A colleague of mine, Jared Shurin of the blog Pornokitsch, once described Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer novels—the latest being The Broken Eye—as “COLORKABLOOIE.” His argument boiled down to the concept that Brent Weeks writes pulpy, charismatic fluff. Charismatic fluff that ensorcels readers like Jafar’s scepter in Aladdin, but charismatic fluff that has little to redeem it beyond entertainment value. I promise not to use the words charismatic fluff again. Damnit.
The frustration I have withn the phrase COLORKABLOOIE is that it suggests there’s something wrong with pulp, and that epic fantasy should necessarily have some larger agenda. I find myself fundamentally in disagreement with any such idea, although I adore saying COLORKABLOOIE. Say it with me. COLORKABLOOIE. Fun isn’t it?
See, Brent Weeks might be the master of the pulp epic fantasy. He has refined it to a sharp point. He pierces the reader’s brain like illicit narcotics. He is probably doing a lot of interesting things about identity, and body image, and finding acceptance in a world built to exclude. I’m not sure I care. It’s just that fun. Is that enough?
Such a simple question, right? Is it enough to merely entertain? I believe this argument is at the core of a lot of criticism that surrounds epic fantasy. There was an entire panel at Loncon3 dedicated to idea. To call into question whether entertainment is an end in and of itself is to imply that entertainment is somehow easy. It interrogates the notion that making a reader laugh or cheer is a failure if it doesn’t engage some specious thematic muscle that sits somewhere between the cerebellum and the temporal lobe. I believe this is often the failure mode of criticism, when we become so caught up in our own arguments about what something should be, that we fail to notice how authentically enjoyable the experience has been in discovering what the thing is.
So, what is the Lightbringer series? At the end of The Blinding Knife I would have called it the most pulse pounding epic fantasy ever written. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate anymore. In The Broken Eye, Weeks has to do a few things not previously necessarily. Namely, all the minute world building details that he’s been laying the groundwork for in the two preceding volumes become of increasing importance all at once. The card game he invented? Super important. The creepy society that’s been poking around the fringes? Better read those sections again. Those colors that didn’t seem like such a big deal before? Paryl and black are the new er… black.
This reliance on details from previous volumes is challenging. Even to someone recently familiar with the first two books, the level of detail Weeks requires his readers to absorb is tremendous. Each book in the series has been larger than the previous volume by a factor, with The Broken Eye tipping the scales at over 800 pages. In other words, Weeks has to move away from fun to get to the bigger fun. I admit, it makes the novel less fun. I promise I won’t say fun again. Damnit.
The third volume picks up immediately in the aftermath of the denouement of The Blinding Knife. The Prism, Gavin Guile, is missing, Kip Guile is wounded, and the satrapies are politicking. The only people doing well, it seems, are the Color Prince (our big bad!) and Andross Guile, the Prism’s father and token shithead. Along with being missing, Gavin has lost the ability to draft (COLORKABLOOIE colloquially), putting him at the mercy of his captors. Teia and Karris, the love interests of Kip and Gavin respectively, have to survive the upheaval back in the capital, keep Kip alive, and find a way to bring the Prism home.
Handicapping the Prism is an interesting choice from Weeks as his magic system punishes its users, excepting the Prism. The result is a cast of characters mostly intent on not using their magic. As magic becomes less a thing, it forces the narrative to slow. As the slowing occurs Weeks is forced away from his strength and into more intricate plotting, which isn’t his strongest asset. Ultimately, he pulls it off, but it takes some patience from the reader to get there. Such is the gift of writing a third book in a series—the odds you’re going lose to someone for a hard to follow section decrease exponentially and Weeks has done nothing but build trust with his readership that any tedium will pay off in the long run.
On the bright side, The Broken Eye moves Teia and Karris, our two most prominent female characters, out from ancillary roles into prominence. Karris, in particular, becomes the political center of the novel without Gavin’s influence. Likewise, where Kip was a co-protagonist throughout the earlier books, in The Broken Eye he officially becomes the body around which the series orbits. In fact, if there’s a thematic take away from the novel it’s located in Kip’s expansive waistline. Weeks often belabors Kip’s body image as he struggles to overcome memories of abuse and degradation about his weight. More importantly, he stresses that much of that burden is reinforced by Kip himself.
I treat myself pretty shitty, he thought. I’d never let anyone treat a friend of mine this way.
Where both The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife focused on his struggle, The Broken Eye focuses on Kip stepping out from behind it. It becomes Kip’s moment to step outside of the shadows and become something of his own man. I say Kip, but in reality it’s a journey ubiquitous throughout the book. Teia fears being sold as a slave. Karris fears irrelevance as her role from blackguard to wife to politician shifts. Liv and Gavin fear they’ve made the wrong choices. All of them are shackled by doubt in themselves. Shrugging off that doubt and pushing through might be the point.
In other words, I’m not sure the Lightbringer series is as frivolous as some might accuse. There’s a lot more to it if you choose to look. With its slower pace and complex plotting, it’s quite possible The Broken Eye is the book that’s let you see it. If not, and it’s just a series of action adventures with no deeper meaning… well… that’s okay too. Because regardless I’m having a hell of time. And, usually, that’s enough.
The Broken Eye is available now from Orbit.