The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks
BOOK REVIEW: The Night Angel Trilogy (The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge, Beyond the Shadows) by Brent Weeks
Orbit (a division of Hatchette Book Group), 2008, ISBN 978-0-316-03367-1, 978-0-316-03365-7, 978-0-316-03366-4
I really like Brent Weeks. He’s a genuine reader’s author. He’s very accessible. His website is more a blog than a merchandizing angle, and he is very open and witty (and gracious) in his postings. He’s also one of my favorite Twitter-ers; his tweets almost always make me smile. He even replied to me in a direct message once; I was in heaven for a week.
But that’s not all. All three books of his trilogy are substantial, each weighing in at over 600 pages, but somehow they don’t seem intimidating. They were published only a month apart (October, November and December 2008) – no waiting for months or even years to find out what happened to your favorite characters. And they all come with great tag lines: “The perfect killer has no friends – only targets.” “The perfect killer has no identity.” “The perfect killer has no conscience.” Have any idea what they may be about?
(Before we go any further, let me warn you that it’s hard to give an in-depth review of The Night Angel Trilogy without giving away some spoilers. If you want to read these books – and I hope you do – with absolutely no foreshadowing, please stop reading now and just take my word for it: these books are well worth reading!)
It’s also pretty amazing that The Night Angel Trilogy is Brent Weeks’ first published work. He shows a lot of savvy from the very beginning – starting small and letting the story grow. We are introduced to the main character – the street urchin Azoth – in the first paragraph. The second main character – the master assassin Durzo Blint – is also introduced in the first chapter, and comes into play at Chapter 3 of the first book. By Chapter 4, actions that will haunt the entire trilogy have been put into play. Everything that follows is an outgrowth of this beginning – the apprenticeship of the kid with nothing to the man who has nothing to lose.
It is Azoth’s development from helpless victim to the assassin Kylar that is central to the entire trilogy, but as his life touches others, the story grows. And like most epic heros, Azoth/Kylar (who I will call Kylar for the rest of this review) struggles with the path set before him, even though he himself selects this path. He first apprentices with Durzo in order to escape being a victim and to be able to protect those he loves, but he soon learns that it simply isn’t that easy – life isn’t black and white, and it extracts sacrifices; the higher the stakes, the higher the sacrifice. We also learn that Durzo has his own reasons for taking on Kylar as an apprentice, and his own ability to move unseen has far deeper implications than with the lives he takes.
Also throughout the trilogy we understandably get the friction between doing what is right and doing what is easy, as well as the questioning of what exactly is “right”. Of course, due to his profession, there are factors at play for Kylar beyond the normal, even beyond the “normal” assassin. For he and Durzo are not only assassins, but “wetboys” (according to street cred in the books, “a wetboy is like an assassin – in the way a tiger is like a kitten”). Kylar’s ascension to the ranks of the wetboys, his balancing between his public personae and his hidden one, and his own internal sense of honor keep him, and us, on edge. Although his mentor may appear to be a stone-hearted killer, Kylar finds it difficult to keep to live up to the central tenant that Durzo teaches – that wetboys do not love, in friendship or in desire. Kylar understands this, and he accepts it, but he struggles with being able to follow through, even to the point where he decides that he must reject everything that he has worked so hard to attain in order to not lose his soul. Unfortunately, again, it simply is not that easy. As the stakes surrounding Kylar’s life continues to grow to almost unbearable proportions, the line between right and wrong and survival becomes so entangled as to be indelibly corrupted.
It is to Weeks’ credit that he can take a rather overdone convention – the consummate killer with a conscience and life stacked against him – and make it seem fresh. He does this with a story that is constantly on the move, but rarely frenetic. The characters that swirl around and are pulled to Kylar are at times familiar, but for the most part are not cookie cutter creatures of convenience. My favorite secondary character is Logan Gyre, son of a nobleman who befriends Kylar-in-disguise and remains staunchly honorable and loyal to the wetboy, even when he has to make difficult decisions that feel like betrayal. The ordeal that Logan endures at the end of Shadow’s End and into Beyond the Shadows still has me cringing.
There are some weaknesses in The Night Angel Trilogy. Weeks’ female characters, like so many women created by men, do not ring true. Indeed, some of them are more successful than others and he does at least put them in less than conventional situations, but most fall short of allowing us to suspend disbelief and stay submerged in the story line. Specifically, his character of Vi, the female wetboy (uh huh) is the least nuanced, and therefore the least successful. Maybe it’s a guy-author thing, but where Kylar successfully straddles the line between his conscience and his actions, Vi simply careens from one extreme to another, dependent on where the story is being driven. This makes her come across as shallow and contrived; where she is a pivot, the story suffers.
Weeks also does not seem comfortable with the sexual dynamic between his characters. While I’m not a proponent of sex just for the sake of sex in any book, if you are going to create a sexual dynamic between your characters, then you’d better be able to follow through, at least in suitable innuendo or credible fade-to-black scenarios. In The Night Angel Trilogy, what sex there is, is either brutal or non-existent. Unfortunately, this cop out feels high schoolish – a dynamic that is out of place in this storyline. For heaven’s sake, fumbling would be better than what we get in The Night Angel Trilogy, and while I salute Weeks’ acknowledging the sexual aspect of his characters without feeling that it’s necessary to build in gratuitous titillation, he needs to find a more acute balancing act than he’s offered so far.
Still, these are easily forgivable transgressions, and it’s not hard for the reader to skip over these weaknesses and thoroughly enjoy the tale that Brent Weeks spins in The Night Angel Trilogy. Kylar’s story may not be the greatest literature, but it is a whopping good story, and one that will provoke a response in the reader, which for me is always a benchmark of a great read. After all, we all know ourselves that life is not as simple as it should be. Even if we aren’t wetboys (or at least I hope most of us aren’t!) we can still identify with the struggles that Kylar has to go through, and the hardships he endures. So go ahead – take the journey with The Night Angel Trilogy. You’ll enjoy the ride, I’m sure of it.