Nobody Puts Jarl in a Corner: The Way of Shadows Graphic Novel

Say one thing for Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy; say it’s full of action. I borrow that turn of phrase from Joe Abercrombie, whose main character Logen Ninefingers often uses it to demonstrate his ‘tell it like it is’ demeanor.

I borrow it in much the same way that Ivan Brandon and Andy MacDonald have borrowed for the graphic novel The Way of Shadows; we create something similar to the original, but also completely pervert it to our own ends. Where Weeks took time to develop his narrative beyond mere action, the graphic novel glosses over much of the detail, creating a shallower tale that focuses on the action and, really, only the action.

The story opens much as it does in the source material, with the orphan Azoth accidentally eavesdropping on a conversation between legendary assassin Durzo Blint and the King’s messenger. Durzo knows Azoth is there though, and threatens him with death if he breathes a word of what he’s heard to another. Life means nothing to the assassin and Azoth’s life even less than that.

Within a centimeter of pages Azoth is Durzo’s apprentice and things have gone from zero to sixty in no time flat. No explanations are made about the magic system, the political system, or any other system, other than people want to kill Durzo and Azoth (and the people they love) and they don’t want to die. Durzo is a player on a big game board and Azoth is a pawn to be used against his master. Reborn as Kylar Stern after Durzo fakes Azoth’s death, the apprentice comes into his own and a player of the game himself.

I was willing to concede that the graphic novel would by necessity speed things along in the early going to make the transition from Azoth to Kylar as early as possible. It is after all, where the sexy stuff happens—daggers and stabbings and magic and naked women. All of these items are well demonstrated in the illustrated pages, if not extrapolated or explained. I was willing to concede that the graphic novel would by necessity speed things along in the early going to sooner make the transition from Azoth to Kylar. It is, after all, where all the sexy stuff happens, with daggers and stabbings and magic and naked women. All of these items are well demonstrated in the illustrated pages, if not extrapolated.

However, Azoth’s relationship with ancillary characters, Doll Girl and Jarl, and near-co-protagonist Logan Gyre, are absolutely central to Weeks’ story. In the case of Doll Girl and Jarl, Azoth’s childhood friends, the graphic novel completely glosses over their narratives, damseling Doll Girl to an even greater degree than in the novel, and making Jarl a complete non-entity until the final moments of the book.

As for Logan Gyre, there is an effort to tell his story, but like with Azoth, the adaptation is not able to build the infrastructure to make any of it mean anything. The result is the emotional content of the graphic novel is presented without any sincerity, leaving things flat and terribly uninteresting both from plot and, more damagingly, character perspectives.

The strength of the graphic novel then comes from the art, which is quite exceptional. Even without color, MacDonald manages to capture the inexorable energy of the Night Angel world. Durzo and Kylar move on the page with the grace described in the original text. Admittedly, there are panels where the black and white scheme makes things more unclear than they might otherwise, but that criticism is easily sloughed off considering how naturally shadowed the monochromatic style makes the entire project. In the end, the Night Angel Trilogy is a picture of darkness, something the artistic style manages to emphasize.

All of this makes The Way of Shadows graphic novel frustrating. It captures the mood so well, but fails utterly at telling the story. And it’s such a missed opportunity. The Night Angel Trilogy had its weaknesses. It was derivative, shallow in its character development, and bloated in a way that was entirely unnecessary. However, it also demonstrated a tremendous talent for imagination and storytelling. Since then, Weeks has made huge strides in shoring up what was weak in his earlier work, while continually improving at where he already excelled. His newest novel, The Broken Eye, just debuted at No. 3 on the New York Time Best Seller list, providing some objective evidence that what I say might be true. This graphic novel was an opportunity to hone The Night Angel Trilogy into something tighter and better than its source material.

While succeeding at being tighter, it fails utterly at being better, resulting only in a mildly entertaining page flipping experience. The reader, hopefully already familiar with the narrative high notes of the trilogy, is left holding much of the creative bag in filling the blanks. I can only surmise that the graphic novel is a piece of fan service to those so familiar with the trilogy of novels that any failure of storytelling in the graphic presentation will be largely overlooked.

It’s possible that as a non-connoisseur of graphic novels that I have overlooked some key component in all this. It might be true. It is possible The Way of Shadows is high grade story telling in the graphic novel world, something I dabble in infrequently. I also recognize that exposition in a graphic novel is often the kiss of death. But, a good story is a good story as far as I’m concerned and the story adapted here fails to resonate on any level. This is a project Brent Weeks fans will aspire to own because it is a thing depicting the characters they’ve come to love. I am extremely skeptical that it will find the author any new ones.

The Way of Shadows graphic novel is available now from Orbit.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review, where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.


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