Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

by Brent Weeks The Black Prism

Lightbringer #1

Written: Brent Weeks [website]

Published: Orbit, Hardcover

When: August 25th, 2010

ISBN: 0316075558

Obtained via: Purchase

Cover blurb: 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.

* * *

There is so much to address about The Black Prism. We have a very ambitious new fantasy world, a unique and fairly complicated magic system, an interesting political set-up, and some pretty ambiguous characters.

First, the magic system – which consists of an inherent ability of certain members of this society to turn pure light into a plastic-y substance of various states of solidity. This substance is called luxin, and consists of the various colors of the visible spectrum of light plus what in the book is called “superviolet” and “sub-red”. Not all people in this world can create luxin, however, and of those that can, none can create luxin from more than 2 or 3 colors out of the entire spectrum. Except, of course, for the man known as the Prism.

Which brings us to Gavin Guile, the current political leader of the Seven Satrapies. Gavin is a wealth of contradictions. He is a savvy politician; a powerful user of the entire spectrum of luxin; a kind and gentle man, who accepts the sudden shame of a half-competent bastard son with barely a care for how it will affect his own plans. We don’t see all of his five goals, but the ones we do see are noble indeed. Yet, he is also the victor of a vicious war who left thousands dead, an entire satrapy virtually destroyed, and his own brother deposed. He then rather callously dumps his fiancée and sets himself up as the supreme ruler of the entire kingdom.

Then there’s Kip, the aforementioned bastard, whose mouth moves fastest, mind moves second, and legs move last of all. He’s a smart-talking, tubby teenager with low self-esteem whose mouth frequently writes checks his body can’t cash. Kip’s snarky, repetitive comments about his size and abilities is occasionally enough to set one’s teeth on edge, but I think it’s a pretty true vision of what a teenager would be thinking. Because there’s no one more important to a 15-year-old than themselves….

Some people have taken issue with Kip’s repeated self-esteem issues – and there are a lot of them. I’ll admit that Weeks is treading a fine line here between an honest portrayal of a character and one so frustrating and pitiful that you must distance yourself as a reader. But my opinion is that he’s coming down on the side of candor, rather than annoyance. Each reader must ultimately judge that for themselves.

I’m leaving out many compelling characters, of course, and even more compelling events. I read this 626 page hardcover in 2-3 days while working full-time. I think that feat speaks to the draw of this book.

There are tropes here to examine, of course: the poor boy who suddenly finds himself in possession of a noble name and great power; a subject king in rebellion (and a siege!); the girl-fighter who became a warrior to hide her vulnerabilities. Every fantasy, by virtue of being called fantasy, must have one or two. I think Weeks has done a pretty good job of stacking them together in a unique new way.

The magic system, in my opinion, is what that in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker should have been. This is not a knock against that book (which was excellent in its own way); there was plenty going on there and I understand why Sanderson chose not to take that opportunity. However, I’ve been curious to see what a magic system using color and light as separate functions would look like, and I’m pleased that Weeks has managed to do it so well. I’m curious to find out why the various colors have different degrees of solidity and I hope that’s explored further in later books. I’d love to know why, for instance, the author chose yellow as a liquid while blue is a solid, etc.

Ultimately, though, I think this book speaks a lot about whether one can overcome their past and make a better future. Gavin is trying to heal the wounds of a pretty horrific war. He’s lied. He’s murdered. In his mind, both were for the better good. Is that enough to overcome the choices he has made to get where he is? As the first book in a series, we obviously don’t yet have the answer. But it’s the question that is important.

The same goes for Kip. He’s the poor son of a drug-addicted, abusive mother and an (until now) absent father. His home satrapy is conquered by Gavin’s war, and then fifteen years later, his hometown is razed by soldiers of his own King. In this case, Kip’s situation didn’t spring from his own decisions, but he still has a terrible past. Are the brave deeds he accomplishes during the course of this book enough to separate him from that past? Again, we don’t know the answer, but the questioning is even more crucial.

The Black Prism gives us layer upon layer of past decisions and actions affecting current affairs, and it makes a truly intriguing web of events. I’m excited about seeing the rest of these consequences unfold. Once you top that with some well-rounded, three-dimensional characters, each with noble intentions and dangerously real flaws, you get a spicy recipe for a series that I will definitely be lining up to finish.

Buy The Black Prism: Amazon | B&N | Indie Bound

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