Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brent Weeks, A Deathtrap Designer With Morals

What Brent Weeks does is create a playground in very conventional stories. I wouldn’t say he’s rewriting them, but definitely updating. His work is in two separate series: The Night Angel (3 books, 1 novella) and The Lightbringer (4 books). Night Angel is about a remorseful killer-for-hire trying to wash himself clean of a dirty life. Lightbringer has two threads tying together, one of an unassuming young boy who finds out he’s special and destined for great things, the second a riff on The Man In The Iron Mask. It sounds pretty standard, right?

That’s fine. Once Weeks has all the toys setup he lets loose and starts up twist after twist. And not always in the opposite direction of what one would expect. He doesn’t use it like a trick, he’s thoughtful enough we can call it a technique.  Why it works so well is, matched up with a story any of us could call the shots on, the reader can’t ever be sure if he’s going to play a particular scene straight or spin it around. Then his sadistic side comes out and blindsides you. Cruelty is spread over the entire cast, so you’ll never know what position anyone will be in in the next chapter, how that’ll change their priorities, or maybe if they aren’t who they’ve said they were. It got to the point that mid-way through the second Night Angel book, if a character ever had something go their way I’d start grinning like mad because I know that’s only so Weeks can take it away in dramatic fashion. He excels at torture. What he did to his Aspiring King has stayed with me for months. And the beautiful thing is that each time something horrible happens, the story gets better, the characters become stronger (both in storytelling terms as well as in the fictional universe). The artificial limits of vulnerability placed on the different ranks of character is leveled. The excitement this produces can’t be understated because it is the reason to read these books.

But that’s why the ending leaves me bothered by Weeks, by his unwillingness to break convention despite roughing it up so. He litters the landscape with such shocking turns of event that it feels, in the moment to moment frenzy of reading, that anything can happen. Nobody is safe and evil, honestly, looks like the favorite to win. But the story won’t stray from Morality Tale territory. The main character is definitely going to live, learn valuable life lessons, meet one girl who will steal his heart (You only know 3 fucking women! You don’t know what love is!), and uphold virtuous ideas. Yeah, the conscienceless killer with the power of a demi-God fights to install the Good King and make everyone happy. The rebel slots himself into the machinery of what he fought against. Why am I being sheltered? Why does all the fun from before surrender into preachy monologues about Love’s place in the universe? The same writer who had a man eat stale, piss-soaked, bread wants to champion human dignity? Thankfully, The Happy Ending is bought with good people forced into bad situations, so it’s at least palatable.

In fact, Week’s construction of Good and Evil has considerable weight. He doesn’t just gesture toward lofty ideas and say “those”, he builds from the ground up what Good looks like and Evil. The city where most of Night Angel takes place is so thoroughly depraved, the character of the average citizen conveyed with so much careful sympathy, that you won’t be able to stop yourself from really wanting all their problems to go away. It’s the same with Lightbringer. You can cheer for the self-obsessed, pure bad, villain, or imagine how much cooler the world would be with less ego. In this way, the typically uninspiring Good actual deserves victory rather than it just guaranteed it. The horror that needs to be headed off will strike the reader as legitimate horror. If you’re going to write Good vs. Evil, at least make it count, and Weeks does.

Obviously, a man that puts the time into creating solid concepts to hand the story on does absolute wonders with character. It’s a shame that Night Angel suffers here, with a supporting cast that, to a one, outshines the lead. They’re so rich it feels like they got pigeon holed in the roles ascribed them. And the follow-up novella actually features the much more interesting Durzo Blint, though any of the other characters could easily support one. Kylar (the lead of Night Angel), who we’re stuck with, stayed flat for me during all three books. The little bit of character he did show I found grating, from jumping life-styles once he learns the grass is never greener, to having boring life goals (“Settling down” is never acceptable in fiction), only racing around to solve every problem that arises, and the biggest, displaying an astonishing and frustrating disregard for the incredible. He’s “given” a talking “suit”, made by the greatest Mage to ever walk his world, and repeatedly tells it to shut-up. A novella could be written about the suit. Kylar was too much the “Every Man” plot device. “Accidentally” doing things to serve the interests of one party or another (progressing story), but never being conscious of it. He likewise sapped the ending of real impact, which it was set up to deliver.

Lightbringer reveres that status, with a devilishly complex, charming man front and center, but paired with support that feels too comfortable in their roles (exception given to The White). They each do well enough shouldering their weight of the story, they just don’t leap off the page like everyone from Night Angel. It’s how the stories are setup. Night Angel has Kylar finding his way in a crazy world of shifting alliances across multiple parties; Lightbringer has Gavin holding all the cards. All the mysterious history, incredible abilities, fun, ect is sucked up into on man. As events spiral out of his control, I suspect others will claim a greater share of the wealth.