The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
I'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has closed, but the awards aren't announced yet, so I'm plowing on...
The Broken Eye (2014) is the third in the four book Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks [read our previous reviews here!]. The books take place in a world where light is power, with 'drafters' as the wizards able to wield said power. The Chromeria - an alliance of powerful drafters - has been (more or less) running the world, stewarding over a (more or less peaceful) sort of aristocracy.
Although drafters are the top of the pecking order, there are checks and balances in place - largely involving noble families, the high church, a handful of military organisations and a seemingly-infinite number of secret conspiracies.
Arguably the greatest 'check' is the cost of drafting - as the wizards use their power, it begins to change them. The immediate effect is an emotional one: drafting 'blue', for example, makes you more logical, while 'red' makes you angry. But there are long-term physical changes as well, with drafters eventually becoming more and more colour-infused, and eventually turning into 'wights' - colour-monsters.
Although drafters can rule the world (and largely do), it is difficult for them to maintain that power. As a last nod to their humanity, for centuries drafters on the verge of 'going wight' (pun!) have willingly sacrificed themselves. They live fast, die young, and leave very colourful corpses.
The Colour Prince - the ostensible villain of the series - has brought the Chromeria to its knees by upending the delicate balance of power. By promising not to kill wights, and, in fact, by showing that wights can maintain their humanity, the Prince has turned some of the basic principles of society on its head. And, even more intimidating: he's using his army of drafters to create colour Gods - gigantic incarnations of the magic.
As if losing this war (because they are) to the Prince and his pet gods isn't bad enough for the Chromeria, its internal politics are a disaster. The Prism, the nominal head of state, has gone missing. Gavin Guile, one of the book's protagonists, was depowered and de-...er...shipped at the end of the previous book, and is now a galley slave. Kip, his bastard son, is no better off. Kip has been accused of Gavin's murder, when, actually, he was trying to kill Gavin's father (his own grandfather), Andross. Andross, by the way, is now running the Chromeria. It has all gone horribly, colorfully wrong.
Meanwhile, Kip's old friends in the Blackguards - an elite military unit - are dealing with yet more problems. Teia, Kip's best friend and clearly-indicated-romantic interest is free from slavery (yay!), in possession of a rare drafting talent (double yay!) and now caught up in a crazy layered triple-blind conspiracy of assassins (less yay!).
As the penultimate volume in the series, The Broken Eye is all about dialling up a series that was already sitting at comfortably at 10.5. Kip, Teia, Gavin and the other point of view protagonists discover new powers, trip over prophesies, and frantically run around searching for exposition. Everyone involved is heir to a special magic destiny and armed with super-duper rare magic powers, ones that constantly evolve with new tricks and skills. Despite being the third book in, Eye still makes time for training montages, as Kip and his friends bust out powers on top of powers. On top of that, epic level equipment is being dumped left, right and center, including cloaks of invisibility-and-more, shapeshifting dagger-swords, and prophetic playing cards.
The experience of reading The Broken Eye, in a single gif:
The Broken Eye is equal parts ridiculous and captivating - just like the previous two books in the series. The entire Lightbringer ethos exists seemingly to provide as much bonkers, adrenalin-powered, super-explosive fan-service high fantasy shrieking as possible: a Michael Bay movie made print.
Part of the 'terms and conditions' of this year's DGLA reviews is to review each book as its own separate work, and, by that standard, The Broken Eye is - well - completely nonsensical. The previous two books didn't stand alone, and nor does this. It is a single, continuous, soap operatic volume; teenage angstsquee set against a high fantasy backdrop.1
On the other hand, what's remarkable about The Broken Eye - and its predecessors - is that they should, well... suck. As noted, this is a ridiculous book. Everyone in it is a Chosen One. New powers, conspiracies and super-artifacts are falling out of the sky at every turn. Everything that can be made AWESOME is being made AWESOME, because why punch someone in the face when you can SUPERCOLOURKICKPUNCH SOMEONE STRAIGHT THROUGH THE FACEHOLE.
A 'sub-plot' of Eye involves Kip trying really, really, really hard to break a heavy bag in the training room. For no other reason than, you know, IT WOULD BE MAD COOL. A conversation with his captain pretty much goes along those lines. "Hey Kip, why are you trying to break shit?" "BREAKN SHIT IS COOL. WERE U NOT YOUNG N BREAKIN SHIT ONCE?" <tearful bonding> <Kip breaks shit>.2 This sums up everything in this series: Lightbringer is crafted around the core precept that breaking shit is cool. Moreover, it presupposes that everyone - both in the text and reading it - shares an aesthetic appreciation that blowing stuff up is, you know, awesome. Suitably, everything in this book is UPAWESOMED as much as it possibly can be.
