Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks

On Brent Weeks, you sneaky bastard. After about two years of waiting for the sequel to The Black Prism, I was expecting another fiasco like with Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Trilogy. Despite my misgivings, The Blinding Knife was the kind of wonderful book I hate reviewing because the bad parts sound worse after standing in awe of such a fantastic fantasy writer.

For those that haven't read the first book, I'll just gloss over the facts so I don't reveal too much of the spoilers. The Blinding Knife is the second book in the Lightbringer series (which i can only pray is just a trilogy) taking place in a land ruled by 7 different "satrapies" and a culture dominated by people called "Drafters". Drafters can control different colors in the light spectrum to create things: anything from tools to weapons and everything in between. Because of the strain such power puts on a person, Drafters have a fairly short shelf life depending on how frequently they draft and how powerful they are. When drafters "break the halo" they go mad.

The main characters of the story are Gavin Guile, the spiritual leader of the government that controls the drafters, and his bastard son Kip, a powerful, but self deprecating child. There are many other characters introduced throughout the story, which I'll get to later, but for the most part, Gavin and Kip are the ones to look out for. While Gavin is going about his business trying to save the world and working through some serious issues, Kip is learning to control his colors and working to become a Blackguard (elite drafters who protect Gavin and other high ranking members of the government.)

My favorite thing about Kip is that he is the perfect anti-hero. Even though he is immensely powerful, a quick witted smartass, and always does his best to save the day, he is so self deprecating I'm always surprised he doesn't start cutting himself halfway through a conversation with his fellow classmates. A lot of this has to do with his backstory: his mother was an emotionally abusive drug addict and his father is the most powerful and influential drafter in the world. It's enough to give anyone a complex, but no matter what Kip accomplishes, he always finds a way to show a way that he failed, making him such a flawed character that I can't help but  want to give him a hug and a cookie before telling him to go watch cartoons while the adults are busy.

On the flip side, Gavin is less likable in my opinion. Gavin is the Prism, the most powerful drafter in the world and the spiritual leader of Brent Weeks story. Gavin is not limited by the limitations of other drafters. While Gavin presents a cocky, self assured attitude, he has so many secrets that he always give off an air that he is misunderstood. There were so many times in the books that Gavin could have done something to fix his situation but doesn't and waxes at length about how misunderstood he is and how he wishes things were different.

As far as the writing goes, I have little in the way of complaint except for the speeches Gavin gives realism vs. believability, and the character shifts. First off were the long speeches Gavin gives about various things and indeed, some of them are given by other characters. Whole pages are filled up with exposition where Gavin or someone else will tell exactly how things go in paragraphs so long, even I feel winded reading them. While some of it was very important to the storyline, it just felt overdone to me (a little like Professor Binns in Harry Potter, the History of Magic teacher who puts people into comas just by talking.)

One of my issues I actually brought up on Brent Weeks twitter page, but here's just one example. Kip, who is kind of a country boy, is going out to a naval war and describing ships in great detail, everything to the terminology for parts of the boat to the different names for them. Later on, another character who has been trained in battle for years, goes on to say that she can't name any of the different sized ships. While naming the ships was realistic, it wasn't believable that Kip knew the smallest of minute details about every type of ship on the seas but his friends look at them and just say boat.

I've raged about shifting character views too much, but Brent Weeks almost seemed to have that under control in the first book. While there were about four characters in the last book, all of whom were given rich detail, this time Weeks did something new. Inter-spaced in the chapters are small chapters going into other characters lives. These chapters hardly lasted longer than a page or two, and while one or two of them was important, for the most part they seemed random and unhelpful to the actual plot. While I wouldn't be surprised if they show up to be important later on, I don't see them being all that memorable in two years when the next book coming up. To me they were kind of like a friend asking if you remember that one guy who worked at dairy queen two years ago.

For the most part, though, The Blinding Knife was an excellent book. While I was reading it I found myself setting it down after a few pages, just to make sure that I wouldn't finish it too soon, and I can't wait for the third book, The Blood Mirror.

On Writing: Believability Vs. Realism

Over the last few weeks I've read a surprising amount of short stories by people who are looking to get into writing. The common factor among most, if not all of them, was the fight for realism. For many writers, there is a fight to make what they write the perfect mixture of believability and realism, because let’s be honest, even in fantasy, there's only so much disbelief you can suspend before it becomes too much.

Suspension of disbelief is like filling a cup: the more you fill it, the less it can hold. It's also true that as we get older, the cup gets smaller because when we are younger, we have a greater capacity for make believe. When we get older, we need more facts to show how things work: we want to know that magic works because people who can use it are fundamentally different than us, and that monsters aren't around anymore because people out there hunt them.

Realism and believability are intricately connected, they both affect one another. Just for an example, a friend of mine told me about a Civil War story he is planning. In the story, a Russian soldier is introduced, and I had to stop him right at that point and ask him if there were really Russian soldiers in the United States during the Civil War. While he assured me that there were, and I believe him since he is a big American history enthusiast as far as wars are concerned, the fact that I had to stop him to find out make it less believable, and can hamper a story in the long run. Realism, on its own, can hold a story back, because just like a joke with a ten dollar word attached to it, it's not a funny if you have to look it up.

One of the reasons that science fiction has risen so high in popularity is its attachment to believability. While most of the things that are involved may never happen, they still are attached to something that is true technologically. We may never create something that can transport someone over a long distance instantaneously, but the fact that we see the machine and the people working it, makes it entertaining. Fantasy, on the other hand, tries to add realism to a subject to create a better image of what we will never see outside of CGI and magic tricks.

The best stories merge the two, creating a perfect blend of the realistic and believable imagery that we can wrap our minds around, and entice readers to want to read more about their world where anything can happen.