Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

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"Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals. But when Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he's willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart."


The Black Prism is volume one of Lightbringer, the new trilogy from Brent Weeks, a "mesmerizing" new voice in fantasy (according to Terry Brooks) whose first novel won out over a field full of contenders to become the bestselling fantasy debut of 2009. For the moment, let's presume the ecstatic press release championing Weeks' latest, not to mention longest, holds water. Between that and The Way of Shadows' critical and commercial success, certain expectations, unhelpful though expectations often are, are inescapable.

Many authors would shy away from such presumption, the better to tell their tales on their own terms. Not Weeks - and kudos to the man for that. Counter-intuitively, he appears, in fact, to embrace our expectations; throughout The Black Prism he treats them not as anchors forestalling his progress, but as opportunities, each and every one, to surprise and so delight. An exchange in the first chapter between a captured color wight and our Chosen One for the entertainments to come represents the first instance of Weeks' unconventional stratagem.

His rebuttals begin thus:

"Have you ever wondered why you were stuck in such a small life? Have you ever gotten the feeling, Kip, that you're special?"

Kip said nothing. Yes, and yes.

"Do you know why you feel destined for something greater?"

"Why?" Kip asked, quiet, hopeful.

"Because you're an arrogant little shit." The color wight laughed. (p.6)

Which gently metatextual exchange, taken together with Weeks' unusual representation of Kip - more on which in a moment - serves to underscore the notion that this isn't your Daddy's high fantasy, oh no. Sure, our child of prophecy is present and correct, and when we’re cordially introduced, wouldn’t you know it, he's just begun to come into his powers. You see, Tyrea's self-styled King, Rask Garadul, has had Kip's nondescript little village burned to the ground as an example to those other communities considering rebellion. In the space of a morning, the boy has lost his home, his friends (such as they were) and his only family: his mother, a cold-hearted addict whose bitter parting words - "Kip, if you ever loved me, avenge me. Swear it by your worthless soul" (p.54) – tell not only the woeful life Kip has led in Rekton, but also of the quest for retribution to come.

The lately-orphaned fifteen year old is the massacre's only survivor. Far from out of the woods yet, he runs. He runs, come to that, right into the King and his guard of Mirrormen, surveying their evil deed from the safety of the plains. All hope is lost, until, lashing out in frustration, "a radiant green mass rose through him. [Kip] felt energy rush out from his body. A dozen blades of grass rose through his hand, with his punch, tearing his skin as they ripped out of him. They thickened to the width of boar spears as green light poured from him, and became blades in truth." (p.40) Kip, it transpires, is a drafter: more to his surprise than our own, perhaps, he can breathe in light and bellow it out in whatever form he sees fit.

And there we have The Black Prism's magic system in miniature. In the Seven Satrapies, a realm arrayed around the great Cerulean Sea, drafters are in high demand and short supply. Their abilities can be channeled toward offensive and defensive ends, as in Kip's encounter with the renegade King, or else used for more modest purposes; some build bridges and lay roads, others fix roofs and craft impenetrable facades. The particular properties of the substance drafted depend on the qualities of the colors in question. However, most drafters can draw power from but one of the bands of light in the sevenfold spectrum, running from sub-red to superviolet. A few, known as polychromes, are able to draft from multiple colors. Being so rare, polychromes tend to live their lives out in luxury, stationed on the Chromeria – the seat of power among the Seven Satrapies – and pampered from initiation to freeing. Unto each generation, only one individual who can draft from the breadth of the light spectrum is given: these people are known as Prisms, and they hold unrivalled sway, both religious and political, over the entire realm.

For centuries, it has been so. But this generation gave forth two Prisms: the brothers Gavin and Dazen Guile. Fifteen years ago, they went to war. Of the Guiles, Gavin emerged triumphant, yet countless thousands died in the bloody power struggle. Seeking redemption for his part in the tragic loss of life, Gavin has set himself a noble purpose for each year he serves as the Prism of the Seven Satrapies. In Garadul's defection, Gavin sees an opportunity to achieve one of his goals: to free Tyrea, the staging ground for the decisive battle which brought the False Prism's war to a close. And so, he takes to Tyrea, with sometime lover Karris, a Blackguard, by his side, and a hidden agenda. For Gavin has received a note from Lina, Kip’s late, haze-addled mother, informing him that "It's time you meet your son." (p.15)

