassins hiding in shadows. The whole world here is a shadow, an individual fiction that each character creates for themselves in order to hide the truth.
“The Way of Shadows” is a tragic book; however strangely it doesn’t feel dark. Weeks infuses the novel with a magical charm that elevates it above its dark subject matter. In this way, it’s similar to Scott Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora.” Or to put it another way, the book is just flat-out fun, vastly entertaining and hard to put down. Weeks’ writing flows beautifully, but there are occasional instances of awkward sentence construction. The novel is entirely character-driven with very little in the way of extensive description. This is hardly an issue when the characters are this intriguing, but the lack of description significantly holds back the worldbuilding. Midcyru and Cenaria are featureless, generic and lacking any real character. However, this doesn’t affect the book. Reality and truth are not essential here; subterfuge is. For it’s not the real world that is of interest here, rather it’s the way of shadows that will win you over.
Overloaded with fun, “The Way of Shadows” is an absolute joy. Filled with a pantheon of unforgettable and epic characters and an intense, high-octane and twisting plot, the book has me eagerly anticipating the sequel “Shadow’s Edge.” Minimal worldbuilding and a heavy reliance on character misdirection may be drawbacks for some readers; however, I find them efficacious in accomplishing Weeks’ thematic goals for “The Way of Shadows.” With this stunning debut, Brent Weeks instantly establishes himself with as a promising new author.
Final Grade: 87 out of 100