The Black Prism: Afterthoughts

The Black Prism
by Brent Weeks
763 pages
four_half-stars_0

I can’t remember the last time a book put me through such an emotional wringer. Maybe The Man with the Knives or Last Argument of Kings. I don’t feel emotionally capable of experiencing my own life right now. Goddamnit, this was a good book. Not a flawless book, but a damn good one. How good? Well, halfway through reading it some asshole stole my Kindle and I was more pissed off that my reading had been interrupted than that someone had made off with a $100 piece of electronics. It was that good.

The Black Prisim
Or, what you get when you combine The Man in the Iron Mask with a bag of Skittles.
(Also spoilers, in case you’re new here)

The Black Prism is something of a bildungsroman epic/flintlock fantasy that is stripped of all the irritating parts of both genres. What’s left is a muscular narrative that is at times comedy of errors and at times painful tragedy, filled with charismatic characters, a fully fleshed out world, and lots and lots and lots of magic and battle and bloodshed.

The plot is somewhat buried and muted and typical of this sub-genre: ‘there is a growing and powerful uprising that threatens to unseat the entire sociopolitical and religious status quo that we must attempt to quell because we’re the good guys…. mostly. The marginally-better-guys, at least.’ But arguably the plot isn’t what makes this book shine. It’s the characters and individual events that punch you repeatedly in the emotion bone that make this book so memorable. And that twist! A book has never pulled the rug out from under me with such effect. I was floored, and completely happy to be so.

So let’s talk about the plot. The book more or less centers around Kip, a fat teenager with an abusive mother who watches his entire town and everyone he ever loved burned to the ground yadda yadda, and “Gavin,” the practically omnipotent religious leader of the free world who would be a textbook Mary Sue if he wasn’t so full of lies and dark secrets that you’d expect him to bleed tar. As Kip sets off on a journey to kill the man who destroyed his life, “Gavin” takes up a full bag of FML quests and sorry-not-sorry starts a war in the process. Kip is revealed to be “Gavin’s” son, which makes “Gavin’s” life much more complicated as he juggles the political world while also doing his best to hide some pretty ruinous secrets. As these things tend to happen, all hell breaks loose, the characters have to split up, Kip learns some pretty kickass magical tricks, lots of people die, and the heroes more or less get away. I mean, it’s epic fantasy, what more can I say?

One of the best things about this book is the in media res way it deals with the story’s history. The book takes place 16 years after a disastrous war that ruined an entire country and, predictably, is still rippling effects out into the world. Many of the characters live and breathe the past and present trauma of the war. The history leading up to the events of the book is vibrant and vigorous, and exerts as much influence on the plot as the characters themselves do.

The characters likewise all have complex interpersonal histories that are given to the reader in piecemeal revelations that add delicious layers of complexity to the story. The complicated relationship between Gavin and Dazen in particular injects a level of excitement and intrigue into the story that is refreshing in contemporary fantasy. Likewise, “Gavin’s” relationship to his political and spiritual position in society is rocky and unsettled, giving his character several layers of depth. And if his past weren’t enough to put him in the anti-hero’s seat, this internal moral strife certainly would.

Weeks’ literary talents really shine through in his delivery of an immersive world populated with complex characters and interpersonal relationships that reflect a large part of the human experience. However, there are some moments where the reader’s suspension of disbelief is stretched too far for comfort.

To begin with, Kip’s character lacks consistency in ways that can just barely be explained away by his age. At times he is meek and apologetic, only to be bold and sarcastically brash in the next breath. Weeks seems to be trying to play nature and nurture against each other in this character. On the one hand, being a Guile imbues Kip with a certain degree of bravado and exaggerated ego. On the other hand, his abusive, impoverished upbringing dampens his bravery and his self-esteem. These two competing faucets of Kip’s personality aren’t threaded together particularly well, and the end result is a character who is at times schizophrenically at odds with his own personality.

