Friday, August 20, 2010

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks is his fourth book and first in an original new series. Brent Weeks has over the last year become one of my favorite authors. I have read his original three books in the Night Angel Trilogy several times now and I have read through The Black Prism once. I am starting to get a good feel for his style. What makes Brent Weeks so engaging as an author isn't his world creation skills or intricate magic systems, which are by no means bad, but his interaction with the reader. Quickly becoming Brent’s hallmark is the ironic interplay between what I call the “blind reveal” and the “open secret” welded together with great dialogue and characters.

The oxymoron, open secret, I define as a secret known to the reader but not the characters in the book. The narratives inhabitants are often family members or friends close enough to be siblings. The meat of the fiction is how these characters interact. Needless to say, each of the characters, through a variety of story telling tricks, always end up with massive secrets that are withheld from their compatriots for a variety of reason. These secrets are often of the life changing and world shattering variety but the characters always feel they are doing what is best by keeping the secret. As the reader, you rage at the book in frustration, beseeching the characters for one iota of honesty with those that they call friend, family and/or wife/husband. These secrets compound as every character seems to accrue several and each secret affects the characters web of relationships.

It is at this level that Brent creates such an engaging cast of characters. The level of interplay needed to keep these secrets is intense and Brent captures it in brilliant detail. What is more, through the burden of these secrets you get to see into the core of each character and find what drives them. Do they take the easy way out. Do they take the higher path. These secrets are a figurative crucifixion of the novel’s characters and you get to witness how they breakdown under the telamonic burden. Have no illusion, Brent crushes his characters into their component parts only to reassemble them later in the novel. But in this way, you as the reader gain such a fascinating insight into each of the characters. You know both how and why they tick and they become ever so real as a result.

Now, the dramatic irony comes into play with the second oxymoron of the pairing: blind reveal. As you grow engrossed with the secrets each character carries you begin to feel a level of control. You start to feel as if you know where the novel is going to go. You know these characters so well. That my dear reader cannot stand. After all, if you get too comfortable you may get bored. It is at this point that Brent strikes. Because, it is not only the narrative residents that have secrets...Brent has some as well that you don’t know. It is these secrets that Brent thrusts up from the pages and skewers your mind. I am quite sure I have heard his manic cackling while I figuratively wriggle in mental distress. In a single page, the entire stream of the story can shift. The reader is left foundering trying to cope and readjust.

These two components, the blind reveal and open secret, combine to create what I find so appealing in Brent’s work: anticipation. You know something is going to happen. You wait for it. You are mentally tense. You thumb the next page with tingling anticipation waiting for the bomb to drop. It is utterly engrossing.

I have wanted to immediately re-read every one of Brent’s books after I finished them just to see if I could guess some of these blind reveals through small innocuous clues. What keeps the re-reads so enjoyable is Brent’s ability to create such entertaining characters; each with their own quirks and foibles. Karris’ paranoia about her shoulders is priceless. I would also like to mention that I think Brent is the best male writer of female characters I have ever read. I am tempted to think he has a woman ghost write for him. Going along with the great characters is memorable and unique dialog for each character. When the characters speak in the narrative you feel as if it is truly the characters speaking, not Brent.

The Black Prism is a really enjoyable read. I have not spoken of the setting, or magic systems, etc and that is for a reason. Those are immaterial next to simply flat out great storytelling found in this book. This book could have been set anywhere and been great. Yes there is magic and adventure. Yes there are muskets and cannons. Yes there is numerology and mysticism. These are all important but what should be foremost is the glee that this is another Brent Weeks book. A book where you can see Brent starting to take his craft to the next level.

Hachette: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0316075558

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee

Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee is the second book of the Nagash series, itself part of the Time of Legends series. I was not fond of the first book in the Nagash series, Nagash the Sorceror, due to the cumbersome dual perspective narrative. In the second book in the series, Mike Lee has carried over this narrative style to improved success. Unfortunately, I feel that Nagash the Unbroken suffers from a critical flaw; lack of scale.

