The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks (Book Review)

There are things I miss about working at a bookstore. One of them is that I was first in the store to know when a much-anticipated book had come in.

Booksellers who stick around have a passion for their product. Most are waiting to for any number of pending releases, and when they do arrive there's much excitement.

The downside, of course, is the constant reminder that you are waiting. Every backlist title that arrives is a reminder that the new book hasn’t, and as time goes on you start to warn new readers even as they begin the path you've sold them on.

So my time away has a corollary upside: I can now go weeks and months without thinking of such things, only to be pleasantly surprised that books I’d forgotten I was waiting for are suddenly, inexplicably here.

And so it was that when I was looking for something to read in-flight last month that I discovered a new book in the Lightbringer Trilogy--err, Series, I guess (bad author!)--released in October. Cool.

I first read (and reviewed) The Black Prism, the first book of the supposed trilogy, in 2010. Since that time I managed to read Weeks’ first series, the Night Angel trilogy, as well as three more Lightbringer books (Okay, I'm done ragging on him for stretching out the series--it happens. This is known).

Much as he did with The Night Angel, Weeks has widened the scope of his colorful fantasy adventure, roping demi-gods and quasi-immortals into the world of the Seven Satrapies.

Unlike the previous series, he has integrated a collectible card game facet into the story, which is mainly contained in one book. Knowing that Brent has a penchant for Magic: The Gathering, I have very mixed feelings on this. On its face it’s kind of hilarious, but it takes me out of the story to the point where I wish it’d been left as a funny “What-if” inside the author’s mind. Alas.

That said, Brent continues what has (to me) become his trademark, which is plot twists that actually surprise.

It’s interesting to deconstruct what such a thing demands of an author. Whether we realize it or not, storytelling is a game played with the audience. We automatically know that when a dog is kicked, we've been introduced to a bad guy. We also know that when a hero declares “Nothing can stop me now” within the first half of the film, he is destined for a fall sooner rather than later. The stories we've seen, read, and been told our whole lives follow these patterns.

To construct a mind-blowing twist, the author has to leave the bread crumbs so that they can be traced backward yet go unnoticed until such time. Brent manages this masterfully, and in The Blood Mirror expands upon such a surprise first laid down in The Black Prism.

My struggle with the series has been in its use of magic and non-human characters—call them gods, demi-gods, or what have you. One could argue that such things practically define the fantasy genre, but the use of them varies widely.

Brent has obviously put quite a bit of thought into the rules and workings of his color-based magic system, which I do find interesting and even engaging to a point. However, he does so in such a way that is often very involved in itself, offering little insight of the story or characters to the reader.

Along the same vein is his use of the gods and legends—whether such creatures are really gods is in question, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but they tend to lend a taste of deus ex machina. In a plot that is otherwise so carefully constructed, this reader is left wondering why? 

I feel either more or less involvement is needed; if the more-than-human beings are important, clue us in! If they’re just a piece of the tapestry, don’t have them overshadow the plot or the characters we’ve come to root for. The ambiguity, for me, is disengaging.

But—that might just be my age talking. Over the years I’ve found it harder to engage with fantasy and Sci-Fi books. At first I thought I’d simply discovered and read he best of the breed, the new stuff (or new to me) simply unable to compare.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if the wild imagination of my youth has simply begun to fossilize with adulthood. We don’t want to look at it, but the day-to-day life of a working stiff changes us. The brain fills with worries about bills, lawn care, relationships. Though I still enjoy and pursue the same type of stories, I’m rarely satisfied to the same degree.

All the same, I’ve also learned to accept compromise in life. Maybe my buddy Rich was right about there being no more Wheels of Time—for us, at least—but in the meantime I’m still dying to know what happens to Gavin Guile in the next (hopefully last!) book.

Mr. Weeks has quite the series in the Lightbringer books, and while I’m not the one excitedly opening boxes of hardcovers anymore, I’m anxious to read the next.

From the Archives: The Black Prism, by Brent Weeks (Book Review)

This review was originally published on on October 25th, 2010.

If you’re a Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek like me, you’ve probably seen Brent Weeks around at Ye Olde Bookstore. Orbit Publishing did something interesting with Week’s debut series, the Night Angel Trilogy, by releasing all three in consecutive months. Fantasy fans are used to long waits between books, so for me, that was a pretty cool move.

I feel obligated to admit I haven’t read the Night Angel trilogy–the first book, but it’s still in my stack of “to-be-read,” which is quite large–but when I saw his new Lightbringer Series had been upgraded to a hardcover release, I figured there had to be something to this Brent Weeks guy.

The publisher’s blurb really grabbed me. Rather than the standard boy or girl starting out on a quest, The Black Prism is about Gavin Guile–the most powerful man in the world. A lot of fantasy ends up that way, but I can’t recall a protagonist like that at the beginning… so what gives?

Well, there’s a catch or two. For one, Gavin knows he only has a few years to live, and he has a list of things he needs to accomplish before he meets his end.

But the most interesting thing about Gavin Guile is while he’s the most powerful man in the world, he’s also trapped by that power–and by the lies he’s told to achieve it. I asked myself, what would a man in that position do in order to accomplish his goals?

I don’t know who writes the blurbs, but give that man (or woman) props–I picked up the book.

So now I’ve gotten the book home, and I dive right in. I like Weeks’ style of writing, but I’m not too sure about the world building aspect. It doesn’t immediately feel real for me, and I’m iffy about the magic.

See, the magic users of the series are called drafters, and they can basically channel (or “draft”) colors into physical forms: swords, various missiles, armor, et cetera. Gavin is the Prism, unique among men in that he’s able to draft every color. Personally I prefer more swords than sorcery, so it took me a few chapters to buy into it.

But once I did, the story hooked me. I mean really, really hooked me. "Couldn’t put the book down" is so cliche, but I have to admit: I put off actual, real-life things I should have been doing to finish the book. There’s some hardcore Alexandre Dumas-type stuff going on in The Black Prism, and I just couldn’t wait to see what happened.

The incitement to action introduces a young boy named Kip. Kip is the closest Weeks comes to the fantasy standard, but is also unique in that he isn’t immediately good at anything. He’s not a fighter, is clever but not super smart, and he’s got self esteem issues. Because he was so different from the typical Local Boy Makes Good, it took a while for Kip to grow on me–but I appreciated him more in the long run.

But Kip isn’t nearly as fun to read as Gavin Guile. Even though he’s (arguably) the main character in the book you’re never sure what his aims are or what he’ll do. He’s a competent and charismatic leader, but is constantly weighed down by the secrets he struggles to keep.

Weeks keeps the rest of the cast pretty small, which is refreshing. Who wants to keep track of 100 characters? (Wheel of Time, anyone?)

Black Prism has some great twists and turns. I’ve read/seen enough stories that I can usually predict where the writer is going, but here my guesses were only partially right at best, and that made it a lot of fun to read.

Even though I got used to the color magic, at times it was hard to relate to during the magic-heavy fighting. When preparing my review I also realized that pretty much every character you meet is a drafter. Not sure if it’s just extremely prevalent in the world (I doubt it), but it would be nice to have a normal guy’s perspective. Every Skywalker family needs a Han Solo.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the fantasy genre. Lately when I pick up a fantasy novel and read the synopsis I think That sounds so cheesy or Jeez–more of the same

He said something along the lines of “There won’t be another Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire for me; I just want to be entertained.”

I can sum up my feelings about The Black Prism by saying: Don’t be too sure, Rich. Don’t be too sure.