Secondly, I was pretty disappointed when Karris was captured. I think I actually put the book down for a minute and cried, “Why have you betrayed me?!” Up until then I had been enjoying every single character and arc in the story. I was just really bummed that the SFC had to be captured and subjected to a madman’s gross fantasy. I actually started skimming the chapters in which she was captured, just so I didn’t have to feel such disappointment. To be fair to Weeks in this, the capture scenario is downplayed in the ridiculousness of Garadul’s demands. Furthermore, from a mechanics point of view, Karris’ capture puts a perspective in the enemy camps without fracturing the number of points of view even further. And I did appreciate that “Gavin” didn’t go all White Knight when he learned that Karris had been captured. Weeks kept him focused on the bigger problems and instead sent Kip and Liv to blunder her rescue. So, this whole business with Karris is forgiven. I guess.

Finally, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Liv. Weeks does his best to set up her motivations throughout the course of her arc, however her sudden turn against “Gavin” in particular was hard to swallow. I could understand her misgivings against the Chromeria–Weeks actually does a stellar job of setting that up–however “Gavin” personally gives her no reason to turn against him in the way that she does. It’s her unfounded speculation that does it, which was hard to believe from a reader’s perspective. Likewise, how “Gavin” comes by the information of her turning sides is largely a mystery to the reader.

All that aside, however, The Black Prism is truly a gem within the fantasy library. Without going into too many spoilery details–because you really do have to read the book as it is presented to get the most out of it–here are some of my favorite highlights:

heart 2

– Gavin. Just, everything Gavin. All Gavin. He’s an amazing character all around. Flawless in his perfection and his imperfection.

– That twist. I cannot praise it enough. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about. It’s been weeks since I read it and I still giggle over it. My friends are tired of hearing me talk about it. And I’m gushing about it even here! Gah!

– The magic system. It was ridiculous at first, but the more immersed in the world I got, the more it made sense, and the more glad I was that color was used as the base for the whole thing.

– The Freeing ceremony. The whole thing was soul tearing. I was teary by the end. And loving “Gavin” as a character so much more.

– The final scene with Zymun. Admittedly, I was upset when I first read it. I shook the book and screamed, “You goddamn pyromaniac brat! Snot-nosed little fire starter! *RAGE*” But upon further reflection, it was a good authorial decision. A virtually omnipotent character can only work for the first book of a series. I’m sad, but in a good way.

– The prison break scene. Oh~ I was on the edge of my seat through the whole thing, and at the end, I was cry-laughing. The whole arc with “Dazen” was such a red herring, but in such a good way. I’m very pleased with it.

I’m itching to read the next books in the series. I ran out and bought the next three as soon as I was finished with this one, but sadly I have a semester of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber to read through before I have a month off to read more Weeks. Until then, it’s everything I can do to keep from peeking into the next books to sample what happens next.

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Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #198

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is always a delight to read. I don’t always necessarily like all the stories that they publish, but they tend to pick up stories with either very lovely prose or incredibly thoughtful speculative fiction. Issue #198 features a story about the life of a puritan settlement in America battling against the constant threat of the devil, and a haunting eco-tale about the ghosts of whales harnessed to the lanterns that burn on their oil.

“Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land” by Thomas W. Waldroon
“Whale-Oil” by Sylvia V. Linsteadt

I loved the voice in “Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land,” though the length made the story a bit tedious, and many of the strands it starts felt a bit unfinished by the end. “Whale-Oil” is a story that bleeds vivid colors into the reader’s imagination. With a fairy tale feel and brilliant imagery, “Whale-Oil” is a great piece of speculative fiction.

Read the original stories in issue #198 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. My full review is available at Tangent Online Magazine.

Tangent Reviews: Analog, 3/2016

I think it says a lot about the strength of a writer’s skill when they can grab the attention of a reader who doesn’t read in their genre very often. Science fiction doesn’t usually grip me as hard as fantasy, spec fic or horror does, but nonetheless, the science fiction stories published in Analog give me something to think about, and something to enjoy.

