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Book Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Hardcover: 640 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: August 25, 2010
ISBN-10: 0316075558
ISBN-13: 978-0316075558
Author Website: Brent Weeks
Read: Chapters 1-3

The Black Prism is the first book of a new trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Brent Weeks. Noted for his gritty anti-hero characters in The Night Angel trilogy, Weeks brings some of the same sensibilities to this new series, while also treading new ground.

Whereas in his previous work, Weeks told a story that could be primarily classified as sword and sorcery, his new offering slips into the epic fantasy category. Kip is a fat boy living in a small village in the middle of a former war zone. The bastard child of a drunk, he has no prospects and no future. But then a rebellious king destroys his village, and Kip finds himself thrust into a world of courtly intrigue, color magic, and a noble family whose history may result in the deaths of Kip and everyone he loves and respects.

The story is told through multiple perspectives, though for the most part the reader follows Kip, Gavin, and Liv. Kip is a fat village boy with a snarky mouth thrust into a world he doesn’t understand. Gavin is the ruler of the Chromeria, the emperor of the seven satrapies and the most powerful magic user in the world. Liv is a friend of Kip’s who has magic, but is ostracized in the court of Chromeria for her nationality and looks. Each of them carries secrets upon secrets which could tip the balance of power in the seven satrapies.

Though Weeks is presenting a more courtly, high fantasy style offering in The Black Prism he still continues to write characters that don’t follow the traditional good/evil dichotomy of many of the stories in the subgenre. The reader might expect that Gavin would be the evil character, one that would need to be overthrown by the young hero (i.e. Kip) in order to set what was wrong right again. But such is not the case here. Gavin is as sympathetic a character as Kip, and though he makes hard decisions that others might deem “evil”, Weeks is careful to present them in such a light that they seem reasonable to the reader. That is not to say there are not evil characters, and one of the secrets Gavin hides may give us the true villain of the piece, but for the most part, each character simple struggles to make good choices in sometimes bad situations. It makes for compelling reading.

Weeks also turns his hand to creating a magic system, one that I found to be consistent, complex, and complete. Like Jasper Fforde in Shades of Grey or Brandon Sanderson in the forthcoming The Way of Kings, Weeks uses colors as the basis for his magic system. But of course, Weeks has an original spin. In The Black Prism, different characters are gifted with different levels of sensitivity to different colors. This means Liv can be strong in superviolet and weak in yellow, whereas Gavin – as head of the Chromeria – is strong in all colors. Each magic-user has their strengths, and the different colors mix and match. All of the magic-users are able to produce luxin, a material they can manipulate to build boats, walls, or weapons – pretty much anything, so long as they have strong enough will. (To overextend yourself is to burn out or become a wight.) Each color of luxin has a particular strength and is generally put to specific uses. For instance, superviolet is best used for the sending and receiving of messages, whereas red makes better weapons. Yellow is fluid, where green taps the power of growing things and so on. It is a quite complex system based on the colors of the rainbow and the ability of the human eye to see and interpret them. Limiting the magic use to the production of luxin also keeps the ability of the magic-users curbed; forcing them to use other means to achieve goals. Magic is not a cure-all or do-all, in effect, and so serves the story rather than dominating it.

I think it should also be mentioned that Weeks places the tech level at 17th century European by including flintlock guns. However, he could have just as well left them out and the difference in the story would have been minimal. This may be an attempt by the author to branch out in content, for which he should be applauded, but in reality, this first novel’s usage of the tech makes this particular element of the tale superfluous.

The story itself is really a set-up for what occurs later in the trilogy. That is not to say it lacks action, as Weeks certainly permeates the story with lots of fight and battles scenes (culminating in a huge one that spans many pages at the end of the novel) but spends the majority of the time building character, introducing the magic and political systems, and establishing foreshadowing for later in the series. In short, it has all the earmarks of a first novel in a trilogy, and should be taken as such.

The book isn’t perfect of course. I felt that Kip’s character in terms of his belittling and ostracizing was underdone, being sort of downplayed in the beginning and therefore hard to sympathize with when Kip feels sorry for himself later on in the work. Too, in those initial chapters, a lot is going on and at times the text is a tad choppy, though once some of the ground rules of the world are established (about a third of the way in), it becomes easier to read. One development in other characters’ reaction to a choice of Liv’s, late in the novel, seemed to be out of character for her father and her friend to have. Because the ground rules of the magic system are built slowly over time, Kip’s reaction to color wights does not have the same suspense punch in the beginning of the novel as it does later. Most of my own issues with the novel are basically with construction and character development. Weeks did it one way when I would have preferred another, but Weeks method is not wrong, just different, and I think that is also why the story stands out from its epic fantasy companions.

I found that Weeks really did a good job of surprising me with the plot. When I expected him to zig, he zagged, and when I expected a character to be a certain type of person, Weeks would throw me for a loop. To tell you exactly how he did this would ruin some of the really awesome surprises of the novel, but suffice it to say that Weeks has written an epic fantasy unlike any of its contemporaries. It is a truly visionary and original work, and has set the bar high for others in its subgenre.