Orbit, 2008, 688 pages (mass market paperback)
The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets.
For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.
For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly — and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.
But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics — and cultivate a flair for death.
Book One of the Night Angel Trilogy bears the marks of a hundred predecessors, but it has enough style and plotting to stand out from the crowd. So I'm going to say I enjoyed it, overall, but I'm also going to say that it falls short of greatness on a number of levels, mostly having to do with being so obviously derivative.
Is being derivative bad? One of my new favorite fantasy novels is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and as I said in my review, it's hardly got a single original concept. It's a perfect blend of generic fantasy tropes written in a generic fantasy epic which has me eagerly waiting for book two, The Wise Man's Fear. (I hear rumors that some folks now have ARC copies, and I just want you to know, I hate you.)
The Way of Shadows does much the same thing, except that Patrick Rothfuss wrote his story in such a way that it feels "organic," like a completely original creation; it's only if you are familiar with the genre that you recognize that he's pretty much doing nothing new, he's just doing it really, really well. Brent Weeks, on the other hand, didn't do nearly as skillful a job of filing the serial numbers off of his concatenative creation. Take a fanboy who grew up on comic books, ninjas, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and gets inspired by a month-long Assassin's Creed marathon to write a fantasy novel, make him a bit more talented than the average producer of Extruded Fantasy Product, and you get The Way of Shadows. It's entertaining, fast-paced, full of interesting characters, and packed with Cool Factor. But it's still derivative genre fantasy, exactly the sort of book that genre fans love but literary fans sneer at, and having dipped more into literary works myself lately, I'm beginning to go over to the "dark side" of literary snobbery. Not that I don't retain my love of genre fiction, but I'm starting to look for something more than cool characters and magical cans of whup-ass in my fiction. Things like depth and meaning and subtext, and stylish writing that makes you say "Oh yeah, that's totally how that author writes."
Brent Weeks writes cool characters who open up magical cans of whup-ass. He's a good storyteller and a decent writer, but The Way of Shadows is just a higher grade of Extruded Fantasy Product.
The Grimdark World of
Gotham Cenaria City, ruled by the Mafia Sa'kage and its Ninja wetboy enforcers
Like most fantasy novels nowadays, The Way of Shadows has a large cast of characters and shifting POVs, but the main protagonist is Azoth (later renamed "Kylar"), a young gutter rat who aspires to become apprenticed to Durzo Blint (I'm sorry, I can put up with all sorts of contrived fantasy names, but "Durzo Blint" never stopped making me snort), the most accomplished "wetboy" in the city. Wetboys are like assassins but more deathsome. They have magical ninja powers, which becomes a major plot point later, as Azoth is supposed to have his own "talent" but even after years of training, it refuses to emerge. And since a wetboy without a talent is just a plain old assassin, Durzo threatens to kill him if he doesn't start showing some talent soon. Of course, by that time Durzo has been threatening to kill Azoth every other page, so you'd think after a while his master's death threats would kind of roll off him.
Along with teaching all the ways of death -- sneaking, infiltrating, fighting, disguise, poisoning, and throwing stars -- yes, throwing stars -- Durzo disperses helpful life lessons to Azoth in the form of nihilistic aphorisms like: "Life is empty. Life is meaningless. When we take a life, we don't take anything of value." And "There is no good and evil. There is no right and wrong. Only shades of gray." And "You can fuck, but you can't love." Durzo's got some issues.
Of course, he's a hypocrite, as is obvious right from the beginning, since for all his bullshit about how he's just an amoral instrument of death, he is also full of angst about his tormented angsty past, and there's also the little fact that for all that he threatens to kill Azoth every time the little bugger steps out of line, Azoth keeps stepping out of line and Durzo never kills him. So, Durzo is a bastard, but he's an anti-hero we're supposed to sympathize with. And yet, I didn't; he may not quite cross the Moral Event Horizon (unless you consider a professional assassin to be irredeemable in the first place, in which case don't read this book), but he still does too many fucked-up things for me to like him or consider him redeemed in the end.
As should be obvious now, The Way of Shadows takes place in your basic Crapsack World where life is cheap, rich people lure beggars to tables full of food and then shoot them with crossbows for sport, and women are pretty much rape-bait.
It's not quite Whores, Whores, Whores, but...
On the Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality, Way of Shadows scores a 2.5 because there are a handful of female characters who are not whores. There's even one chick who can fight. (She's evil and slutty, of course.)
To be precise, women in this world come in three varieties:
(1) Angelic virgin.
(2) Castrating bitch.
If Weeks just made it clear that the world is like most medieval fantasy worlds (i.e., highly patriarchal and generally sucky for women), the sexism wouldn't be particularly noteworthy. But Weeks can't seem to resist Madonna-Whoring every single woman every time she appears on the page. Most of them are introduced by way of their breasts. Azoth's primary motivation for becoming a wetboy is to protect Doll Girl, a poor hapless waif who gets horribly scarred and disfigured as a way of providing Azoth with Guilt and Angst for years to come, but of course when she grows up to become Elene, she's totally hot with a repeatedly-described hourglass figure and beautiful boobs and large, luscious breasts and have I mentioned her tits? Her face is a scarred mess, but Weeks helpfully reminds us (over and over) that she has an awesome body so she's still beautiful.