The March issue featured the following original fiction:

“Drummer” by Thomas R. Dolski
“Elderjoy” by Gregory Benford
“Snowbird” by Joe M. McDermott
“The Coward’s Option” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Perfect Bracket” by Howard Hendrix and Art Holcomb
“Unlinkage” by Eric Del Carlo

It’s rare for me, but I enjoyed nearly every single story in this issue, with “Snowbird” and “The Coward’s Option” being my top picks.

Find my full review here at Tangent Online. To subscribe to Analog, click here.

Tangent Reviews: Clockwork Phoenix 5

Clockwork Phoenix 5 is an eclectic collection of speculative fiction stories from a diverse cast of authors. The stories selected reflect the diversity of the authors and while some of them failed to hit the mark with me, they all have something unique to offer the reader.

“The Wind at His Back” by Jason Kimble
“The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones
“The Perfect Happy Family” by Patricia Russo
“The Mirror-City” by Mary Brennan
“Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Squeeze” by Rob Cameron
“A Guide to Birds by Song (After Death)” by A. C. Wise
“The Sorcerer of Etah” by Gray Rinehart
“The Prime Importance of a Happy Number” by Sam Fleming
“Social Visiting” by Sunil Patel
“The Book of May” by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
“The Tiger’s Silent Roar” by Holly Heisey
“Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff
“The Trinitite Golem” by Sonya Taaffe
“Two Bright Venuses” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“By Thread of Night and Starlight Needle” by Shveta Thakrar
“The Games We Play” by Cassandra Khaw
“The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
“Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson
“The Souls of Horses” by Beth Cato

I have five favorites in this anthology. First, Patricia Russo’s “The Perfect Happy Family” for its charming characters and its minimalist, surrealist apocalyptic setting. “Squeeze” by Rob Cameron is a wonderful benign ghost story, and the closest to a classical narrative in this anthology. Rich Larson’s “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” is a fantastic alien protagonist story that loops in a way that makes me smile. I appreciated Sonya Taaffe’s “The Trinitite Golem” for the way it slips fluidly between reality and myth and fantasy. Finally, “The Sorcerer of Etah” I enjoyed for its arctic setting and the interesting way it presented problems for the main character.

My full review can be found at Tangent Online. Clockwork Phoenix 5 can be purchased on Amazon.

Tangent Reviews: Nightmare#40

Nightmare #40 had a story with a similar theme as the last Nightmare issue I reviewed, which threw more for a bit of a loop. It was the best story in the issue, so I can’t complain, but the coincidence made me smile.

“Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller
“Vulcanization” by Nisi Shawl

“Angel, Monster, Man” is a bit of a lengthy story, but it was my favorite of the issue, both for its subject matter and for its presentation. “Vulcanization” I liked less. I didn’t like the main character, I thought the pacing was off, and the emotion stretched too far into satire to make sense within the story.

My full review is available at Tangent Online. Read the original stories on Nightmare’s website.

Tangent Reviews: Fantasy & Science Fiction Jan/Feb 2016

It’s been a while since I had the pleasure of reading another issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. They publish enough stories and at such great quality that there are usually several per issue that I really enjoy. The January/February 2016 issue is no exception.

“Vortex” by Gregory Benford
“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine
“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North
“The White Piano” by David Gerrold
“Caspar D. LuckinBill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven
“Robot from the Future” by Terry Bisson
“Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky
“Touch me All Over” by Betsy James
“Telltale” by Matthew Hughes
“The Visionaries” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” by E. Lily Yu

Of the above twelve stories, “The White Piano” is hands down my favorite. The voice and the frame story both form a very complex piece of writing craft and I can absolute appreciate the work that went into the formation of this story. “Telltale” is another great story. It’s part of a larger, ongoing narrative, but new readers should have no problem understanding the character and the premise, nonetheless.

