The Way Of Shadows
by Brent WeeksJust when you think heroic fantasy has been done to death, another author pops up with a new take on the genre. Only The Way Of Shadows doesn't have any completely original twists to offer. Robin Hobb has done assassins. Trudi Canavan brought us slums and street urchins. Joe Abercrombie showed us mud-splashed brutality. And absolutely every fantasy writers has done late-learning mages. So what does Brent Weeks have to lay on this well-worn table?
A dose of concentrated brilliance, that's what.
Azoth is a slum boy, fending for himself in the wrong part of Cenaria City. When we first meet him he's fishing for coins in the mud. Between starvation, the risk of getting caught stealing, and getting beaten up by older boys, his prospects are bleak. If he can't pay up and give more respect to the leader of his guild of slum rats his life won't be worth dirt. So when Azoth meets the utterly fearless Durzo Blint it's easy to see why he would want to emulate such a man.
Durzo is a wetboy, which is a kind of magically talented assassin. Azoth is determined to become his apprentice. But to do so Azoth must leave his old life and friends behind, and live as Kylar Stern. Blint will not tolerate any attachments because they are a weakness that could be used against him.
Inevitably Durzo's work involves him in politics. The kingdom of Cenaria is in a sorry state due to the accession of a weak king, and it's threatened from the north by the nation of Khalidor. The best candidate for the throne, Duke Gyre, is out of favour at court and has been sent to guard the northern border. Meanwhile his son Logan is left to run his household in Cenaria City.
However the king and his nobles aren't really the ones who pull the strings within the city. Instead power lies with a mysterious group known as the Sa'kagé, who meet in secret to order political appointments and killings.
The Way Of The Shadows is far from gentle. Durzo Blint may be a cold anti-hero who disdains emotional ties, but he's a bunny rabbit compared with some of the other protagonists. Their cruelty is both creative and extreme. Certain chapters have a touch of the kind of car-crash effect that will have you mesmerised with horror yet compelled to read on.
But brutal as this novel is, the violence and darkness is just one of its facets. Brent Weeks subtly weaves romance into the narrative, layering on the emotional intensity until it reaches an exquisite level. The plot is also packed full of surprises. In a world of fluid identities and double-bluffs few situations are as they first appear. And through it all our hero poses the central question: can he risk love?
There's mystery, politics, magic, even a prophecy: all the elements of a well-rounded fantasy. It's true that The Way Of The Shadows employs a lot of the staples of this genre rather than presenting readers with something radically different. But what does that matter, when the characters are pure gold? The storytelling is accomplished, with superb attention to detail. This book is stay-up-all-night-and-finish-in-one-sitting material.
Review © Ros Jackson
Brent Weeks is an author based in America who specialises in epic fantasty including the Night Angel trilogy, a dark fantasy featuring the assassin and anti-hero Kylar Stern.