This, the second book in the Night Angel trilogy, picks up where The Way of Shadows left off. If you haven’t read the first book, and don’t want spoilers, read no further.
I loved the first book. I loved it to the point that my excitement to read the next book in the series, and my obsession with telling everyone about it, became so hyperbolic that I knew my feelings didn’t actually correspond to what I actually read. It was good, in other words, but it didn’t change the world. This disconnect is only magnified now that I’ve read the second book in the series – which I also enjoyed, but the cracks that started to show in the first book have begun to fully crumble, here.
Kylar has given up his life as an assassin, and moved out of Cenaria with Elene and their adopted daughter, Ulyssandra. Thanks to the successful coup by the Godking, Garoth Ursuul…
….Kylar thinks everyone in his life is now dead. And, frankly, he’s mostly right. Holy shit do a lot of people die in these books. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Godking is wreaking havoc in Cenaria City. Women are raped, the ruling class has been almost completely obliterated, more women are raped, a resistance is slowly starting to form, even more women are raped…. Heir to the throne, Logan Gyre, is in the Hole, a deep pit full of the kingdom’s worst criminals. Bad things happen (including the rape of women). Vi, the beautiful sexpot wetboy (ie, assassin) who is apprenticed to Hu Gibbet (who, incidentally, has repeatedly raped her since she was a child), is working for the Godking to kill both Kylar and Jarl (childhood friend, pimp, rape victim).
Look, I like these books, generally, and I like this book in particular. Weeks has created an interesting world, is a capable writer, and has brought us mostly likable and familiar characters. But….there is, like, so much rape and degradation in these books. And, if I’m being fair, I don’t think Weeks is sending the message he presumably wants to be sending.
George RR Martin (and Game of Thrones) has come under a lot of fire for his depiction of women, and (specifically) the emphasis he places on them being sexual objects and victims of male domination. And there are interesting and thoughtful conversations that can be had on these issues. Where I tend to fall (not that I think anyone particularly cares, but this is my review, after all) on the A Song of Ice and Fire series, at least, is that one of the driving forces for Martin was to depict the stereotypical fantasy world as an analogue for Medieval Europe, replete with violence, death, and the subjugation of others, especially women. I don’t feel that this is done, here, for the enjoyment of the audience, but to show that this is how we, as a society, have actually treated women for most of our history. Taken in isolation, I think that’s an important thing to do. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, and you can’t acknowledge what you never talk about. I don’t, personally, get the feeling from these books that Martin is reveling in this world, and I don’t think he expects his audience to, either. It’s brutal. It’s meant to horrify.
However, that’s just how I take it. I fully acknowledge that not everyone interprets those books in that way.
In this book, Shadow’s Edge, I don’t think Weeks is walking that fine line as capably as George RR Martin has. To me, this seems to edge closer to torture porn (or, more aptly described: rape porn). By and large, these books don’t have much to say about the role of women in society. Some of the women are strong (Elene and Vi) and powerful (Momma K), but every woman is a sexual object. You don’t get any struggle between ambition and social limitations like you do with, say, Cersei in A Song of Ice and Fire, nor do you get a representation of the natural state of equality struggling against the expectations of cultural mores as you do with Arya. Women in the Night Angel trilogy exist for one thing: to be beautiful objects of desire, whether they will it or not. Within this framework, some figure out some way to make something of themselves; Momma K takes ownership of it and becomes one of the most powerful people in Cenaria, Vi uses her beauty and sexual prowess to protect herself from being a victim, Lilly (a woman in the Hole with Logan Gyre) simply allows herself to be repeatedly raped so that she isn’t killed. At the end of it all, everyone woman is defined by her body, and the use that is made of it.
Before I appear too hard on Weeks, fantasy writers have always struggled to find roles for women in their books. When not depicted them as objects to be protected or desired (think any Disney movie ever), writers either ignored them altogether (JRR Tolkien) or mishandled them so completely as to make them unrecognizable (Robert Jordan). While I think George RR Martin has gone to great lengths to paint a believable portrait of sexual inequality in his Medieval Europe analogue, and created a number of complex women who are easy to root for, there’s no pretending that terrible things don’t happen to them. So this isn’t a problem unique to Brent Weeks.
And, as I said, I like this book. It’s an engaging read, and I care about what happens to these characters. The protagonist, Kylar, is a badass immortal ninja assassin who evolves, and struggles with the path he’s chosen. The characters learn, and grow, and face real obstacles. The women play an integral role in what happens, here, and are often driving the plot forward. Key parts of his novel fall apart without the women, and the men tend to recognize not only their power, but their importance and responsibility in achieving overall goals.
But…..I keep going back to a book like The Handmaid’s Tale. That book is all about sex and the domination of women, and it’s absolutely brutal. But there is absolutely no mistaking Atwood’s intent with creating the world that she did. It’s pure indictment. The brutality in the Night Angel trilogy, however…..It just feels voyeuristic.
So despite how much I’m enjoying this series, despite how much I want to read the next book, despite much I want to find out where this is going, I can’t simply set aside how the story plays out. There’s brutality, here, and it’s overwhelmingly directed at the female characters. I don’t just find that unpleasant, I find it wrong. And I don’t think I’d ever recommend these books to anyone else.
I’m no sure where that leaves me in terms of a rating. This has the feel of a 4 star book, but I have to take an oppositional stance to it.