The night angel trilogy

The way of shadows / Brent Weeks

The night angel trilogy (although apparently there’s a fourth one now?) is a series I mentioned way back in my review of The warded man (which recently became the most-viewed post I have done to date).

I haven’t written a post focusing on it for some time, partially because other titles have taken priority but mostly because I don’t really know where to go with this one.

So I’m going to do my best and address the issues with this series as well as I can.

Plot summary

Azoth is an orphan, constantly struggling to get enough to eat while appeasing the “bigs” of his guild and protecting his two friends, Jarl and Doll Girl. When he encounters legendary killer for hire Durzo Blint, he sees an opportunity to bring himself out of poverty and finally establish some measure of control over his life.

Azoth goes to great lengths to convince Durzo to take him on as an apprentice killer, but in legendarily corrupt Cenaria, everyone has an ulterior motive.

So how is it?

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I really like this series. Looking at it from a distance, it’s certainly problematic. The writing is clunky at times, the text attempts to confront serious subjects but ends up feeling clumsy if well-intentioned, and the worldbuilding isn’t far removed from the Belgariad-style “take a real-world culture, reduce it to its stereotypes, and slap a new name on it”. The plot is only marginally better developed than “ninja are totally sweet and flip out ALL THE TIME”. On paper, this series shouldn’t work at all. But there’s something about it that I still find charming.

The world is heavily indebted to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time series, to the point of a one-to-one correspondence in many cases. The plot and history of the world is different enough that it doesn’t feel too derivative, but Jordan was obviously a huge influence.

The series isn’t attempting to redefine genre fiction. It’s remarkably unpretentious. It’s goal is to tell a cool, action-packed story about magically enhanced assassins and on that front it succeeds quite well. The series also does a better job of balancing the fun of the action scenes with at least some moral balance. Unlike most stories of this type that I’ve encountered, pacifists aren’t treated as foolish, naïve characters. Their views are treated credibly and while it’s the nature of a totally awesome story about ninja to end up resolving things with violence this is in many ways treated as a failure.

Still, some of the attempts to deal with more serious issues can end up coming off as insensitive to readers. While not horrifically explicit, the series does feature your standard array of “dark fantasy” evil stuff. Weeks attempts to confront these issues seriously but doesn’t really succeed. It could be that I’m being excessively charitable here, but I don’t see Weeks using rape as “just” a plot device or a cheap motivation. Rape is explicitly distinguished from consensual sex and is presented as a tool used to dominate and terrorize victims rather than having anything to do with sexual desire. Still, the way things are presented somehow manages to fall somewhere in between using evil for shock value alone and dealing with these issues in a mature, reasonable manner. There definitely are a couple of moments that exist more or less solely to be shocking, which may blunt the more serious attempts to deal with other issues.

When I first read the series, I also felt like it ended up with the unfortunate implication that homosexuality is the result of childhood abuse. The most recent time I re-read the series I didn’t end up getting that impression, but because of the sequence of events it is really easy to read that into the story.

Part of my issue is I feel like Weeks gets subject to a stricter analysis than others do. The Wheel of time series, which is a clear influence here, has a much larger problem with how it handles issues related to sexual abuse. Most of the successful fantasy epics have similar problems, Terry Goodkind’s works being a standout example. In my mind, Weeks tends to get unfairly singled out here because he doesn’t have as established a reputation and there’s no attempt at creating a “literary” story here.

A better comparison might be to its peers, action-oriented fantasy that seeks to be “edgy” and unpretentious. The two things that come to mind immediately are The warded man and The half-orcs series. The former I’ve addressed at length and is far more horrific than The night angel trilogy. The half-orcs is a closer comparison, but I feel like Weeks does a better job than Dalgish of actually taking these issues seriously. In The half-orcs, Dalgish is somewhat hampered by the heavy Dungeons and Dragons influence, where the Good vs. Evil alignment system reduces potential moral complexity to a huge degree. It’s not to say that Dalgish is on par with The warded man, more to say that Dalgish doesn’t adequately address the implications and consequences of what it depicts as effectively. Weeks stumbles here as well, but to my mind there’s enough going on that it’s still worth reading.

The night angel trilogy presents itself as a visceral action-oriented trilogy with over-the-top special effects, but it also shows a conscious effort to avoid using the standard “dark fantasy” tropes thoughtlessly or exploitatively. It’s not super successful but it’s successful enough that I’ve read the series four times now. It’s epic enough to be satisfying but significantly quicker to read than the other standards of the genre.

Recommendation

I used to recommend this series fairly regularly but I haven’t done so in a long time. Its more problematic aspects make it difficult for me to recommend whole-heartedly.  It’s a good series for people looking for something like Karen Miller but with a more “masculine”, action-packed sensibility and in general people to whom I have recommended it have loved it.. Now I’d probably recommend The necromancer by Gail Z. Martin over The night angel trilogy, but depending on the individual I’m not ruling out recommending this series – especially since it’s a more manageable length.

I haven’t read Weeks’s more recent work, but from what I hear his writing has improved considerably and I’ve been told that many of the issues I mention above have been adequately addressed. I’m intrigued by the possibility and at some point I do plan on checking out that series.

 

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