Plot Synopsis (from amazon because I’m lazy)
The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets.
For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.
For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.
But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.
Brent Week’s The Way of Shadows had been on my list of things to read for a while. Weeks is one of those “new” writers that you hear about lots if you are reading popular fiction/fantasy and so I began to read “The Way Of Shadows” with if not high expectations then expectations of nonetheless.
After finishing the book I wouldn’t say I was disappointed but I would say I’m nonplussed. The Way Of Shadows is highly generic boilerplate stuff. Readings some reviews on goodreads the sentiments seem to be that people either love it or hate it. I however am firmly down the middle. It is not great and it isn’t awful.
Essentially, The Way of Shadows mixes the well trodden coming of age story (think Enders Game or Harry Potter) with the kind of grimdark nasty gritty fantasy that Joe Abercrombie has popularised. After reading The Way of Shadows I’m not sure the two are a good mix (although I may change my mind once I’ve read Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King”).
The book starts off really strongly. The bad guy character, Rat, is rapist and a sadist. In other words a throughally reprehensible individual. When Azoth “kills” Rat you don’t feel any sympathy for Rat. Even better whilst doing this it establishes some key facets of Azoth’s and Durzo Blinth’s personalities. Azoth loves Doll Girl and is essentially a good guy even if he is apprenticed to an assassin and Durzo Blinth is tortured by demons.
This promising start is wasted however. Weeks seems to want to place Azoth on a downward path because of the work he is doing as a “wetboy” however there is no real change in Azoth’s character. He becomes more skilled at being an assassin. He pines after Doll Girl from afar but throughout it all he remains essentially a heroic figure. Azoth doesn’t have many character flaws except caring too much despite Blint telling him love is a noose. If I’m being harsh Azoth isn’t far from being a Marty Stu.
Now Azoth’s characterization may not be especially daring but you can’t say that it is not a winning formula. The heroes journey is a well trodden path and by having the book told from Azoth’s POV the reader is allowed to learn about the world as Azoth does.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, the exposition of the world is rather clunky. Plot twists don’t surprise because, you had all the relevant information and didn’t see it coming rather they leap out from nowhere and the relevant information is filled in very quickly right afterwards. This is not satisfying.
More than this though the grimdark stuff i.e. swearing, talk about castration doesn’t fit in nicely with the nicey nice heroes coming of age story. It goes back to what I said earlier about needing to see the characters shaped by the world they are living in.
Initially Weeks does this with Azoth. Azoth is living on the streets and is desperate. As a result Azoth strives and succeeds in becoming Blint’s apprentice. After this beginning though Azoth in particular is just too nice and one dimensional. I never got the sense that his fear of Blint or fear of the streets was driving him become an assassin. I never got the sense that Azoth was staring into the abyss. When this subject is talked about with Doll Girl all Azoth essentially does is say I’m a good guy and this is accepted.
The Way of Shadows felt very much like someone’s first novel. The book is too generic in some places and then not generic enough in other places. Furthermore, if you are going to set your novel in a crapsack world filled with suffering then I need to feel that the main character has been effected by this suffering. This never happened with Azoth and as such The Way of Shadows never really did it for me.
In the end though despite all the criticism I’ve heaped on it I would give The Way Of Shadows three out of five stars. There is good stuff in there but it is hard to find. Plus magic ninja assassin are inherently cool. When he wrote this Weeks hadn’t yet found his voice. When/if I read another Weeks book I will be interested to see how his talents have developed.