This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
The Blinding Knife (2012) is the second in a (currently) four book series, The Lightbringer Trilogy. The first book, The Black Prism, introduced the key players, primarily Gavin the Prism, the most powerful magic-user in the land and Kip, his bastard son. The land has been in an uneasy peace for a while, but now it is falling into war and a few chosen people will need to do spectacular things to re-unite it. (I'm pretty sure I could have that last sentence in autotext for these reviews.)
(I have reviewed both books before, so I'm going to mail this one in a bit.)
Leave your lights on
The Blinding Knife is less a book than a work of Nike-level marketing genius. Who are the target audience? Twelve year old boys? Great. Here's a book about a Kip, a gangly fifteen year old who has a crap life until his Real Parents(tm) come to take him away to wizard school, where he learns to kick ass (and maybe catch a peek at some boobies). That'll cover the empathetic everyman style of protagonist. For bonus points, here's an aspirational figure: Gavin. He's totally hot (but not in a gay way, obviously), he's tormented (in that way that makes him hotter), he's got sweet one-liners, a carefree lifestyle, a total disdain for authority and boobies-on-tap. Gavin's the Tony Stark of epic fantasy.
I'm not saying I'm above this (ok, I'm kind of saying I'm above this) - like most quality advertising, it ain't subtle, but it works. The Blinding Knife is selling a dream.
Moreover, The Blinding Knife is filled with what we in the amateur/critical reviews industry call "shit that goes boom". The book is a thin twine of plot wound around a hefty core of stuff exploding. It is all in the magic system - something explained at ridiculous length (that is, we're two books in and that's all anyone ever talks about). People 'draft' colours. Colours let you splode stuff. If you splode too much, you become a bad person. If you can splode more than one colour of stuff, you're proportionally more awesome. This is, like, science.
Given the fact that The Blinding Knife is 600 page description of perpetual magical dueling, it is easy to mock - but the thing is, it works. This is a four colour comic book or a high-budget action movie; a series of technicolour, latest-Lucas-sound, high-resolution special effects that are more or less coherent and always fun. The Blinding Knife is a magical page-turning machine, something is always happening - some sort of chase, fight, awkward leering, physical or emotional pyrotechnics - which makes it a deceptively quick, and unavoidably enjoyable, read.
There's a monster living under my bed
BUT, enjoyable ain't everything. The Blinding Knife is a pretty insubstantial book - it is fun... and that's it. I've been harping on a lot about this particular approach to epic fantasy, and, for those coming new to this series, I'll cover it again:
Entertainment is a huge part of the epic fantasy genre: its appeal, its resurgence, its longevity, its sales. But entertainment isn't everything. In a situation like this (an awards shortlist), it is fair to say that everything on the list should be entertaining - that's not just the lowest common denominator, its the minimum expectation.* If we're going to have a serious discussion about the "five best books of the year", I want to find books that are using all the strengths of fantasy - not just the opportunity to entertain, but also the ability to act as a "sandbox" for complex themes, the chance to reinvent the world from scratch (and explore what that means for settings and characters), and to take literature places that books bounded by our reality cannot go. You can do anything with fantasy - entertainment can (and should?) be the first port of call, but not the last.**
So with the soapbox safely stashed away, what do we have with The Blinding Knife besides lurid entertainment?
Exactly. I think I could probably stretch a point and make up something about... individuality or classism, but, honestly, The Blinding Knife doesn't even talk about that. [Which is a missed opportunity: the only people who don't get a voice in this series are those without magical powers, that is to say, the 99% - whose fates are completely in the hands of the elite. The closest we get to sympathy is Liv, who can draft, but only a (kind of) useless colour. Which still means she's part of society's ruling class, but she's... I dunno... the equivalent of an Art History major.] So, no, The Blinding Knife isn't anything more than fluffy fun.
As per the typical gender-fails of the epic category... The Blinding Knife fares about average, that is to say, not well at all. It is a daydream for straight men - the female characters are all hot and largely defined by how attainable (or not) they are to the male point of view characters. I am pleased to say that, in the year since my last review, someone has actually added two whole lines about Liv to the plot summary on Wikipedia. Karris also now appears in two places: "With Karris in tow,..." and "...he eventually marries Karris." FEMINISM!
A final point - I brought up the balance between judging a book as a series vs as a stand-alone text in the last review, for King of Thorns. Simply put, The Blinding Knife would make no sense on its own. It starts and ends with cliff-hangers, progresses very little and resolves nothing. It works as a continuation of The Black Prism, and as a bridge to book three, but not as a stand-alone text. As discussed last week, I think that can't be held against it in the context of DGLA voting - but I can also understand if voters want to wait until the series ends to judge the complete story.
Don't let me lose my nerve
I liked this book a lot. Don't get me wrong. (Weirdly, a lot of people read my original review and thought I hated it. If I don't like a book, I generally don't end with the phrase "I kinda love it.") It is a teenage daydream - a book that describes a fantasy world in which my hours rehearsing Magic: The Gathering strategies pay off in popularity, success and the adoration of large-breasted women. What's not (for me) to like?!
And therein lies the The Blinding Knife's weaknesses - not only is it "mere entertainment", it is also "mere entertainment" for one particular segment of the masses.* This is an excellent demonstration of how the genre can provide escapist fantasy for teenage boys. But... didn't we already know that? If the DGLA voters choose this as the "best of the year", I wouldn't be surprised, but I would be disappointed.***
*I'm looking at you, Stormdancer.
**The porn industry is always the first to adopt a new technology, but we normally don't stop there.
***It reminds me a bit of this piece by Andrew Wheeler on DC's business strategy - that is, to keep the core demographic entertained and shun everyone else. Which is a sensible way of keeping things ticking over, but if you've got, say, 52 titles to push out every single week, diversity actually becomes a business requirement. Epic fantasy as a category? Same position.