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Book Review: The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Genre: Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 0316033677
ISBN-13: 9780316033671
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 688pp
Publisher: Orbit
Pub. Date: October 01, 2008
Series: The Night Angel Trilogy
Author Website

In Brent Weeks’ novel, The Way of Shadows we see epic fantasy’s darker side. Our hero, Azoth, wants nothing more than to become apprentice to the great assassin Durzo Blint. But Durzo never takes apprentices, and Azoth is just a gutter-rat, the lowest of the low. While the world of The Way of Shadows has all the trappings of a medieval epic fantasy, it finds heroes not in the just and the righteous, but in the broken and murderous.

Ever since the popular video game Thief, readers and gamers have enjoyed assassin characters. They have a mystery about them that draws readers in, a charisma that stems not from their holiness, but from their less than savory nature. That same appeal is found in The Way of Shadows, but in this story, these assassins suffer from a crisis of conscience. That makes them intriguing. They are not just coldblooded killers, but something more, something more human.

Weeks’ story provides the reader with characters that are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. The story takes place entirely within one city, and much of it on the seedier side of town. In order for Azoth to become Blint’s apprentice, he must commit murder, perhaps for a good reason, but murder all the same. Azoth spends a great deal of time waffling over that requirement, and the end results have repercussions throughout the story.

The story then moves on into a tale of magic and intrigue. As Azoth becomes a better and better assassin, he learns more and more about Durzo and who he really is. Meanwhile, the mad king of the country, known as “Niner” is doing little to prevent competing powers from invading his country. Azoth and Durzo are soon involved in this web of intrigue, and there are several surprise plot twists that keep this story exciting and adventurous.

What Brent Weeks has done is fill his story with very human, very flawed characters. Each and every one has motivations that stem from their own involvement in law-breaking dealings. Even the most righteous of characters turns out to have made mistakes. That type of characterization makes this story very unlike traditional epic fantasies, adding a depth of character those stories often lack.

The story is very dark, and the initial chapters describe some very heart-wrenching child abuse. That abuse is painful to read, and the harsh language that Weeks employs makes it seem even grimmer, if that were possible. It inspired in me many of the same feelings as Michelle West’s Hidden City and the two are very similar in their themes and emotional effect. Those readers offended by such violence and the swearing that accompanies it will want to steer clear of this book.

But in truth, the story is not about the darker side of life. Although that is setting, and some of its characters, it is really a story about hope and redemption. The Way of Shadows is about Azoth’s and Durzo’s redemption from the pit of despair that their profession has thrown them in, if for different reasons. Each of the primary characters, from Durzo and Azoth, to Momma K and even Elene, is seeking to change who they are for the better.

The story is character-driven. You will keep reading because you become invested in the tale of Azoth and his master, and Azoth’s lady love Elene. Yet it never bogs down for lack of action, or suspense. Weeks is a new author so at times his story seems to wander or to lose track of its direction, but those seeming rabbit trails end up becoming quite important at the end. Since this book is part of a trilogy (each novel of which comes out one month after the next) the book does not end entirely on a high note, but I suspect the series will. Azoth has gone through some significant soul-searching by the end of the first novel, and the character that emerges is one I find well worth reading. I’ll be sure to read the sequels to The Way of Shadows.