And it works. Blowing shit up is cool and UPAWESOMING does make things more awesome. And it probably shouldn't. But the Lightbringer series is dedicated to bringing readers along on the path of UPAWESOMING. There's certainly a detailed (ludicrously so) magical system at the heart, but unlike, for example, Words of Radiance, the magic here exists to UPAWESOME the characters, and not the other way around. Ditto the (convoluted) setting and the super-sized heap of prophesies - these exist to make the characters bigger, badder and more enjoyable. Kip, Teia and Gavin aren't mere tour guides, taking the reader backpacking through the world-bible: they're the stars, and everything else exists to make them shine.
Let's Gemmell this, yo.
Is it fantastic? Yes. So Kip is a full spectrum drafter which means he can do magic of all the seven colours just like his dad can so he can like summon blazing yellow swords and shoot red blasts of energy from his arms and legs so he can superpunch and superkick things and craft blue armor and set things on fire with superviolet and like go green and rage out and be all spikey and kill shit like demons and there are swordguns that drain powers and everyone is a god now and there's this one time Kip used his power and got deaded and talked to a demon that had a superpistol and then IT WAS AWESOME.
Is it entertaining? Yes.
Is it immersive? Yessssssssish... no. I think as a series, yes. As a book, no. The world of The Broken Eye will make no sense if this is the only book you've read in the series (and why would it be?). Its predecessors established things like settings and magic systems, this volume assumes you're familiar with them. So, no, but that's a result of the way I'm reviewing, and not a reflection on the series as a whole.
Is it emotionally engaging? Kind of. This is engaging in the very traditional high fantasy sense: characters that are you, teen or pre-teen straightboy reader dude - with your gawky body, distant parents, school struggles and inability to talk to girls (who have GIRL BITS). You know you're better than everyone else and filled with the special, but you also know that you're a nerd with bad eyes/skin/body/ability-to-carry-footballs and, oh god, the agonising dichotomy of your existence is killing you. WELL FEAR NOT. FOR YOU ARE KIP. Kip is fat! Kip is Chosen! Kip is too nice to be taken seriously as boyfriend material! Kip has an active fantasy life! Kip wants his parents' approval and understand! Kip can blow shit up with his mind-magic and hot girls show him their breasticles!
There are other characters, such as Kip's dad (Kip, older) and Kip's not-quite-girlfriend (Kip, the spin-off series). But The Broken Eye's bid for emotional engagement is very focused and, within that remit, extremely successful. It knows what (a certain marketing/demographic segment of) you want, and it delivers that want. WITH SPLOSIONS.3
Is it embarrassing? Eh. It is what it is - laddish, but in a fumblingly chivalric way. Not particularly thoughtful, and certainly not progressive, but, you know, not actively reactive, which - at this point - is a nice difference. There are, I suppose, only two types of women in this book: hot and old. But Teia, for example, is... a character. She doesn't have any agency, I mean, let's not go crazy. But it is not in an overtly malicious way: her primary conflict is her quest for freedom, and she certainly wants it. I'm not going to hold this up as stepping stone towards the progressive future of fantasy, but there are also much worse.
Is it different? No. The Broken Eye UPAWESOMES well, but that's hardly a new approach to fantasy.
So where's that leave the book in DGLA terms? A bit like Valour, I can see myself recommending the Lightbringer series - primarily to younger readers.4 That's no 'bad' thing in and of itself. And, as a series, I think Lightbringer (to date) could make a bid for 'Best of the Year' based on pure entertainment value alone. It is the Mentos and Coke of fantasy, cheap, sticky, and a genuine blast. As a single book, however, it is hard to say The Broken Eye is a fragment of a whole, and can't - and shouldn't - be judged as an individual volume.5
1: I've made the comparison between the Lightbringer series and Vampire Academy in the past, and I'm sticking to it. They're exactly the same thing: school stories that 'go epic', combining angsty romance, a variety of Chosen One plotlines and meticulous magic systems. And they're both a lot of fun. Sad to say that the readers of one series wouldn't be caught dead reading the other, because, you know, 'they don't like that sort of thing'.↩
2: His nickname, by the way, is Breaker. Because, you know. Breaking shit. ↩
3: Random shout out. There's one scene - a flashback - in which Gavin remembers having to execute hundreds of drafters that were on the verge of going wight. One at a time, taking their confession, then killing them. It is a surprisingly powerful chapter, and helps position a) Gavin (or "Gavin", but complication, so whatever), b) the Colour Prince's 'side', and c) the cost of magic as a whole. It is also punchily written - a long list of increasingly fragmented memories. I'm not sure if it is genuinely emotive, or emotive-in-context of The Broken Eye, but either way, it is very good, and, although tangential, I'm glad it was in the book.↩
4: Let's be clear - on the Venn Diagram of YA and Epic Fantasy - you know, that diagram that looks suspiciously like a single circle? - this is damn near the center.↩
5: That has, of course, never mattered with the DGLA. See, for example, The Blinding Knife, the 2013 winner. (Reviewed!)↩