Read my full review at Tangent Online Magazine. The issue can be purchased from Fantasy & Science Fiction’s website.

Tangent Reviews: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #26

I sometimes feel that it’s hard to place my specific tastes in literature. Much like my music listening habits, I’ll read almost anything (with a few exceptions) and I’ll dump on my favorite genres as often as I’ll praise works in genres I hardly ever delve into. There are a few things though, that I really look for to improve my opinion of a particular work: strong characters, decent plot, contextually plausible events, and if not humor then at least clever writing. I can enjoy pretty much any story, so long as it has those elements. Except I also have ridiculously high standards, and when I read a story that doesn’t quite do it for me, I say so. So it is with issue #26 of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. I love the genre, fantasy is near and dear to my heart, but I couldn’t get fully into these three stories:

“The Blue Lamp” by Robert Zoltan
“Beggar’s Belief” by Jon Byrne
“The Voice of the Green Flame” by J.R. Restrick

The best of them is absolutely “The Blue Lamp.” It has a decent rise and fall of tension, and some characters I could get behind, but it meandered a bit and some of the mystery fell a little flat. Still, it’s a solid fantasy story for anyone looking for a read and run sort of experience.

My full review is at Tangent Online. If you wish to read the original stories, they can be found at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

Tangent Reviews: Aurealis #86

Issue number 86 of Aurealis has two short stories that may or may not appeal to fantasy fans. Personally, I wasn’t entirely impressed by either of them. “Potkin” is the stronger of the two, if only because “Adrift on the Smokey Sea” felt way too on point for an adventure story. If you like Sherlock Holmes style stories where the protagonist and his side kick already know all the answers to every not-puzzle they encounter, then it might be the story for you. As for me, I like a little sense of danger and the unknown in my reading, and this story didn’t do it for me. “Potkin” on the other hand, has a few good things going for it, but it feels too short to contain everything it’s trying to say. Read the stories and judge for yourself.

“Potkin” by Janet Haigh
“Adrift on the Smokey Sea” by Lachlan Huddy

My full review is at Tangent Online. You can purchase this issue on the Aurealis website to read the original stories.

Tangent Reviews: Sci Phi Journal #8

Going way, way back (god I haven’t updated in months, even the crickets have packed up and moved on to more active audiences) I reviewed the 8th issue of Sci Phi Journal in November of last year. None of the stories in particular caught my attention, but here is what issue #8 had to offer:

 “The Trade’s On” by J’nae Rae Spano
“Be Careful What You wish For” by L. P. Melling
“reBirth” by Katherine Gripp
“The Pondering Pacifist” by John Kaniecki
“Walk” by Gunnar De Winter
“They Shall Be As Gods” by John Rovito

Like I said, none of this issue’s stories really stood out to me. In each something important seemed to be missing to really bring the concepts alive. As a result, I never felt fully satisfied with what I read. Sci Phi Journal is, however, still a young publication, and a dedicated venue for soft science fiction, primarily philosophy. As it grows into its own audience and niche I expect the stories it publishes will be tighter and more vibrant all around as well.

My full review of the issue can be found at Tangent Online. If you wish to read the original stories, you can purchase the issue on Amazon.

Tangent Reviews: Nightmare

Nightmare #37 was a special issue with the theme “Queers Destroy Horror.” Featuring four stories, it was something of a mixed bag. Matthew Bright’s “Golden Hair, Red Lips” stole the show with a modern telling of the hedonism of Dorian Grey. “Dispatches From a Hole in the World” by Sunny Moraine ramped up the creepy factor and ended the issue on a truly unsettling note.

  • “Golden Hair, Red Lips” by Matthew Bright
  • “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong.
  • “The Lord of Corrosion” by Lee Thomas
  • “Dispatches From a Hole in the World” by Sunny Moraine.

My full review is available at Tangent Online.

Read the original stories at Nightmare.