If I had to boil down Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, the first book in his Night Angel series, to one word, it would be intriguing. At nearly seven hundred pages, Weeks packs a lot into this novel and while it doesn’t all pay off, it is part 1 of 3 after all, it’s all pretty interesting and left me wanting to read more. If I had to boil it down to two words, it would be intriguing and workmanlike, which never sounds as complementary as its meant too. The Way of Shadows tells the story of a city urchin named Azoth, who after a truly terrible turn of events, finds himself the apprentice of Durzo Blint, the best wetboy in the city. Wetboys are assassins, but not just plain old assassins. No, in order to be a wetboy (or girl) one must have a bit of magic, Talent, to reach that elite level of murder and assassination. Azoth, going by the name of Kylar, grows up into a talented fighter and assassin and becomes involved in possible regicide, war, and magic well beyond his understanding.
This is a big meaty book that presents the reader with quite a bit of information and people to keep track of. Kylar ages from a child to an adult and the early chapters take the time to visit with him at different points of his life; whether its making a new friend, learning a new skill, or touching something he shouldn’t, each of these early chapters have a vignette feel to them and it works for the most part. It’s obvious that the book is moving things along as fast as it can so that Kylar is an adult and can interact with the other characters and with the world in a more powerful and thorough way; we come like Kylar quite a lot before he starts doing things that we might not like, or make tough choices. It’s a good piece of writing that doesn’t quite work since Kylar rarely does anything that bad. While we check in with other characters, and they are all interesting enough, especially Madame K, a senior member of the local crime organization, the Sa’Kage, and Logan Gyre, a young noble lord whom Kylar becomes friends with, Kylar is the focus of this book and it’s him we get to know best. Kylar is a classic protagonist in many ways; smart, talented, better at most things than those around him, but the author is careful to remind us that he is still young throughout most of this book. He makes choices and mistakes that an older and wiser person probably would not, and the book is good about making his life more difficult because of these choices. Kylar’s youth and innocence, despite being an assassin, is a nice bit of sub context throughout the book. He is stylized as an anti-hero, but there is very little ‘anti’ about him. He struggles internally with the pressures and consequences of killing, but we don’t really see him do all that much that’s that heinous; I think he kills maybe one innocent person? And while I’m not dismissive of that, it pales in comparison to some of the monsters in this book. He also immediately starts to struggle against the darker aspects of his life, so the idea of him getting redeemed never quite works because he doesn’t really need it.
While I don’t know Brent Weeks’ influences, there is a strong Game of Thrones vibe throughout this book. Things can get real dark. The opening chapters deal with child on child violence, the mutilation of a specific child, and the repeated rape of another child, all which mainly serve the purpose of motivating Kylar to finally take some action in his life. It’s a tough pill to swallow frankly, and not something I was keen to deal with. But while the rest of the book does continue to have plenty of dark and violent moments, nothing gets quite as bad as that opening part of the story before Kylar escapes the streets. It really is off putting, and if I hadn’t been stuck at a park for three hours, I don’t know if I would have continued with the book. The violence in this book, whether sexual or not, doesn’t always sit well with the rest of the book. It’s not that it doesn’t belong, that’s not up for debate really, it’s just that it feels more pronounced than it ought to. And it’s not even like all the violence is grotesque, because there is plenty of fights and altercations that end pretty bloodlessly. It’s an inconsistent choice by the author that feels odd.
I’ve already started the second book, which should tell you a lot about how I really did enjoy it, and I can tell you that this book does a lot of setting up for the subsequent novels and a lot of really works; the magic of this world becomes much more interesting, just to name one thing. There is a character named Dorian who feels very out of place in the greater story of but his role becomes much clearer in the second novel. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind; The Way of Shadows does not really stand on its own. If you like it, you really ought to just keep reading if you want to get the full story. Weeks does a very good job of developing the world and characters in this book and it’s all diverting and interesting enough to keep me wanting more.