Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: "The Way of Shadows" by Brent Weeks

As a reviewer, I get more books than I could possibly read. Often, I find myself making fairly quick decisions about what goes on the reading pile and what goes in the donation box. Sometimes, I know, I make the wrong decision. I was reminded of that by Brent Weeks’ “The Way of Shadows,” which I’m sure I received a review copy of at one point.

Recently, I found myself in the Indianapolis airport, facing about three hours in the air and another hour and a half in the Dallas airport. The book that I had read on the flight to Indianapolis had turned out to be a snoozer that I didn’t have any intention of finishing, and I had to have something to occupy my time on the way home. This book caught my eye in the bookstore, and my attention as soon as I started reading.

Azoth is a street rat, scrounging and stealing to survive and pay his tribute to the older kids who run the guild. The Big that he answers to is a particularly unsavory character by the name of Rat, who makes life miserable for Azoth and his friends Jarl and Doll Girl. While waiting under the floors of a drinking establishment hoping to catch some loose change falling through the boards, he has a chance encounter with the famed assassin Durzo Blint. Only the word assassin is an insult to Blint. He is what is known as a wetboy, a killer that uses both skill and magic to stalk his prey, and he is almost unstoppable – the best of the best.

After the encounter and seeing a taste of the power that Blint wields, Azoth decides that he will convince the wetboy to apprentice him. The killer, though, has no use for an apprentice. Through persistence, Azoth gets Blint to agree to take him on, under one condition – that he proves himself capable by killing Rat. To escape from the Warrens and save his friends, Azoth will have to give up everything he’s ever known and take on a new life as wetboy-in-training Kylar Stern.

To be honest, I thought I’d read the ultimate assassin tale in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, but the first volume in Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy certainly gives it a run for its money. Weeks’ world is a gritty place – mean, nasty and much more realistic than the usual fantasy fare. He’s populated the world with a set of very interesting and colorful characters that range from heroic to despicable, common to mysterious and everything in between.

Weeks also offers some surprises in his story line. It’s not often that I don’t see a twist coming in a book, but “The Way of Shadows” managed to surprise me in at least a couple of places. Weeks weaves quite a few threads and subplots through the book, but still manages to bring them altogether to give readers a satisfying ending that doesn’t leave them hanging.

The real strength of this book, though, is the beautifully drawn action sequences that Weeks writes. I’ve always been a fan of R.A. Salvatore’s combat scenes, but there are times in this book that Weeks makes him look like an amateur. Heavily detailed and artistically rendered, Weeks’ action will keep you reading breathlessly.

I’ll definitely be picking up the second and third volumes of the Night Angel trilogy, and they’ll move immediately to the top of my reading list.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: "Unseen Academicals" by Terry Pratchett

I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels in recent years. Pratchett remains one of my favorite authors and the early books in the series are some of my favorite ever. But over the last 10 or 12 years, the quality, at least to me, has been up and down. His latest, “Unseen Academicals,” falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It’s not bad, but it’s not one of my favorites, either.

The wizards of Unseen University discover that a large donation to their cause is in danger if they don’t agree to field a football team. The football crowd is a rough and rowdy group, and the game has very few rules. The Patrician, the ever-scheming Lord Vetinari, has also taken an interest in the game and encourages the wizards not only to field a team, but to bring some rules and order to the game. Naturally, that doesn’t go over well with elements of the rough-and-tumble crowd dedicated to the sport.

In the middle of the chaos are a reformed goblin who has been sent to Ankh-Morpork to find worth, the son of a legendary football player who has sworn to his mother he won’t get involved in the game, a beautiful but somewhat dense serving girl who may turn out to be the Discworld’s first fashion model and a no-nonsense cook that tries to hold everything together.

Perhaps if I were a fan of soccer, the sports side of the story might mean a little more to me. Being that I’m an "ugly American" who believes that football is played with an oblong ball and should involve large, heavily-padded men colliding with each other, it doesn’t quite impact me as much. On the other hand, I did enjoy the story of Mr. Nutt, the goblin, who has been reprogrammed and sent into the world to prove that goblins can change. (They’re all innately evil, you know.) Nutt is, quite purposely, one of the most human characters in the entire book, and his journey is both amusing and, at times, profound.

The wizards, as usual, provide their share of comedic moments, whether it be a “traditional” game in which they chase a bird around the university, their ineptness at sports as they try to learn to play football or the head of the Department of Post-Mortem Communications, Dr. Hix’s, constant reminders to the staff that he represents the dark arts. (“Skull ring, remember?”) Most of the laughs come from their misadventures and there are some good ones.

“Unseen Academicals,” while far from Pratchett’s best work, is still an entertaining read and well worth the effort for fans of the author and the Discworld.