While Weeks is talented at developing the video game fantasy, a genre I am now officially defining for public benefit, it lacks most of what I love in a good read. Shadow’s Edge is an improvement over The Way of Shadows, but ultimately the shortcomings of the storytelling cripple the book.
A hallmark of the video game fantasy is a telegraphed narrative with cursory character development. Weeks jumps from person to person, almost never focusing on a single character for more than eight pages, and the rough average is five. That’s right, I said ‘five.’ I’ve given my ten year-old nephew chapter books with longer story segments. Many of the characters, while interesting, only provide the smallest of background to the storyline, such as the former pirate-turned-whore Kaldrosa, so the sacrifice of a larger coherency hardly seems worth it. Kylar, the Godking, a Khalidoran soldier named Ferl, Jarl, Momma K, Elene, Logan, Dorian, Vi, Feir, Sister Ariel, a high mage named Neph Dada, a elite soldier named Lantano, Agon Brandt–it’s a broad cast of characters we visit for a few moments at a time. He’s written a screenplay broken down into scene shots, with us dropping in on discrete scenes and allowing us to gestalt the whole mess together.
The breakdown lends itself to a dissociation from the novel. Every shift of scene and voice creates a sense of disruption, and I found myself frequently making use of it, setting the book down to go get a glass of water, maybe check in to Goodreads, walk the dogs, and so on. Some books are so immersive that when I finish, it’s like coming up for air from an underwater swim, gasping for air and with the shock of returning to the world. This is not one of them.
What also became apparent is that Weeks sacrificed a great deal of background for the opportunity to character shift. One small example is found in the description of Neph Dada: “twelve knotted cords hung over the shoulders of his black robes for the twelve shu’ras he’d mastered.” I’m relatively certain I read no more about the cords or the shu’ras, except when Neph appears again. In fact, I couldn’t tell you if that’s part of a magic or religious system, or if it makes him especially intimidating. It’s a challenge to be given details like that that lack context and seemingly never appear again. It reminds me a great deal of when one first starts to play a video game and one has to pay attention to every sign, pick up every object, or go down every walkway in case it becomes significant later. Most of it, of course, never becomes meaningful. Once in awhile it does, but if I have to flip hither and yon to determine where I saw that character last and what was he up to, well, I don’t.
In order to compensate for the lack of world-building, a common crutch of the video game fantasy is a reliance on the background cultural knowledge of the reader to fill in the gaps. The decision to name the sorcerous order the “Chantry” reminded me of Dragon Age, along with the historical real world reference of a fund/land/priest dedicated to a specific patron. The Vurdmeisters sounds like Norse mythology, and of course, dedicating their deaths to “Khali” sounds a lot like the Hindu goddess. So much is ignored here–I’m not sure I could tell you much about what people eat, and I don’t think we ran into any animals besides horses. Transportation seems to be cart/horse and ship based. We’re given the broad outlines of a vaguely European feudal system with a pre-industrial level of technology, and our own imagination fills in most of the details.
Antagonistic, aggressive conflict is the hallmark of almost every interaction/ scene in the book. If it is not Kylar conflicted with himself over Elene, it’s likely there’s an undertone or outright flurry of physical violence.
I’m a character reader, but I can be a sucker for a good action story and only minor character development if it’s done well. These are not. Given their extraordinarily troubled background, Kylar and Elene are crazy young. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if that is intentional or not. Kylar’s obsession with Elene’s “goodness” has become oh-so-boring and it’s quite obviously doomed from the start. The most insight we get during Elene’s five pages is her own frustration about their chastity. Enough already, and isn’t it a bit weird that parentless children running rough in gangs and occasionally seeking refuge in whorehouses haven’t had sex? I’m sure there’s some big reveal in book three that has to do with their virginity, but I’m not sure I care. There’s a weird incongruity I ended up getting stuck on–we actually spend time learning how Kylar disguises himself as a smelly tanner, an experience most people instinctively avoid. And yet for the rest of the book, all our experienced magic users comment on how Kylar doesn’t smell. At all. Elene notes perfume doesn’t work on him. Not even his clothes smell after riding horseback for days.
Another hallmark of the video game fantasy is the limited development of female characters. Really, isn’t it about time for the fantasy male writer’s fascination for the virgin/whore dichotomy to be over? So been there, done that, and these men were brought up in America post 1970, so I can’t quite get the fascination. Oh wait, I can. That way women aren’t scary.
So what kept me reading? Probably my own book OCD. I do like the Logan storyline, and I thought his development and time in the Hole was a fabulous and frightening look into the depths of humanity. His fellow denizens were fascinating, especially his connection with Lilly and Gnasher. (upcoming spoiler).
[ His escape and subsequent request to rescue Gnasher was well done, and one of those clever ethical tests ].
I know, I know, people loved it. I just can’t. I ended up picking up Sanderson’s Mists shortly after and sighed with relief.