Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks Lightbringer Book 1

The Black Prism

The Black Prism marks the first book in Brent Weeks’ second fantasy series, Lightbringer.  Having reached popular acclaim with his first fantasy series The Night Angel trilogy, Lightbringer was hotly anticipated by epic fantasy fans.  Initially conceived as a trilogy, Lightbringer has now been reframed as a tetralogy.  Set in an entirely new fantasyland, The Black Prism focuses on the story of the semi-religious mage ruler of a land of seven satrapies, Gavin Guile, his discovery of an illegitimate son, Kip, from the civil war that placed him in power, and the rise of new civil unrest under the banner of a rebel leader.  As a result the novel is a blend of magery, battle and political intrigue and the story is delivered with energy, vigour and enthusiasm.  Those familiar with Weeks’ previous work will recognise many of the same strengths and weaknesses of his writing in this book.

One of the major strengths of Weeks’ writing has been his ability to create strong, likable characters who engage the reader and dominate the page, and Gavin Guile, the central protagonist, is no exception.  Gavin is the Prism, the semi-religious ruler of the Seven Satrapies, who serves as a religious focus, chief magic user and, is the titular ruler of the land.  His power is checked by the ruling council of Colours, essentially a secular political council which shapes the mundane and practical aspects of government and prevents the Prism from having absolute power and control.

Gavin initially appears to be the stereotypical over-powered magic-using ruler, but as the story develops, he grows in depth and complexity.  His presumed arrogance is justified through both his effortless command of enormous power and his frustration at the constraints placed on him by the ruling council.  In fact, his interactions with both his bodyguards and the petty political councillors provide several great character moments as well as some much needed levity.  Weeks is careful to explore Gavin’s personality slowly over time so that the reader must assess and reassess assumptions and presumptions repeatedly throughout the narrative.  The political manoeuvring, the family ties and secrets, the personal obligations, as well as Gavin’s irreverent sense of humour add multiple layers to his character that are peeled back chapter after chapter.  This sense of revelation never feels artificial or contrived, but as a natural consequence of getting to know Gavin better.

Gavin’s personal history, the conflict with his brother, and his familial and interpersonal relationships prove to be an engaging aspect of both his character and also have dramatic repercussions for the realm at large.  In particular, his relationship to another central character, Kip, Gavin’s acknowledged bastard son.  Not only does this introduce an important character to the story but thrusts Gavin unexpectedly into the role of father to a teenage boy.  Both Gavin and Kip are depicted as attempting to navigate the bonds and supposed bonds associated with the revelation of their kinship, and Weeks explores many of the steps and missteps such a dramatic change in status and relationship can wreak.

Kip, himself, is not as strongly drawn as Gavin, but again Weeks has been at pains to avoid stereotype and cliché.  An overweight, clumsy yet verbally quick character, Kip subverts many of the assumptions of hero-in-training or ‘chosen one’ status often piled on young Fantasy heroes.  Unfortunately, while he is at times realistically drawn, there is an unevenness to his portrayal.  Initially and frequently cowardly, he miraculously gains heroic courage at the most opportune moments, and, despite lacking any formal training in magic, is a miraculously capable and powerful drafter (mage).  Some of this is implied as hereditary and thus falls into the ‘chosen one’ camp of Fantasy, while others feel like narrative necessity forced on the character, rather than a natural reaction Kip might have.  However, there is a sense that the relationship between Kip and Gavin will continue to evolve and grow more complex over the next novels, and that Kip will continue to grow and solidify as a rounded and fleshed out character.

Weeks has also managed to include several well drawn secondary characters, not the least is Karris Whiteoak, a drafter and onetime lover of Gavin’s brother.  Despite the temptation to perceive Karris as the woman torn between two brothers and simple love interest, Weeks allows her to develop personality and character of her own.  As a Blackguard and a bichrome (able to draft two full colours) Karris holds her own in the action sequences, but it is her depth of character and hints of complex backstory that allow her to hold her own against the other characters.  As with Gavin and Kip, Karris is given the page length to flesh out hints of backstory, and explore aspects of her evolving personality and complex history.  However it is Gavin who remains the focus of the narrative, and the most developed and interesting of the characters.

One of the greatest weaknesses of The Black Prism is also one of its strengths.  In the creation of chromaturgy, essentially a magic system based on the spectrum of light, Weeks does not strike a balance between the system being part of the world, and the system dominating the narrative.  As a relatively innovative system Weeks explains much of its inner workings in an attempt to familiarise the reader with the new concepts.  He also gives over significant proportions of the narrative to exploring its potential and occasionally inconsistent limitations.  As a result the text overly emphasises new terms such as drafting, chromaturgy, and the associated language of the system in a manner that would not be necessary and would be viewed as clumsy if a more traditional system had been utilised.  The system itself uses a spectrum of light: sub-red (infra-red), red, orange, yellow, green, blue, ultra-violet.  Each colour can be drafted by chromaturgs, or drafters, who can shape the light into matter called luxin, or create direct effects from light.  Each colour possesses its own attributes and abilities, and drafting has both repercussions and ramifications for the drafter.  For instance, drafting blue distances the drafter from emotion, making them more thoughtful, logical and, if used to excess, obsessive.

So while the concept of different magical abilities being drawn from different colours is not that new or startling, Weeks manages to create a fascinating and fairly rigorous system from these humble beginnings and as a result the chromaturgy system appears both new and innovative.  The inventiveness that Weeks brings to the creation of the system and its use is a high point of the novel.  As the character of Gavin experiments with novel uses for chromaturgy Weeks manages to impart a real sense of adventure and excitement of a character pushing the bounds of accepted knowledge and practice.  When this is combined with the fact that a character can only draft a finite amount of light in their lifetime before descending into madness and becoming a colour ‘wight’, a monstrous version of themselves shaped by the magic, Weeks imbues the magic system with a strong limiting force and a sense of its importance and cost.

Unfortunately for Weeks, this innovative system becomes too much a focus of the narrative and not simply part of the world.  Despite this form of magic ostensibly being part of the world, none of the characters use informal or slang terminology to describe the art, its effects or its practitioners.  Given the ubiquity of the magic in the world, one would expect at least the occasional use of a slang term, especially between the rival chromaturgs to denigrate the others.  Non-magic users especially would likely have terms to describe magic users as a simple matter of course.   In our own world, slang propagates faster than a dictionary can keep track of the terms, but apparently in Weeks’ world, several hundred years of chromaturgy is not enough for slang and denigrating terms to evolve.  This lack of integration of the magic system into the worldbuilding is exacerbated by another telling fact.  While Weeks’ narrator makes it plain that chromaturgy is an exceptionally rare ability, almost every single featured character, important or not, is a drafter.  For something so rare it is appallingly commonplace in the novel.  As a result it removes some of the novelty from the practice of the magic and undercuts some of the believability of the fictional reality.

Despite this, however, Weeks has created an engaging world, fascinating characters, and has placed enough plot hooks to guarantee a solid reading base for the trilogy.   The complex backstory relating to civil war between Gavin and his brother.  The ongoing civil conflict with the rise of a new challenger to the title of prism.  The interpersonal relationships between characters as they navigate fairly substantial shifts in their private and personal lives.  The abundant action sequences which range from well constructed individual fights to large scale battles.  There is a lot to enjoy in Weeks writing, and he continues to prove he is one of the strongest voices of new fantasy authors.

(originally published in NYRSF)

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