The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. Or, Epic as Epic Does

The Black Prism
Recommended to Carol by: everybody
Recommended for: Weeks fans, fans of epic fantasy
Read from August 18 to 27, 2013, read count: once, please
★  ★  ★   1/2

Let’s be honest; I’ve been dreading reading this. Why? Because The Night Angel Trilogy ended up a broken promise. Good beginning, steady decline in the quality of characterization and plotting, and, need I mention, a sexist hot mess? At any rate, Weeks seems to have been going for something different here, or at least something more developed–say perhaps, Epic–and it works much better.

Except it’s so damn conscious of being epic that I roll my eyes just looking at it–that heft! The matte black cover! The half-hidden silhouette! The bold text! Impress yourself much?

It is Epic, “epic” with an intentionally capitalized ‘E.’  This is a book that wants to dominate your shelves, expand into a series and crowd out all the others. Weeks has built a blocky but solid foundation that will no doubt serve to build a Jordanian expanse. This is Epic Crank, with one damn crisis after another, and if they can’t all fit into book one, well, surely they’ll show up in books two, three and four. There’s no shortage of conflict large and small: An almost-orphan with a drug addict mother, a village rebelling against a ruler, a woman caught between two brothers, an occupied city, an unfulfilled prophecy for a world, a religious revolution. A country made up of kingdoms only nominally working together. A school of magic that may be rotting from within. Brothers fighting for their father’s approval. Magical tests. Deception. Bandits. Isolation, social and physical. Magic and madness. Discovering inner potential. A siege.

Familiar ingredients, and I dare say that there isn’t much original with them, beyond composing the story around an unique and interesting magic system–and throwing the entire kitchen sink into one book. I’m sure you’ve heard all about how ‘light’ forms the basis of magic, and it is one of the concepts that sets this book apart. Magic users get so many opportunities to use that magic before it drives them insane, or at least that’s how the canon goes. Some users on the other team are giving madness a shot, one of the more interesting plot lines in the book.

What I did discover is that Weeks can write an engrossing story when he stops jumping around different characters, ala Night Angel, and gets to the business of writing. Here he limits himself to Kip, the orphan boy; Gavin, the most powerful magic-user in the land and spiritual head of the religion; Karris, a magic user and top-notch fighter; Liz, Kip’s tutor, fellow townie and daughter of a famous traitor; and one other spoilery character that seems to be crazy. I know that’s a lot of people, but it’s a score less than the Night Angel series, so I counted myself lucky. I could just about tell exactly where the plot was headed and I read anyways–that’s how fast-paced it is, and how good Weeks is at sucking one in. It’s just the thought of committing to that big fat book and it’s subsequent followers that leaves me shying away.

It’s Epicness will surely meet most Epic-readers needs, and that it will meet my Epic needs if I discover I have them in the future. It certainly moved quickly, was engaging and the magic ideas were interesting, especially as users reached the end of their lifespans and chose actions accordingly. The identity-catechism ambiguity–which was only a side point of this book–seems promising. As an aside, the writing didn’t annoy me, although it didn’t necessarily soar either.

Gavin was by far the most interesting character, a multifaceted jewel of complexity, and most of the depth is spent on him. It was worth it, and while he was the character I was ready to hate, by the end I think he was rather admirable. Kip, alas, does not fare as well and seems surprisingly modern whiny for a doughy (wasn’t he penniless?), trade-less, drug-user’s boy who is clearly A Speshul Snowflake. It rather feels like channeling modern Garion; one minute sulky pouting, the next adolescent hormones and the next all snark. In this case, it seems clearly the fault of the writing, which usually picks one of the three traits to emphasize and doesn’t let him color far outside those lines. Karris is WonderWoman, except that she needs to be saved after she sinks into The Pit of Despair, and poor young Liz is being set up by Bad Guys on Both Sides, I can just tell, although she also has an interesting complexity of motivations. But I foresee that the general characterization of women will piss me off in the future, given that Week’s already spoiled Karris by making her into one big ball of trope.

There’s lots to love for Epic fans; I just don’t seem to be an Epic Fan right now. I put it down a number of times because I just couldn’t take its demands.

This may indeed be the series that modern Epic Fans were waiting for, but I confess, I only remotely care. Someday, I’ll have an Epic need, and I’ll surely pick up the second. But I’ve got a few other higher priority books first.

Three and a half stars.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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