Review of the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks

This trilogy is my new canonical example of a 1+2 trilogy. The first book is a self-contained story that executes well. Then the following conversation between publisher and author occurs. [*]

"This is great! This will sell. But you know what people really like? Trilogies. Was this a trilogy?"

"Sure! I mean, yes!"

The problem is that few authors can pull this off. One of my favorites, Nancy Kress, failed to pull this off with her Beggars trilogy. Luckily for her, the first book (Beggars in Spain) is utterly exceptional and stands alone.

The first Night Angel book, "The Way of Shadows", is bristling with harnessed immaturity. It's like the author asked himself, "What would be the fucking awesomest thing that could happen right here?" Not the best, or most sensible, or most interesting -- the fucking awesomest. That energy is well-used. There are dirty streets and correspondingly low people, everything is grim and near-cheerless. The story follows a street rat from those streets through his weird journey of becoming an assassin. While overwrought in a couple of places, I enjoyed the book.

The second and third books read more like first drafts. Incredibly improbable plot leaps and fortuitous coincidences. A convoluted mythology with arbitrary focus in detail. Entire characters with long-spun stories, neatly wrapped up in inexplicable off-camera summary. Entire tensions, characters, and conflicts unresolved. Characters reduced to caricature, going through some emotional arc that feels completely forced. In short, the series got away from the author.

The worst part for me was the end of the trilogy, with its big rock finish: the kind where everyone is jamming on their instruments as fast and loud as they can, whether it makes any sense. The lack of restraint made them tough reads for me — without that intensive revision that kept the first book so tight, the author tickles his own funny bone:

"It will take a few minutes before they get in position," Garoth said. "Where was I?"

"I think we were at the fight-to-the-death part," Kylar said.

Such a tone can work fine, if the book is designed from the beginning to work this way. But you can't expect people to care about your character's hardship and internal struggle when your dialogue has random winking Fozzie Bear wocka wocka moments.

By the end, I was really glad that it was over. I wouldn't recommend the trilogy to anyone, but the first book is a good guilty read.

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[*]Entirely in my imagination.