I don’t often do book reviews. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s mainly because I feel I get too immersed in a novel. For things like the Summer Reading List Challenge, I’ll do my best. Otherwise, I’d rather talk in more general terms than a single work.
Well, let’s do that, then. Instead of reviewing a book, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an entire series. Specifically, the Lightbringer series, written by Brent Weeks, which I just finished reading.
This fantasy novel series consists of five entries, making it as much of a trilogy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lately, it seems that five-part series are gaining popularity, as this is the fourth I’ve really delved into in recent years. (The others, if you’re wondering: Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; Django Wexler’s Infernal Battalions; and The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham.) I will say that I like this better than the traditional trilogy for genre fiction. It allows more room for expansion, more detail, and an overall slower pace. Some of my favorite things, in terms of reading.
As this isn’t a book review, I won’t go into great detail about each individual novel, but it helps to know something about the story.
First off, the list:
- The Black Prism
- The Blinding Knife
- The Blood Mirror
- The Broken Eye
- The Burning White
Each has its own story, but they are by no means self-contained. Later installments directly continue storylines started earlier, and The Burning White begins with an author’s note that some of its events are concurrent with the conclusion of The Broken Eye. So it’s very much a series, not an anthology.
The overall story revolves around a war between the corrupt, bureaucratic Chromeria and the anarchic White King. In the first novel, those seeds are planted, and they grow throughout the series, coming to a climax in The Burning White. Along the way, we follow a small cadre of characters who play various parts on both sides. Almost all are larger than life, or else they become so. There’s magic, cloak-and-dagger politicking, lots of humor, and an incredible number of battle scenes. Something for everybody, assuming you’re into epic fantasy.
And I would call it epic. Lightbringer features world-changing magical powers, godlike entities, ancient secrets, and anything else you might look for. Weeks builds the tension and the stakes as the series progresses, so it feels natural that the farm boy grows into a hero for the ages. It’s “The One” told in a good way.
In my opinion, the absolute best part of this series is its worldbuilding. You know I love that. (If you don’t, just read, oh, anything else I write on here.) As we’re dealing with fantasy, that includes what I consider the most innovative aspect of Lightbringer: its magic system.
The whole thing is based on light and the spectrum, hence the “Chromeria” name above. Magic users in the setting are able to draw on light to activate their powers, which manifest in one of two ways: an effect or a physical substance called luxin. Different colors have different powers, though the people of the setting divide the rainbow into only five colors—indigo and violet are left out. So blue is the highest, and it covers intelligence, rationality, and general left-brained thinking. Not bad for my favorite color.
Going down the line, green is mainly for raw strength, yellow covers a nebulous sort of balance, orange works on fear and similar emotions, and red covers “passions” such as anger and lust. But here’s where the trick comes in. Some of those who can use these powers also have access to other parts of the spectrum. They can literally see into the infrared (“sub-red” in the text, to represent their lower state of advancement or something) or ultraviolet (“super-violet”) parts, even though this is physically impossible for human eyes.
Believable it is not, especially when you get into the rare magic users who have access to the forbidden “colors” of paryl (high-frequency microwaves) and chi (long-wavelength X-rays). Still, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of deep thought behind the lore. Yellow is supposed to be the balance color, for example, but it’s the most unstable when brought into material form, meaning that the spectrum is a source rather than a sink. Tetrachromats exist and are known; they’re the only ones who can properly stabilize yellow, and (this is accurate) they’re almost always women. One of the main characters is red-green colorblind, which comes into play. Infrared magic controls fire and allows one to see heat, naturally enough. Despite the fantastical parts, it’s logical, something I believe is the hallmark of a good magic system.
Downsides are necessary to explain why magic hasn’t taken over the world, and Lightbringer gives a pretty good one. People can only use a finite amount of color magic in a lifetime. They even have a visible manifestation, in the form of “halos” of the color they’ve drawn on that slowly grow to fill their irises. Once they burst through, that’s a sign that the magic has begun to take over the user’s mind. Responsible people go to a willing sacrifice. Those who don’t become “wights”, and are often hunted. And this forms the central conflict of the series.
The Burning White gives a midichlorian-like explanation for the process, but that’s not necessary. What matters is that it all comes together. Using too much magic drives you insane, says the common lore. But what if that’s wrong? What if you could reverse the process? Some people are immune, so it makes perfect sense that these would reach positions of power.
