*Warning: This post contains major spoilers for the Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks
After five books, Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer series concluded with The Burning White, which I reviewed in the previous post. Since it is the end of a series, I wanted to do a review of the series as a whole, to accompany the review of the final book.
Let’s start with the magic system. Although I had some critiques of some of the later happenings with the magic system in the final book, overall what is referred to as drafting is one of the most technically tight, “hard” magic systems I’ve encountered; it’s practically a textbook example of a hard magic system. The energy of the sun can be converted into physical forms, with different material properties (including texture, ductility, viscosity, odor, rigidity, durability, and longevity), and emotional effects, for each color. From a writing perspective, it has exactly what a hard magic system is supposed to have, and from a scientific perspective, it does a surprisingly robust job of accurately reflecting the properties of the real electromagnetic spectrum. I could quite honestly go on and on about the strength of the magic system.
But let’s move on to the characters. Kip is (with the one, key exception I discussed in the review of The Burning White) a superbly written antihero. Even as he grows in physical, magical, and political power, his deep-seated self-doubt remains a powerful, and well written, factor of his personality, his character, and his decision-making process. Doing the antihero thing has become quite popular in modern fantasy, but the effort often blunders when the character becomes more capable later in the book or series. That was no the case here.
Gavin/Dazen deserves mention as an unreliable narrator. In the early days of fantasy (think Tolkien), the dominant POV was third person omniscient. As third person limited has gained prominence, the idea of the unreliable narrator, long utilized in other fiction, has made its way into speculative fiction. It’s more challenging, however, since these characters are also our main insight into how the world works, so making them unreliable can be a tricky balancing act. Gavin/Dazen is a case study in the well-executed unreliable narrator, so much so that the reader doesn’t fully realize just how unreliable a narrator he is until the end of the last book. Despite his proven track record at deceiving himself and everyone around him, and a tendency to erase his own memory, his perspective manages to tell us all manner of things about the world, the magic, and the story. He’s also an utterly unexpected second antihero, thanks to his deep-seated personal shortcoming, and totally unanticipated lack of confidence.
Although Teia’s plot line was one of the more interesting in the book, and I liked her as a character, she wasn’t remarkable in the way many of the other characters were. Her main strength lay in the moral dilemmas she encountered, which I will address more fully when I talk about plot.
Liv is worth a mention for Weeks’s follow-through. I critiqued the seemingly contrived endings of characters like Gavin/Dazen, and Kip, in my review of The Burning White. Unlike them, Liv did not magically (all puns intended) come through in the end, return to the “good” side, and renounce her godhood. Not giving her some manner of reclamation was possibly one of the best decisions in the series, from a character perspective.
Before I move on from characters, I want to talk about Andross Guile. I mentioned this in The Burning White review, as well: Andross Guile is actually one of my favorite characters in the series (let’s refrain from speculating on what that may say about me, shall we?), despite him being portrayed as a possible villain, and at best a questionable ally for most of the series. He’s brutal, cold, calculating, often cruel, but he is the ultimate master of the long game, the epitome of a follower of utilitarianism taken to its logical extreme of ends justifying the means in pursuit of a greater good. He’s confident enough in himself to make decisions that no one else would be willing to make for fear of either the consequences of being wrong, or the personal reprisals and repercussions arising from being right. What other people think of him only matters so far as it affects his ability to accomplish his goals. Though I can’t know for certain, I am fairly certain from the several scenes in the final book that Weeks intended us to come to at least understand Andross Guile, if not perhaps to sympathize with him quite as much as I did.
Alright, time to talk about plot. Like many of the best, longer fantasy series, Lightbringer didn’t reveal its main plot until, I would say, the end of the first book, when we see that the war that began with the King of Tyrea is going to be a lot larger conflict than the characters anticipated. There are also a few, intermittent glimpses of a much larger conflict playing out; sort of like a dash of hot pepper in chocolate, these aren’t strictly necessary to the series and main plot, but they raise the stakes and make everything a little more interesting (I’m referring, of course, to the conflict between the immortals). If the conflict with the White King/Wight King/Color Prince/Lord Polychrome stood alone, the series would have a good plot. For me, it is the underlying, morally ambiguous dimension of the physical conflict that really makes the series strong. The purported mores, and what is actually enacted, by the opposing sides is truly fascinating, and how both sides’ play out is to me more interesting to read about than the battles. This is cast into sharp relief at the end of the first book, when Liv and Kip come to radically different conclusions about these very questions.
I promised that Teia would be mentioned again when I addressed plot. In her role as spy, infiltrator, and assassin, she sees the darkest parts of both the establishment, and the antiestablishment. Not only sees them; she consistently is confronted with the necessity of doing apparently terrible things either for the “greater good,” or simply to maintain her facade. The mental gymnastics she executes to come to terms, or at least live with, those actions and decisions are deeply significant.
Also worth noting is Kip’s arranged marriage to Tisis, coming abruptly at the end of the third book. Arranged marriage is an oft-maligned practice, and frequently derided by modern audiences as cruel, exploitive, unjust to women (the fact that men were forced into marriages just as much often gets lost, somehow), and totally loveless affairs in which there can never be anything approaching harmony or even friendship between the married parties. From my research into historical arranged marriages, this was quite often simply was not the case. In many arranged marriages, the couple were able to find some manner of supportive cohabitance, and often a real friendship developed. Kip and Tisis’s marriage is a good case study for blossoming into a real romance, despite its shaky, forced beginnings, and early struggles. Oh, and to be clear, this is not an argument in support of arranged marriage. It is merely an observation about some facts that seem to often be neglected, forgotten, or unknown in discussions of the topic in its historical context. So please save your comments and e-mails.
Well, that about wraps up my review of Lightbringer. I really would highly recommend reading this series. Particularly, if you are interested in writing fantasy, this series has a lot of technically tight writing on display. To find out more, you can find the book on Amazon or in bookstores, or go to Brent Weeks’s website.