Review: The Black Prism

There is nothing black and white about Brent Weeks’ first novel in the Lightbringer series, which is a set of adult fantasy books. The Black Prism was a denser read than I was prepared for, but I forged through and formed lots of colorful thoughts.

theblackprismAbout the book: Gavin Guile has been the Prism–and thus the emperor–of  his world for sixteen years. Prisms always serve for multiples of seven years, and then the use of color magic through the entire light spectrum wears them out enough to kill them or drive them mad. Gavin has already served sixteen years, and thus expects to have five more; he wants to use each of those years for one of five great purposes. An unexpected note, however, about the consequences of his past, derails his plans. Instead of telling Karris, the love of his life, the whole truth, he helps Kip and angers a king instead. Kip was a nobody from a small, victimized town under the rule of this new rebel king. His mother has been more of a burden than a nurturing force in Kip’s life, but in the end she gave him one task to honor her–one impossible task: to kill the powerful man who ruined her life. But she describes the man only as “him,” and incites some confusion. Actually, confusion is abundant for Kip because he’s also just learned that he can draft physical colors from light. He must attend the Chromeria, a special–and the only–school for training drafters. Liv, a beautiful girl from Kip’s hometown, with a famous father and a talent for drafting two colors, is already there. Most drafters can control only one color–sometimes two or three, but controlling multiple colors is rare. Only the Prism can wield magic that harnesses them all, and there can only be one Prism at a time–or so he says. But this Prism has a secret: his brother, his competitor for the role of Prism, isn’t as dead as Gavin claims.

The world building in this book is great, and the possibilities that accrue for each of the compelling characters keep the story going–which is good because the plot doesn’t. This is not a book with an overarching plot line that persists from beginning to end, but rather a laying out of setting and characters and then basically a forcing  of all the various components through a fantasy blender to see what’ll happen. There are events, and there are cause-and-effect relationships between some of them, but the suspense lags due to the lack of a continued line of tension throughout the novel. There are a couple of persistent questions, but the narration gives no sort of indication that any or which of them may be answered by the end of the book. Most of my specific inquiries were not answered by the end of this book, and I suspect they’re key matters that won’t be revealed until the end of the series. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen, but usually there’s a specific line of interest I’m reading for, and in this book, I couldn’t articulate just what I was hoping to find by reading onward. Reading The Black Prism was like waking up in the morning with a vague sense that something drastic would happen that day, but having no idea whether that meant falling out of a tree, watching a car crash, getting fired, or witnessing the apocalypse. There’s simply no way to mentally prepare, and that makes suspense significantly less prevalent.

But back to the world building. Not only are the setting and characters described in wonderful detail, but the magical side of the story is well supported. I found magic based on light to be an engaging concept, and I appreciated that some of the science to support it was provided. I would certainly call this a fantasy series before a science fiction one, but that element of rational explanation for the differences between the magical world and our own was present, and presented well.

” ‘To make it simple, if there are color-deficient men–incidentally, it is almost always men–why could there not also be those who are extremely color sensitive, superchromats? And it turns out there are. But they’re almost always women.’ […] ‘Wait, so men lose both ways? Blind to colors more often and really good at seeing them less often? That’s not fair.’ ‘But we can lift heavy things.’ “

I also had some confusion with the title. The Black Prism suggests that something is wrong with the Prism, or that he’s simply a bad man. There’s the added component of the war Gavin Guile had to fight with his brother–also a potential Prism–to leave the reader wondering whether the brother who lost was the bad seed after all. Usually the mark of a good fantasy book is being able to find redeemable qualities in all characters, rather than black-and-white good-or-evil ones. I did find that gray area with most of the characters here, which made them more engaging but didn’t clarify the title. After the 760 pages (in the mass market paperback edition I read) I still had no clue whether Gavin was the Black Prism. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. I wouldn’t have called this Prism black or dark or any such term.

More on the characters: I found every character in this book intriguing for their own reason. Kip, though, I was most on the fence about. He’s a fifteen year-old boy who’s overweight and not especially good at anything yet. To some extent, that made him more realistic and likeable, but at other times it made him a hard character to follow because he rarely accomplishes anything. He sets out determined to do something, but then trouble arises, he remembers he’s a nobody, and he thinks “maybe this is the time to lay down and die.” Often he’s helped, then, before true calamity strikes, but occasionally he doubles down and responds in some truly remarkable way. At those moments, he’s a great character. For all the times he considers giving up and dying, he’s difficult to stomach–especially once that reaction becomes a trend and makes scenes with Kip predictable. He was the only character I truly couldn’t decide whether to like or not.

“Kip felt a chill. This man was warm, personable. Kip had no doubt that Gavin liked him, but in Gavin’s circles, you could like someone and still have to kill him. The casual way that Gavin prepared for Kip’s possible betrayal told Kip he’d been betrayed before and been caught unaware by it. And Gavin wasn’t the kind of man who had to learn a hard lesson twice.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think partially my mild dislike of this book was my own fault for forcing my way through it when it wasn’t the sort of book I was in the mood to read. And then once I realized I really was taking the time to read a full-sized adult fantasy novel, I was mad at myself for trying to start something new when I’ve been meaning to pick up where I left off in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I do like the world Weeks brings to life here, and I’m especially curious about how things will turn out for the Guile brothers, so I’m not giving up yet. I will read at least one more book in this series to see if now that the world and characters are established the plot will advance and the suspense will increase. I really want to find out what happens to the Prism, and what the consequences will be for letting his brother live while claiming he was dead. I just don’t know how many suspenseless books I’m willing to read to find out. We shall see.

Further recommendations:

  1. Although the colors don’t use magic, society is divided into colors in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy in a way that may interest fans of Weeks’ The Black Prism. There’s political intrigue, futuristic science, and an unearthly setting that makes Red Rising a great next choice for readers who enjoy the Lightbringer series. I can’t recommend this one enough. You can read more about it in my full review, here.
  2. If you’re interested in adult fantasy and you haven’t yet tried reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, I’m not sure why you’re putting it off, but start now. I’m ashamed that I haven’t finished the series yet, but I can vouch for the first book, and if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out. It’s the epitome of superb fantasy, and it’s a fantastic read even if you don’t think fantasy is for you.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading The Revenant, the historical novel by Michael Punke that inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio movie (which I’m finally finally going to watch). I’m usually not a lover of survival-in-the-wilderness stories, but this one’s had me hooked since the first page. Stay tuned to find out why.


The Literary Elephant


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