Beyond the magic system, Lightbringer offers a somewhat atypical fantasy world. There’s a mishmash of influences from Europe and the Middle East, with the primary empire called the Seven Satrapies (satrap comes from Persian). Religious and magic-related terms and names tend to be Latin or Greek. Fallen immortals all have names drawn from Near Eastern mythology, such as Abaddon and Belial. One territory is full of Irish influences; another uses Hebrew. Very little fantasy, though.
Technology is another important part of a fantasy setting. Here, Weeks bucks the traditional trend of the High Middle Ages, instead placing his world in a kind of early modern era. Gunpowder weapons are common, from cannons down to pistols. A number of mechanical devices exist. And the technological progress is deftly interwoven with the magic system: lenses, glassmaking, anything to do with light is far beyond the circa 1600 feel of the rest of the world.
Magic and religion also tend to have a curious relationship. With Lightbringer, they’re again combined in a reasonably intelligent manner. The Chromeria represents a monotheistic (and very Catholic) faith, while the enemies are often described as pagans. Cosmic beings lesser than the creator deity exist. Many of them are called “fallen”, mirroring Christian legend. Prophets abound on both sides, and some of them even have a true gift. The sacrificial ceremony for magic users who have gone too far is a sacred one. And so on. Again, smart, and a good use of existing pieces.
The culture, much like the naming, shows a number of influences. Fortunately, modern identity politics doesn’t seem to be one of them. One minor character is a confirmed lesbian (the text uses the term tribadist, another of those little details I like). The protagonist is described as having darker skin, but it seems to be closer to Mediterranean or Arab than African. But that’s about it. Races and sexes mix freely. Merit and magic are the ideals for advancement, although political connections often overshadow them. It’s refreshingly escapist.
An innovative magic system, a sensible cultural context, a lack of annoying modernity. The setting for Lightbringer comes closer to my preference than anything I’ve read not written by Brandon Sanderson or, well, myself. But setting does not a story make. We need good characters, too.
Well, here’s where things start to get a little hairy. Yes, this series has some great, memorable characters. The protagonist, Kip, begins The Black Prism as…not one of them. He’s an overweight loner who spends his days being bullied by neighbors, his nights abused by his mother. Beaten down, no friends, the object of mockery. Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.
When I started reading The Black Prism in 2011, I saw a lot of myself in Kip. He quickly became one of my favorite main characters in fantasy, simply because of how real he was. This was the escape I needed: someone like me becoming better. By the time I finished The Burning White nine years later, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The character did, yet so many of the more mundane changes mirrored my own.
Specifically—and I realize I’m digressing here—Kip gets forced into a political marriage, then comes to love his new bride. She started out in the first book as just another bully he had to face, the stereotypical “mean girl” at school who sabotaged his entrance exam and made fun of him for being fat and awkward. Later, we learn that she has plenty of her own problems. She’s highly intelligent, but people consider her a bit of an airhead because she’s, well, busty. Her sister’s orientation brings her further mockery, and events conspire to bring her low at the same time Kip’s rising.
Kip thinks he’s unworthy of someone so beautiful; I think the same. His wife tells him it’s okay, that they can make things work as long as they have love and trust; my partner says the same. Some of the moments they share in The Burning White rang so true to me that I was almost brought to tears. “I have to help her help me,” Kip thinks at one point, words I needed to read at the perfect moment. “I believe in you,” she tells him at a pivotal point, “but that’s not enough for you, is it? You have to know. For you.” We’ve had that exchange almost word for word. During the final book’s climax, Kip tries to find a way out of a…predicament, and he reflects on all the things he could have done better: “If. If. If.” I wrote those exact same words in a therapy workbook last Friday.
So I’m emotionally invested in the protagonist, far more than in any other series I’ve ever read. But the rest of the main cast is strong. Karris goes beyond the “warrior princess” angle to become not just the strong, independent woman Hollywood wants, but a true leader. Teia has a winding story arc that only ends after a series of epilogues to make Peter Jackson blush; she embodies loyalty and angst and even teenage hormones in a way that leaves her endearing, if a little insane. In later novels, Kip’s soldier bodyguards grow into heroes in their own right, while the head villain of the tale is a proper megalomaniac.
