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Sean T. M. Stiennon reviews The Black Prism

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 | Posted by Sean Stiennon

How could I have ever doubted this cover, this beard?

How could I have ever doubted this cover, this beard?

The Black Prism
Brent Weeks
Orbit Books (640 pages, hardcover first edition August 2010, $25.99)

I’ll admit that, if I hadn’t already devoured Brent Weeks’s Night Angel novels, I probably wouldn’t have picked up The Black Prism (despite the cool, shadowy cover of a man in a magnificent goatee brandishing a mirror-polished blade).  The reason for that is a shallow one: The magic system sounded stupid. It is, in short, rainbow magic, sorcery based on splitting white light into one or more of its component colors to create a magical effect. But the Night Angel books were awesome, and I gave Weeks a chance to impress me again.  It took me ten pages to be thoroughly hooked on his story, and another hundred pages to be sold on his unique approach to magic.

In the world of the Seven Satrapies, trained drafters can draw color out of appropriately shaded objects (or white light viewed through a tinted lens) and draw it into their bodies to create a substance called luxin.  The properties of luxin differ dramatically based on its color: Red luxin is a hyper-flammable jelly, while super-violet luxin (just above the visible spectrum for most people) is as light and strong as spider-silk.  Each color also carries with it a particular emotional state that overtakes the person drafting it.  Green is wild and impetuous, orange slick and dissimulating.  It’s a simple idea with complex uses, both for war and for technology, and the applications Weeks finds for various kinds of luxin are a big part of the The Black Prism’s unique appeal.

Monochromes draft one color, and represent the majority.  Bichromes, the elite among drafters, have access to two, usually contiguous on the color spectrum (i.e., red and orange), and a small handful are polychromes, commanding three or four.  Only one man — the Prism — can split light into all seven stable colors, and he is regarded as high priest of the one god Orholam, the source of all light.  When there is imbalance in the world caused by one color being drafted more than another, it is his vocation to correct it.

In each generation, there is supposed to be only one Prism, ordained by Orholam to be the conduit of light and magic for the world.  But sixteen years before the opening of The Black Prism, the Seven Satrapies were divided in a war between two brothers, Gavin and Dazen Guile, each holding the full power of the Prism and torn apart by their love of the same woman.  Gavin Guile defeated his brother in a cataclysmic battle at Sundered Rock in the satrapy of Tyrea, and for sixteen years since he has ruled as a warrior Prism, ending wars, battling pirates, and hunting down monstrous color wights, drafters driven insane by overindulgence in their magic.

But a letter comes to Gavin’s hands from a woman who claims that her son, Kip, is his bastard, fathered on the night before the battle of Sundering Rock. . . and Gavin has no memory of the woman whatsoever.  Meanwhile the bastard, Kip, watches his life crumble around him in the course of a morning as mounted warriors and war-drafters descend upon his village, wantonly slaughtering everyone in the name of a king who has begun a revolution against the Prism in the name of the old gods.

I’m honestly afraid to say any more about the plot, because The Black Prism is a book filled with the sort of complexities which are best enjoyed without knowing too much about them in advance.  Suffice to say that not everything is as it seems in the lives of Gavin and Kip, and that dark secrets are plentiful in this world.

Characters, you say?  Characters we have in spades.  There’s Gavin, one of the most powerful men in his world, blessed with a quick wit and a brilliant grin, who has just discovered a way to create a luxin vessel that will cross the sea in less than a day.  He’s a man who could rightly be called a hero, and yet he has done horrible things to protect his power and keep his secrets from coming to light.

And then there’s Kip: an awkward, chunky fifteen year-old raised by an abusive, drug-addled mother.  Kip gets most of the novel’s laugh-out-loud lines, thanks to a tongue he couldn’t control even if he wanted to.  In dramatic terms, he’s the wide-eyed newcomer to the story, a boy swept up into a world far larger and crueler than he ever dreamed.

I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an aspect of this book that I wouldn’t praise.  Weeks’s writing style is fluid and equally adaptable to action, comedy, and drama, and he’s an action writer capable of crossing pens with the best of them.  So, rather than write paragraph after paragraph of worshipful praise, I’ll just enjoin you that if you love a good novel, give The Black Prism ten pages.  Trust me, you’ll enjoy it.

Some readers may be frightened off by the fact that The Black Prism is the opening installment in a series of yet-to-be-determined length, but having read the second book,  The Blinding Knife, I can only regard that as positive.

3 Comments »

  1. The Night Angel books or more specifically the first one of those books -can’t remember the name. Had the exact opposite effect for me. I’ve been tempted to read The Black Prism but I hated that first Weeks’ book so much that it turned me against him.
    In fact, I’m usually understanding of why others may like a book that I don’t but Night Angel is one of those that I totally don’t get the popularity of. It was an editing nightmare to start with. The story was nothing original and the tone was all over the place. It what was the worst was the language did not fit the world at all, like micro-braids and Wet Boys. Seriously, Wet Boys?!?!? Wetworks my work in modern espionage novels but in a fantasy world? Sounded like little sissies with bladder problems to me.

    Comment by kid_greg - April 25, 2013 9:41 am

  2. I think I had a similar reaction to about the first half of THE WAY OF SHADOWS–I recall feeling that it was amusing enough, but amateurish in writing and a little bland in all departments. It really clicked for me once Dorian showed up and once Durzo Blint’s relationship with Our Hero started to go south, and the sequel, SHADOW’S EDGE, was all kinds of awesome.

    Comment by Sean Stiennon - April 26, 2013 12:49 am

  3. But yeah, I can’t help but agree on Wet Boys. I have a feeling someone must have tried to talk Weeks out of that one, but gave up when he dug his heels in.

    Comment by Sean Stiennon - April 26, 2013 12:49 am


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