When Brent Weeks’s first novel, The Way of Shadows, was unleashed the publisher and author of course had high hopes for his career as an author and the first book in The Night Angel Trilogy. In a very smart move (modeling the approach Del Rey books used to amazing success on Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels), the publisher opted to release the three books in three months, creating immediate shelf presence and eventually landing Brent Weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. While Orbit had a presence in the US for a since 2007 these books publishing in late 2008 and early 2009 helped to further establish the imprint as one of the premiere English language science fiction and fantasy imprints.
On to the story within the pages of the books…
The Way of Shadows introduces Azoth and his rise from street urchin to assassin. The story, on the surface, is a fairly typical assassin-with-heart-of-gold bildungsroman. Weeks’s plotting, character development and overall storytelling ability help to make the novel rise above those somewhat clichéd trappings into an impressive debut novel.
Young Azoth is a street urchin in an unstable gang looking for a way out. He is constantly beaten, shamed and only cares for two other people in the group – Jarl and Doll Girl. At this stage in his life, his tormenter is the sadistic Rat who beats everyone smaller than himself. Azoth sees a way out though, if he can apprentice to the legendary assassin Durzo Blint, then surely Azoth can make a better life for himself. Of course the story wouldn’t really go anywhere if Azoth didn’t apprentice to Blint, but Weeks plays out Azoth’s struggles engagingly well.
Once Azoth becomes Durzo’s apprentice in full he assumes the name Kylar Stern, both becoming who he feels he is meant to be and casting aside all ties to his former life. Even though Azoth/Kylar has the desire to become a killer for hire, or a wetboy as assassins are called in Weeks’s harsh world, he is not a morally unlikable character. Much of the same can be said for his mentor Durzo Blint, but again, Weeks does a good job of both working within the cliché of the cranky mentor and making Blint stand on his own.
Weeks’s story also follows the growth and maturation of another staple character of the genre – the young regent. In this case, Logan Gyre is the young prince who is ‘destined’ to grow into the noble ruler. I though Weeks’s characterization of Logan was just as even as it was with Blint and Azoth/Kylar. Kylar and Logan, on the surface, are polar opposites. Where Kylar grew up on the worst of streets, Logan was gifted with a royal lineage. Where Logan is large and blunt, Kylar is smaller and less obvious.
The Way of Shadows is a big fat novel; the world Weeks depicts in this novel is harsh: the protagonist is a killer-for-hire as is his mentor; his best friend is a male prostitute who serves both men and women; one of Durzo’s closest companions, the enigmatic Momma K., is the head of a brothel, and ways of killing are spoken of very matter-of-factly.
Granted, the novel is a debut and isn’t without its flaws however minor they are. At times, the characters tend to speak anachronistically. That is, some of their phrasing and objects to which they refer seem out of synch with the implied technological level and societal advancement. Some of the names struck me as less than original. I doubt Weeks was aware of Joe Abercrombie’s novels which also feature a character by the name of Logen when he was writing The Night Angel Trilogy. However, the name Logan is already very popular as the comic book character Wolverine.
The second installment of the trilogy, Shadow’s Edge greets us with a Kylar who thought life was pretty much settled at the end of The Way of Shadows. His life of killing behind him, he is settling down with his love Elene and his master’s daughter Uly. At first, I got the sense that this was a cobbled together family for Kylar, but I soon realized that was just the effect Weeks was attempting to convey. As time passed for Kylar, he found it more difficult to completely cut himself of from his former ways. He would hop along rooftops at night just to keep his skills intact (which at times reminded me of Batman or Spider-Man or even the characters from Assassin’s Creed video games), but he inevitably came across people in trouble. He can’t help but save the day, his persona as the Night Angel can’t be shunned forever. Weeks is continuing to tell a thoroughly entertaining tale in the Night Angel Trilogy and provides a big reveal at the end of Shadows Edge.
This revelation at was initially very surprising, but as it settled into how the story played out in Beyond the Shadows, it felt logical and perhaps could be seen choreographed when put in relation to the story and the genre itself. With Durzo alive, Kylar soon learns the great cost of his immortality and Weeks revelation of this cost is handled very well. Throughout the previous two novels, Kylar was painted as an impatient young man who had quite a lot to learn. While there is still much knowledge for him to gain and his attitude still comes across as impatient, he has fully come into his role as the Night Angel, essentially the secret protector of Midcyru.
Meanwhile, his friend Logan is struggling to attain his rightful spot on the throne. The woman on the throne at the outset of the novel, Terah Gerasin, is a conniving, self-centered character. As she comes to play a larger role in the first half of this novel, a bit more depth is added to her character; Weeks really managed to make her a character I enjoyed hating, and this is in large part due to her charisma and charm.
The relationship between Elene and Kylar was a frustrating aspect of the story only in that Elene came across as a one-dimensional nag for a good portion of the story. She and Kylar shared the same bed, but never really in the carnal sense. One of my problems with the earlier volumes in the trilogy was Elene and her lack of character development other than a crutch for Kylar. While she is still a major character in the final novel of the trilogy, some of the annoying aspects about her took a step back.
Weeks surrounds Blint, the mentor figure, with an air of mystery not unlike Chains from Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Chade from Robin Hobb’s Farseer saga. Indeed, the relationship between Kylar and Durzo is very reminiscent of the relationship between Fitzchivalry Farseer and Chade throughout her excellent Farseer saga. This isn’t a groundbreaking revelation by any means because I suspect Hobb and Weeks (and Lynch to another level) are mining some of the same sources. Weeks does an admirable job of making this relationship and these characters work on their own merits within his saga.
On some levels, the overall trilogy is firmly entrenched in the clichés of the genre – the honorable king, the assassin who wishes to work beyond his limitations, the hellcat/vixen of lust and desire, the hated despot, and the orphan of destiny. At times these clichés mix up with one character fitting multiple roles. However, Weeks talent for pacing and tension elevate the trilogy to a solid debut trilogy and worthy of recommendation.
The Night Angel Trilogy is available in the three installments as originally published and as an omnibus edition. Also included in the omnibus are a glossary, character guide, and two never-before-released bonus chapters.