That’s not to say everybody hits the right note. The secondary protagonist is Gavin Guile. The Prism, leader of the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, commander of the victorious forces of the civil war a generation before. He’s an interesting man, for sure. His dark side is creepy, but you can see that he tries to hide it as best he can. But Gavin is one of the main problems with the story as a whole, and here is where we enter spoiler territory, as well as my biggest problems with the Lightbringer series. If you don’t want to know the big twists, skip the next section.
Brent Weeks is a good writer. He’s a master at worldbuilding. He can describe cinematic action scenes in a way I envy. But he can also come up with some of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing even writers of fanfiction would call unbelievable. His other series, the Night Angel trilogy, became legendary for this. I’ve never read it, so I can’t say whether it’s worse than Lightbringer in that regard, but I dearly hope it’s better.
Mostly, the fault I find is that everyone is related, and the relations are downright convoluted. Kip discovers in The Black Prism that he’s Gavin’s son. Except that Gavin isn’t actually Gavin. He replaced his twin brother at the final battle of the civil war they fought twenty years ago. One brother or the other slept with a random woman from the town nearby, and thus Kip was conceived. Except that Gavin’s father claims he actually did that. Meanwhile, Gavin’s other son, Zymun, is a psychopath. Oh, and Karris is his mother. And her brother is the main bad guy.
It only gets worse from there. The real Gavin is alive, we find out in the first fifty pages of The Black Prism. He’s being held in a secret dungeon underneath the Prism’s tower. Except that the fake Gavin goes to kill him one day, only to find he was never there at all…despite a dozen or more chapters from his point of view! The whole thing is a trip, and you can’t blame it all on magic. Some of it has to be the author’s fault.
It’s as though Weeks stopped seeing the forest for the trees. The set-piece reveals are excellent. On their own, I’d eat them up and clamor for a movie version. Too bad they don’t fit into the narrative.
I could say the same for the entire climax sequence of The Burning White. All told, it takes up about a third of the book, almost 300 pages with barely a break to breathe. And it feels like a snowball that turns into an avalanche of insanity. Magic flying everywhere, a conspiracy unmasked, people on all sides looking for whatever advantage they can find. Climax, for both the novel and the series as a whole.
But Gavin’s storyline goes in a different direction. He’s been tasked by assassins with an impossible mission. I’m not making this up. He’s sent to kill God. It makes more sense if you’ve read the books, but not a lot more. Problem is, he’s fully willing to do it. He’s an avowed atheist due to the benevolence paradox, so he wouldn’t even mind succeeding. Then he meets a figment of his imagination in the form of his dead younger brother (this series has a ton of those) who causes him to have a complete change of heart and a renewal of faith. That transformation felt so forced that I almost started rooting for the bad guys. The most skeptical man in the world suddenly becomes the most zealous? The swiftness with which it happened made me think far less of both Gavin and the writer who created him.
So much else happens in that novel-within-a-novel that it’s hard to keep track, and the carefully crafted setting tends to go out the window. Just about every main character ends up going full-on Super Saiyan, none so much as Kip and Gavin. There was always an element of the mythic in the series, but this sequence ramps that up to absurd levels. It left me turning pages frantically, wondering what would happen next, yet dreading how it would be written.
That, I think, is an apt description of Lightbringer as a whole. It’s a flawed masterpiece. There is a great story in there. The magic system is top-notch, and the setting as a whole just clicks. I found, after years and years of searching, a character that truly felt like me, who even grew with me. A million and a half words over five books and almost a decade, it’s still what I’d call time well spent.
Yet I’m troubled, because I feel it could be so much more. Some of the red herrings were too predictable. Not all of the twists made sense. A few plot threads were left incomplete. I cringed at the prose more than I have for any other book. The whole thing is ambitious, but that ambition sometimes comes out a mess.
That said, I loved it. Flawed though it is, Lightbringer is epic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the “epic” part. That seems to be the Brent Weeks style, which is fine. (I tend to write “lower” fantasy, and I do like to read it more, so maybe that bias is coming through in some of my criticism.) Often, I wish a series wouldn’t end. In this case, I’d gladly read ten more books in the setting. Because, no matter our preferences, we could all use an escape from time to time.