Let’s see: there’s a kingdom of evil invading from the north, there’s a type of thieves’ guild in a gritty capital city, plus a mysterious sword, tons of magic, and much more, all stuffed into that stereotypical fantasy container, the trilogy. How the heck could anyone do something interesting with this material? Over to you, newcomer Brent Weeks.
I’ll start with the fact that Weeks’ books, The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge, and Beyond the Shadows, make up the Night Angel trilogy. It’s not a never-ending series, and we already know how the story ends, since the books came out, one after another, over three months in the fall of 2008. A wait of one month between books in a fantasy epic is so miniscule as to be like travelling through time! They are three long books, so, yes, some complexity, and a deep world to dive into, but also some closure, and an ending to judge the earlier material by. Weeks does a credible job of avoiding the “middle book problem,” that bane of longer stories everywhere.
Secondly, I’d say that Weeks gives us a better Dark Lord than most such stories. That’s one of the biggest cliches of the fantasy novel, the giant, unreasoning heart of evil that’s against everything and everyone. Why does the Dark Lord want to destroy the world, kill everyone, and turn all light into darkness? Cuz he’s the Dark Lord, mostly. In the Night Angel trilogy, Weeks has put some thought into the nature of a credible villain. I don’t want to give too much away, since the revelations are rather carefully constructed. Let’s just say that at the end of the story, and the inevitable defeat of the much-hated antagonist, I didn’t say, “That was baffling” or “That was too easy” or some of the other responses I’ve had to fantasy epics. The villain in Graceling (see my piece last month called Magic vs. Superpowers) shared a similar thoughtfulness, although in the case of that book, the threat was on a more personal level.
The recent trend in fantasy novels has been amp up the level of magic, and the Night Angel trilogy is no exception. There’s the aforementioned magic sword, and it seems like just about every other corner of the world at hand is bursting with uber-powerful bits of magic. Having said that, Weeks shows nary a hint of dwarves or elves or similar stereotypical fantasy accoutrements, which is a huge relief. There are bits and pieces of familiar magical tropes – the magic sword now reminds me of the Mighty Wang – but Weeks, again, works hard to put those pieces into an interesting order. And again, it’s an neat parallel to the work that Cashore put into Graceling, another book that had uber-powerful characters and a lack of fantasy baggage.
Now we get to the utterly banal Thieves’ Guild bits, and here is where the books fall down pretty badly. I suppose since this is text I can’t just put “gritty” or “edgy” into air quotes and expect my sarcastic dismissal to come through in full force, so I’ll attempt an explanation. There’s an area of town called the Warrens, and our main character grows up there in tragic circumstances. Tragedy follows sad moment follows gritty encounter with death, in a kind of asymptote of calamity where each segment is infinitely more disastrous than the one before it. Since the book was about a magical assassin, I was expecting a certain level of mayhem, but Weeks amps this stuff up just as much as the magic. At least with the magic, he supplies a reasonable explanation (which, in a handy way, provides some non-annoying grounds for a continuing story, a feat in itself). In other words, there’s a fair amount of “tragic yet heroic criminals” material that has to be tolerated to get to the other stuff that’s actually good.
I need to draw one more comparison to finish my thoughts on the trilogy. I’ve read the first four books in the massively giant Malazan Book of the Fallen series, after which point I simply ran out of steam. The author, Steven Erikson, had spent 4 books, each about a third longer than the individual Night Angel volumes, establishing characters. And then establishing more characters. Establishing yet another system of magic. Then a flashback to a magical showdown millennia ago. I stuck with it as long as I could, then encountered the first bit in the fourth book, a relatively straightforward section that follows one character for 150-200 pages – it was sheer bliss! If a bit gory, since it was mostly a powerful character going on a rampage. Then it was back to the mind-boggling complexity of the rest of the series. Frankly, I don’t have the patience for thousands of pages of narrative that (by all accounts) are tenuously connected even after many books. Erikson is undeniably imaginative, and the world is a fascinating and incredibly bizarre one, but the high-level detail spiralled way out of control.
I see the Night Angel trilogy as the smarter, faster, younger version of Malazan. You get the same imaginativeness, the same type of encounter with weird magic, but wrapped into a narrative that moves at a manageable scale. Even if Weeks continues telling stories in this world, this particular chapter is closed, and closed satisfyingly. Weeks owes a debt to the formal innovations of Erikson, but at least he’s learned the right lessons from the missteps of the one that came before.
I’d recommend the Night Angel trilogy to any fan of the fantasy novel – if you want a smaller glimpse into some of the interesting things that the genre is doing lately, I would recommend starting with Graceling. Neither Weeks nor Cashore will let you down.