Wednesday, October 05, 2011

[JD's Take] The Black Prism (Brent Weeks)

I enjoyed Brent Weeks' first series (as he calls it: "That Ninja Book") enough that I read it back-to-back-to-back. I certainly didn't think that it was the most sophisticated or deep, but it was a really fun story and it pulled me along thanks to tight pacing and exciting action. It was, in a word, popcorn. So, I picked up The Black Prism expecting, more or less, more of the same.

Boy was I surprised.

The Black Prism introduces a world that is dominated by two things: the immensely powerful magic users (known as Drafters) that craft different colors of light into a magical substance (Luxin) with various properties and the brutal war fought 16 years before the story starts that tore the kingdoms apart as they battled to decide which of two brothers was the rightful head of the magical college that all drafters attend. To add fuel to this fire, the magical college is also the church, and its leader (called the Prism) is the pope-equivalent (and the only person capable of drafting all 7 colors).

The story primarily follows four characters. Gavin Guile, who is the Prism. A member of his elite guard who was once betrothed to him name Karris Whiteoak. Kip, boy growing up in a tiny village devastated by the war and personally devastated by his mother's drug addiction. And Liv, a student at the magical college who is from the same village as Kip.

Shockingly, I just remembered all of that off the top of my head... which says a LOT about just how into this book I got. And that's really the beauty of this novel, the world is fascinating, the magic system is well designed and deep, and the characters just draw you in, both into their troubles and their struggles and their triumphs but also into the world itself. This ends up being one of those books that you stay up too late reading, only to find yourself dreaming about the world all night.

One of my favorite things about the book was the way the war served as a backdrop, a subtext, to everything that happens. A lesser storyteller would have told me about the war, the causes of it, the battles that were fought, who won and why and how. Instead, Weeks tells the story of these characters who have all, one way or another, been totally ruined by the war. Each of them struggles to deal with the mess that the war made of their lives. The characters are interesting not because they spend the whole time angsting about it, but because they are realistically damaged goods trying to overcome that damage. This style of slow, contextual reveals of the details about everybody's past and place in the world also lets Weeks show you how these people are in the present... only to mess with your whole view of them later when their past is revealed. Everything turns grayer, more morally ambiguous, less obviously the story you think you are being told as the book goes on.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that in many ways, this book feels like a Bradon Sanderson novel. The magic system has that scientific styling and attention to detail that I associate with Sanderson. The scope and style and characterizations are similar enough that if you didn't tell me who wrote it, I'd have guessed that the Sanderson-Tron 3000 had managed to spit out yet another book without me realizing it.
This should, in no way, be taken as criticism.

Here's the part where I list bad things, but I'm not in the mood. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, here are some of my favorite/least favorite things that are BIG SPOILERS:

-At page 100 I guessed that Gavin was actually his brother. I was very pleased that this wasn't the Major Reveal at the end of the book as I was afraid it would be.
-I loved how my opinion of Gavin kept shifting. He kept wavering between Noble and Monster. Towards the end of the book, I think I hated/loved him on a 20 page cycle.
-The green prison. Holy shit, THAT surprised the hell out of me.
-Liv switching sides was completely in character, but surprising to me from a meta-story kinda level.
-Is it just me or are there 4 prisms alive in the world right now? Man, this religion has some holes in it.
-I hope he wraps up this "Kip keeps the dagger a secret and ruins everything" plot line in the first 50 pages of the second book. It's not going to be terribly interesting.
-In the acknowledgements he says the whole idea came from a friend saying "wouldn't it be neat if instead of [fantasy trope], [the opposite of fantasy trope]?". My current theory is "The main character is the good twin/evil twin".

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