The Blinding Knife, by Brent Weeks
If you haven’t read anything by Brent Weeks before, I suggest you stop reading this article and head out to your local library or bookstore and pick up his work. Weeks is part of a new echelon of fantasy writers that have burst onto the scene in the past few years, along with Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Brandon Sanderson, who are taking the genre of epic fantasy to a whole other dimension. Assassins, intrigue, romance—what’s not to love?
However, as much as I could gush about revitalizing the tropes of fantasy trilogies, I am here to talk about Weeks’ latest book, The Blinding Knife. Beware of spoilers from here on out!
The Blinding Knife is the much-anticipated sequel to The Black Prism and the second book in the Lightbringer series. The world of Lightbringer is one in which magic is inextricably linked to color—those who can work magic are those who are able to draft certain colors of light. Most drafters can only use one color, but some are born with the ability to draft two or three. One man, the Prism, is able to draft the entire spectrum. As such, he wields extreme power, responsible both for keeping the colors in balance and serving as a figurehead for the national religion, also based on the intricacies of color-magic.
Weeks drops you into a world rich with tension and political intrigue. Gavin Guile is the current Prism, having emerged victorious fifteen years ago from the False Prism’s War, which he waged against his own brother. Like most powerful leaders, Gavin keeps a secret—he is in fact not Gavin at all, but Dazen Guile, who has lived for over a decade disguised as his older brother. This alone seems fodder for some good reading based on Dazen-as-Gavin’s daily interactions—like with Karris, the woman he once loved (still does, as a matter of fact…) who later became engaged to Gavin and who thinks that Gavin jilted her after the war when really it was Dazen who didn’t want to have her love through false pretenses but only if she loved him for himself and of course he can’t tell her who he really is because then he would have to kill her and now she serves as one of his own elite bodyguards, and they deal with each other on a day-to-day basis and the sexual tension is maddening, and—
Whew. See what I mean?
The Black Prism begins when the Prism must go investigate reports of his (really Gavin’s) bastard son, Kip, in the land of Tyrea. By the end of the first book, the Prism has failed to defeat the king in Tyrea, ensuring that the war will spread to the rest of the Seven Satrapies. There is also an assassination attempt made upon his life with a very special kind of knife. Weeks’ employment of multiple perspectives throughout the narrative makes it clear to the reader that the gash the Prism receives from this knife has cost him the use of one of his colors, blue, but Dazen/Gavin takes the loss of blue to mean that he is dying.
That’s where The Blinding Knife opens. As the title hints, poor Prism Guile is due for further encounters with the blade that steals his magic before the 625-page installment has concluded. In the meantime, he goes about being dashing and heroic as always, though bending under the pressure of keeping his true identity and the loss of blue a secret. It seems he is constantly on the move, one chapter setting up a colony for the refugees he saved from Tyrea, then leading a political council, trying to convince everyone that there is, in fact, a war, and trying to defeat the Blue Wight, a type of monster-god that is forming in the middle of the ocean now that the Prism is no longer able to keep the color blue in Balance.
His compatriots from The Black Prism are equally busy. Karris, still serving as one of the Prism’s Blackguards, keeps Gavin company on his various mission, alternately saving his ass, thinking he’s a dick, and noticing that there is something familiar about the way he smiles (*cough* foreshadowing). Meanwhile, Kip is attempting to earn a spot in the next Blackguard training class, which taxes him physically and mentally. At the same time, he must deal with Andross Guile, Gavin’s father, who is less than pleased about the presence of a bastard besmirching his family line.
Liv Danavis, one-time ally of Kip and the Prism, has gone over to the dark side, serving in the army of The Color Prince. Liv’s story becomes a contemplation of ethics, tradition, and establishment, and a meditation on what can happen when people feel that the institutions they have put their faith in have failed them. Certainly Weeks intends for the reader to condemn her decisions—at one point Liv stands complacently by while women are hurled by catapult over the walls of the city—but she isn’t entirely unsympathetic either.
Oh, and the Prism’s brother Gavin is still wallowing in the prison his brother built for him.
The narrative is full of delightful twists, turns, and flights of fancy (a magical deck of cards that records moments in history is one of my favorites). After several years of reading fantasy, there are certain ways you expect things to go, and The Blinding Knife turns nearly all of them on their head.
I also appreciate that The Blinding Knife, besides just being a captivating story, is progressive in its depictions of women. Growing up reading the genre, I’ve had to sort of get used to the fact that women often take a backseat in fantasy novels, usually as pretty and scantily clad vehicles for emotional depth for the male characters if they are there at all. That’s not to say that there has been no progress at all—once women who read fantasy books when they were young grew up and started writing fantasy, the world gained many admirable heroines.
Still, even in these stories, the woman protagonist is usually the exception. She is exceptionally strong, gifted, or smart, indicating that the other women around her are not. I think this kind of world where women are the “exception” is in many ways a reflection of women writer’s own experiences. Fantasy and science fiction has long been a boy’s game, and consequently, the realm of epic fantasy writers has long been dominated by men. Women writers of epic fantasy are living in an exceptional world themselves.
However. Exceptional or not, I applaud everyone who has worked to create more heroic and realistic portrayals of women in their fantasy narratives. And Weeks does a particularly great job of it.
His women are everywhere, permeating every tier of the Lightbringer world. It’s like, I don’t know, real life. I’ve already mentioned Karris several times, so I’ll start with her. It’s true that she fulfills a traditional role as the unreachable love for the male protagonist, but I appreciate how much depth she’s got. For one thing, she’s not pining away in a tower somewhere, but instead is a member of the most elite fighting force in the world. She doesn’t simper or pander, but she can be kind and have true emotional depth as well. Karris can kill a man and cry about her brother being murdered fifteen years ago all in the same chapter. She’s awesome because she is a complete person who has motivations and passions that exist outside of the Prism’s desire for her.
But neither are women in Weeks’ world put on some pedestal of toughness and morality. Liv is certainly just as much of her own person as Karris is, but instead of using her strength for good we see her manipulated into fighting for the dark side. One of the most despicable characters in the novel is also a woman: Lady Aglaia Crassos, who violently whips her slaves because she gains sexual pleasure from watching them suffer. She is unbelievably cruel, but even Aglaia is a complete person rather than just a cardboard cutout of a wicked woman. There are others—including the White, who heads the government—but my favorite female character new to this installment is Teia, a girl who trains in the Blackguard class with Kip. She is smart, capable, brave, and there is no way that Kip could have made it through the training without her help. I really look forward to seeing what happens to her as the story moves ahead in the next two installments. Of course, Weeks’ world isn’t the perfect, but it seems like a very good start. A world where women are treated fairly and have equal opportunities—now that’s a delightful fantasy indeed. Too bad we’ll probably have to wait two more years for the sequel.