We can allow Weeks these minor indulgences, surely. In order for the author to subvert the traditional tropes he has in his sights, he must first establish them; enrich them with proper context, that the impact of their otherness, as and when Weeks' deems reveal it, is felt [far and wide]. Thus, though Kip is The Black Prism’s token chosen one, and indeed, the "fathead" (p.3) stands to inherit everything short of the very heavens from his surprise father, in most other respects - initially at least - Kip is a distant reminiscence of the usual unassuming nobodies destined for greatness whose journeys of self-discovery and accidental Godhood lie at the heart so many fantasies. He is, firstly, that rarest of things: a character of color. Kip's "light kopi-and-cream-colored skin" (p.19) sets him apart from most of those on Little Jasper, where comparatively pampered white drafters are trained to make the most of their prismatic gift. Given that the notion of an ethnic main character rather than the more commonplace sidekick of color came from a suggestion made in passing to the author on Twitter, that bastion of inspiration, we might consider the author’s noncommittal engagement with such a fraught question a grace rather than a failing, yet set against the context of a world in which color dictates all things, one expects, not unjustifiably, some form of follow-through. Beyond the mere fact of it, however, Weeks makes little of Kip's race.

Nevertheless, Kip defies the picture of traditional fantasy protagonists in another sense: surprisingly, there's rather a lot of him to go around. To put it politely, he's a "stout boy" (p.96) whose "ungainly... frame" (p.19) proves, true to life, rather a handicap when all hell breaks loose. Somewhat less politely, Weeks seems to glee in informing us of the sight of "Kip running... like a milk cow lumbering out to pasture." (p.38) Add to that the fact that Kip's a bit of a big girl’s blouse, all told. When his path crosses the Prism's, Kip's first reaction is to hide behind him. Throughout The Black Prism, the boy runs, screams, wets himself; generally quivering with terror at every turn.

He's a far cry, then, at least superficially speaking, from the determined, hard-done-by heroes of most fantasy fiction. And yet, when the narrative demands it, Kip is, for all Weeks' ambition of parrying our presuppositions, exactly the hero one expects. When he runs afoul of King Garadul, his powers blossom from nothing; when he’s put to the test at the Chromerium, Kip practically breaks the mold; and in the climactic battle for Tyrea's contested capital, he's an identikit chosen one from head to toe: suddenly, against all The Black Prism's internal logic, Kip is precisely the thing Weeks has been at pains to deny. Neither his physical nor his and psychological limitations are of any import whatsoever in these pivotal instances.

What stock The Black Prism sacrifices in Kip's oh-so-convenient turnaround, Weeks aims to regain with Gavin Guile's more consistent and altogether more engaging share of the narrative. The Prism's conflicts are equal parts internal and external, and they stand as substantially more impactful than Kip's peripheral struggles: none more so than the decades of imprisonment he has foisted on his brother, Dazen, whom the people of the Seven Satrapies, high and low alike, believe dead. And yet Gavin's share of the narrative burden – indeed the overarching direction one foresees Lightbringer moving toward – turns on a case of mistaken identity, and when Weeks pulls the curtain back on the not-so-shocking truth of the matter, he fumbles, wreaking havoc in so doing on what would otherwise be the strongest aspect of The Black Prism. The chapter devoted to rationalizing the actuality of Gavin Guile is a confused morass of reference and referent. Rather than pulling the rug from under us, as one presumes Weeks intends, he instills instead an element of unreliability into an already-awkward equation, and then hopes we'll go along with things, unquestioning, as they proceed as if nothing had happened. The notion that no-one in the Seven Satrapies has noticed this outlandish character swap shop beggars belief in itself, except that, of course, when it's expedient in narrative terms, it seems everyone and their mothers have known all along.

Neither is this the only instance of the preposterous in The Black Prism. To Weeks' credit, a hundred-some chapters and a revolving door of alternating perspectives mean that this substantial novel moves at a pace, but it is not such a one as to allow readers to glean over the baffling twists and turns which accumulate like so much grist in the mill throughout the last act. As events approach a head, a series of misunderstandings are wrought from the ether of the author's imagination: we are to accept, for instance, with submissive shoulders and downcast eyes, that one of The Black Prism's major players is so taken by the copper tongue of a paper-thin Misunderstood Bad Dude archetype as to switch allegiance entirely. Pull the other one, why don't you Brent...

As a fantasy narrative in the well-worn mold of old, The Black Prism is not without its strengths, among them pace, ambition and an interesting, if as-yet sketchy magic system. Strange Horizons contributor Nic Clarke described Weeks' previous fiction as "reasonably entertaining tosh," and to a T, this is that. For all its action and invention, however, The Black Prism sets itself up for a fall by insisting that it is other, somehow, and so superior, as if that follows. It is not; we needn’t even dally by debating the troubling implications of that perspective. Weeks' latest does an admirable job of anticipating our expectations, yes, and yet the author’s attempt to repurpose them, as outlined at the outset, amounts to an alteration of few superficial aspects of the typical fantasy mode followed in short order by the contrived reiteration of exactly what he initially appears to decry. Your Daddy's high fantasy says hey. 


The Black Prism
by Brent Weeks

UK Publication: August 2010, Orbit
US Publication: August 2010, Orbit

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