The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks (Orbit, 2008)

In many ways, Cenaria is the cesspool of Midcyru, a realm of murderers, thieves, and opportunists perpetually threatened by other lands, the most dangerous of which is Khalidor, ruled by their merciless Godking. In Cenaria City, the worst spot of all is the Warrens, where near-feral children band together in guilds to rob, assault, and kill the unwary. For Azoth, a member of one such guild, anything has got to be better. Anything. Even apprenticing himself to the city’s most notorious “wetboy” — magically-enhanced assassins with a unique style — Durzo Blint. Azoth risks everything in his effort to gain an apprenticeship, knowing full well the training might just kill him. And against all odds, he succeeds. Now, leaving behind a life in the gutters, he begins years of studying and training with the enigmatic, mercurial Durzo Blint, a man who’d as soon kill Azoth as help him.

Years pass, and things change in the city. Azoth becomes Kylar, adopting the false identity of a minor noble while he learns the ins and outs of polite society, all the while continuing his education as a wetboy-in-training. Only one problem remains: his lack of magical Talent, that which separates the wetboys from the common assassins. And Durzo has made it clear that should Kylar not develop such Talent, he’ll die. Meanwhile, other pieces and players move throughout the city, as forces both internal and external play a long game of infiltration, manipulation, and intrigue. The Sa’kage, a not-so-secret criminal organization, controls just about every aspect of illegal and immoral behavior in Cenaria, led by the Nine, who are in turn led by the Shinga. They control everything, but not even the Nine can plan for what the future might bring. Logan Gyre, scion of one of Cenaria’s most powerful noble houses, becomes a political pawn as the mad king Aleine exerts a stranglehold upon his land. Elene, who was once one of Kylar’s closest friends back in the Warrens, may have escaped her life there, but even so, danger reaches out to touch her new life. And the thread that brings all of these people into contact with one another, in one way or another, is the rumor that a ka’kari, a fabled magical weapon unlike any other, can be found in Cenaria. Everyone wants it, and no price is too high.

With a cast of thousands in place, and decades-old plans coming to fruition, the stage is set for things to hit the fan. As events rapidly unfold, everything changes for our heroes and villains. Kylar, Durzo Blint, Elene, Logan, King Aleine, and an entire land find their fates approaching at top speed when the Godking of Khalidor finally makes his move. As Cenaria burns, people will live, die, and discover their true natures, and nothing will ever be the same again for the survivors.

And all of that is just in the first book of this new epic trilogy, a grand effort that tells a sweeping story told across a decade or more. You have Azoth’s growth from gutter rat to wetboy, the multi-pronged quest for the magical ka’kari, the rise of Logan Gyre, the political machinations of the Sa’kage, the invasion of Cenaria by Khalidor, the secret history and true nature of Durzo Blint, some stirrings of romance between various characters, and assorted secondary characters pursuing their own agendas. Truth be told, it’s a lot to take in, even in a 700-page book, with characters coming on- and off-screen with great regularity. Luckily, Brent Weeks manages to juggle all of this with a rather adept hand. It’s a gripping tale, and his characters are fleshed-out, multidimensional, and appropriately flawed. Sure, some occasionally act in stupid ways, but with the exception of King Aleine, there’s no one I can really point to and say “There, that one’s irredeemable.” The King, it must be said, is an idiot who gets exactly what he deserves. As for the others, Weeks does an excellent job of making us care whether they live or die, which is good, since later in the book, it seems as though no one is safe from the bloody hand of fate. In the space of a few pages, he can flesh out someone enough that their loss actually means something, for good or bad, and there were more than a few genuine surprises regarding just how some characters choose to respond to the events around them. Weeks is also good at crafting cinematic episodes. I could see how some of these events would play out on the screen, both battles and more personal moments, and one scene near the end involving the fate of Cenaria and its inhabitants was particularly strong.

It’s still too early to tell just where Weeks is going with this series. Some things are fairly evident, but the greater story is still left in the dark, what with the way he well and truly upset the apple cart in this book. This is one time when I’m particularly glad Orbit has decided upon a rapid release schedule for the trilogy, because I want to know what happens to Kylar and the rest of the characters who made it out of this one alive. Weeks has done a superb job in crafting a fascinating new world, populating it with memorable characters, and setting up a compelling epic tale of heroism, vengeance, and magic. It’s been a while since such a grandiose, far-reaching fantasy novel has caught my attention, and I’ll be waiting for the rest in the series eagerly. Brent Weeks is someone to keep an eye on.

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