And in a particularly cringeworthy conversation, the crown prince, while trying to arrange a good political marriage, "gives" Logan Gyre (Azoth's best friend, the heroic and idealistic young noble who is the other protagonist of the book) his younger sister (a fifteen-year-old hottie also defined largely by being an angelic virgin with great boobs) as a birthday present:
"Say yes, and you can do all the things you were imagining a minute ago - legitimately."
I'd say it's pretty creepy for a big brother to be back-slapping another dude about the prospect of nailing his little sister, except that after Logan and the poor girl do get married, her father goes way, way beyond creepy in an over-the-top "Go fuck my daughter!" rant. (In fairness, he was being poisoned at the time and thus not in his right mind, but still...)
Wakizashis and Wetboys
Weeks's worldbuilding is serviceable, with an interesting if unoriginal setting. Cenaria is a crappy little minor kingdom surrounded by larger enemies that conquer them every so often. One of their neighboring empires is ruled by a "Godking," and his plot to conquer Cenaria manifests in the second half of the book (and apparently he is the Big Bad in the remainder of the trilogy). It's pretty much a low-magic medieval fantasy world. Magic users exist but they're rare, and they're powerful but not earth-shakingly so. In other words, they make perfect Player Characters. Weeks has the same predilection as Brandon Sanderson for designing complex, multi-classed magic systems, and the same flaw (but worse) of exposing the fact that his head has been filled with roleplaying game paradigms. There seem to be a few magical creatures, but they aren't running all over the place -- mostly, it's a human world.
Inexplicably, however, Cenaria seems to have decided to borrow random words and weapons from Japan. From the Sa'kage (yes, we're actually told "kage" means "shadow") to buildings made of bamboo and paper, to the wakizashi and tanto that Kylar carries (yes, they're actually called that in the book), there are arbitrary bits of Japan shoved into an otherwise very European setting. Wetboys, of course, are ninjas in all but name. I think Weeks was trying to add some non-European flavor to his world, but it just seemed out of place and inappropriate to me, like "Let's add some random Badass Ethnic Weapons, 'cause 'wakizashi' and 'tanto' sounds cooler than 'short sword' and 'knife'."
Another thing that bothered me was the same thing that bothers me about a lot of medieval Crapsack Worlds: if life is nasty, brutish, and short for most of the population, then why should we root for one set of tyrannical overlords over another? There isn't much nuance in a Grimdark Crapsack World like this: we get a few "good guys" among the ruling class who are supposed to make us root for Cenaria against the Godking, but by the end of the book, when the Cenarians are rallying and swearing that they will defend their homes, they will return, they will fight the evil Godking Rah!Rah!Rah!, I'm thinking "Why?" The only people for whom living under the Godking will be worse than living under the Sa'kage and their puppet aristocracy are the Sa'kage and the puppet aristocracy. Why would the people whose lives already suck beyond belief care that they're being invaded?
Bad-Ass Quotes of Bad-Assery
Most of the time the writing is okay, and Weeks does a good job of describing scenes and characters (aside from the aforementioned habit of women's breasts taking center stage), and he's particularly good with action scenes. But there are some real howlers, especially when he's trying too hard to be Dark And Gritty:
"Killing was no longer an activity. It was a state of being. Kylar had become killing."
Also, herein is the most unintentionally hilarious description of a guy getting kicked in the balls I've ever read:
"It was like the sun exploding in his pants."
Goodreads: Average: 4.13. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars.
What Negative Reviewers Say
Basically the same thing I did, except they're less nice about it:
The Way of Shadows uses cool names in place of character development, breast size as shorthand for female characters, bloody description rather than engaging action and anachronistic one-liners as a cheap substitute for actual dialogue. It is like reading an unedited transcription of an 11 year old's daydreams, a collection of every genre shortcoming into a single, buzzword-laden volume. This book is 10,000 pounds of adolescent awesome!!! without a single ounce of merit.
This was an effectively written fantasy, but I'm afraid I failed to bond with any of the main characters, even the villains, which at 688 pages, makes it a pretty rough row to hoe. I didn't care which assassin won out, whether master slayed student or vice versa, or who got the girl or the magic doohicky. The bad guys follow the standard Fantasy "generic evil" stereotype, exhibiting great sadism but lacking any true motivation. Evil for the sake of evil is insanity, but not every bad guy can be insane.
There's plenty of action and violence, but that's because the "wetboy" wizard/assassins are pretty much playing on God mode, so there's very little sense of danger. I kept finding myself asking, "What's with all this talking and wheeling-dealing? Why doesn't he just KILL everyone???"
There's a distinct dearth of sex in the book up until the last couple hundred pages. It's like the author was a little nervous about introducing it. In fact, almost every one of the younger principle characters has this weird "virgin until married" morality, as if they were aware they were characters in a modern Medieval Fantasy action/romance. One character acting that way is fine, but ALL of them? Peasants AND nobles??? Again, it just served to disconnect me from the story.
Verdict: This is passable Epic Fantasy Product that's a cut above average and a cut below great. The story had plenty of action, thrills, intrigue, twists, and revelations, so it's A+ entertainment in that regard. But it's also highly derivative power-tripping wish fulfillment for teenage boys with some real eye-rolling moments. I'll get to the rest of the trilogy, but with no great urgency. (And in the author's favor, while there of course a number of loose threads left dangling at the end of the book, it's mostly pretty self-contained with the major plot points resolved.)