The Time of Legends series is aimed at telling the tales of the greatest figures of Warhammer Fantasy antiquity. Figures that are larger than life and shaped much of the current realms structures. Figures that are less a person and personality but rather a demiurge. Nagash is the father of Necromancy. His ancient and titanic battles transformed a major portion of the Warhammer world into a wasteland of the walking dead. A single man overthrew the rule of the Gods and shackled millions of people into eternal undeath. A man who himself had conquered death to gain mastery over death.

This is a rich tableau from which to work from. To tell the tale of a man with nigh limitless powers drawn from a depthless well of evil. Nagash the Sorceror had a suitable if restrained scope. I was after all a story of his gensis. With this in mind, I expected Nagash the Unbroken to really dial things up a notch. I wanted to see Nagash rise to his full and awesome power. I experienced none of this.

Instead, I spent most of the book reading about a broken man scurrying about the desert half mad. When Nagash does stumble onto a new source of power, warpstone, I felt a thrill. Here then, would Nagash would finally turn into the incredible figure of unfathomable power. Denied again. Instead, Nagash spends the remaining portion of the book attempting to conquer and enslave a small group of primitive barbarian swamp people living at the base of what will become Nagashizzar. They are a people tained and twisted by Chaos and lead by priest men who worship the warpstone.

During this time period, Nagash is routinely defeated or harrassed by the primitives and his eventual success in subdueing them is more by pure luck and accident than anything else. This is extremely frustrating to me. I am not reading about a Legendary Figure. I am reading about a half dead old mad man who can barely beat a handful of mystics. Once Nagash has these primitive under his thumb, he then inadvertently starts a war with another group of barbarian peoples. This once again does nothing but highlight the utter lack of world shaking power that Nagash possesses. Why? Because when the war starts, Nagash is dismayed that this will be a war that lasts years and will set back his overall plans. The war doesn’t last years. It lasts over a century. The book ends with Nagash having never really accomplishing much beyond conquering some petty barbarians.

The second intertwining narrative is not much more appealling. It is concerned with the rise of Queen Neferata in the city of Lahmia. It has a very basic setup; Queen Neferata walks a path to damnation paved on a road of good intentions. Convinced her husband and brother, King Lamashizzar, is neglecting his duties in pursuit of Nagash’s secret of immortality, she plots to overthrow him. Mixed into this whole affair is one of my favorite characters from Nagash the Sorcerer, Arkhan the Black. Unfortunately Arkhan is marginalized extensively and has an utterly forgettable end. Honest, he serves more as a prop than anything and probably didn’t even need to appear in the story. In predictable fashion, Queen Neferata becomes suitably damned and slowly enslaved to her evil powers all the while longing for the past. Not very engrossing at all.

Perhaps most puzzling about this book is the absence of the Skaven. The cover shows Nagash battling the skaven and the rear of the book declares that Nagash will enslave them. Being a fan of the Skaven, this was exciting. Alas, I was in for another disappointment. The Skaven really have no substantial appearance in the book, occupying only a handful of pages. Early in the narrative they exist only to introduce Nagash to warpstone and then promptly disappear from the narrative. They only return on the final pages of the book for a few moments with some ill formed plans to conqueror Naggashizzar. However at no time does Nagash actively fight the Skaven or enslave them. This was rather shocking to me and misleading.

This book feels like little more than a setup for the next book. Everything that happens lays the ground work for the cataclysmic battle that creates the Lands of the Dead. And this is why I feel this book lacks grandure. It is focused on the mundane. This book should not have been sold under the Time of Legends heading. I would take less umbrage with it if it had been published as a normal Warhammer Fantasy novel. There is nothing legendary outside of the names invovled. I wanted titanic battles and clashes of will. Hordes of undead erupting from the firmament. I wanted to see Nagash as The Necromancer; peering into the darkness of death and seizing its secrets. No, I get a man who is a a slowly rotting corpse covered in tumors who lives in a dirty mountain as king of the swamp barbarians. Nagash isn’t very great let alone legendary and in a book about an paragon of evil, that was the greatest evil perpetrated...banality.

The Black Library: Nagash the Unbroken by Mike Lee
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-1844167913