This book piqued my curiosity when I was told that it was similar in style to Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. And yet, though Brent Weeks' fantasy debut does bear some resemblance with Lynch's, The Way of Shadows has a lot more in common with R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt novels. Indeed, it is very similar in style and tone to Salvatore's The Legacy, Starless Night, and Siege of Darkness.
I reckon it's meant to be another dark and gritty fantasy epic, but it clearly doesn't fall into GRRM's "school of hard knocks" category. Although The Way of Shadows explores some very mature themes such as child and sexual abuse, the overall tone of the narrative is definitely YA. The resulting work makes for an uneven read, as the author tackles themes you'll never see in a YA work, yet the narrative appears to be aimed at a more adolescent readership. I have a feeling that Weeks might have been too ambitious to a certain extent, and thus he failed to deliver the emotional impact that would have made some scenes truly powerful.
Azoth is a street urchin whose life is a daily lesson in survival. When things come to a head within his guild, he is willing to put everything on the line in an attempt to become Durzo Blint's, the city's most renowned assassin, apprentice. As he undergoes the training that will make him a wetboy, he must turn his back on his old life. Soon, Azoth realizes that there is a lot more to him than he ever thought possible.
I must admit that at first I was afraid that The Way of Shadows would be a ripoff of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice. But I was proven wrong early on, and Weeks' debut is an original tale. Truth be told, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the beginning, though things take a turn for the worst around the middle portion of the book. In true Salvatoresque fashion, the main protagonists become über-powerful and too badass for their own good. The politicking also becomes clumsy and loses its credibility. Which, in the end, put a damper on my initial excitement.
Azoth and Durzo Blint will no doubt remind you of Salvatore's Artemis Entreri, Jarlaxe, and Drizzt. Entertaining characters, no doubt, but relatively clichéd. Some of the supporting cast seemed to possess more depth at first, yet as the story progresses you realize that it wasn't meant to be. And, though there are plenty of mature themes and graphic violence throughout this novel, the dialogues are a bit juvenile at times and not up to par in terms of grittiness. Again, the more YA tone of it all I mentioned -- not unlike R. A. Salvatore's works.
You can see that Brent Weeks has created an interesting universe for The Night Angel trilogy. Unfortunately, The Way of Shadows only shows us a few glimpses of his creation, and it's difficult to measure how good the worldbuilding truly is. On thing's for certain: Weeks set the stage for a lot more to come. In my opinion, the author may have tried to do too much in this one. Too many different storylines converge at the end, which takes a lot away from the realism of the start of the book.
For all of its shortcomings, I went through The Way of Shadows quite rapidly. The pace is crisp, and Brent Weeks knows how to tell a compelling story. The novel will likely never be nominated for a World Fantasy Award or a Hugo Award. Still, it can stand tall as an entertaining fantasy "lite" tale, if that's what you are looking for.
Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows has all the qualities that made R. A. Salvatore famous: Action, intrigue, clichéd but endearing characters, and more. À la Naomi Novik, Orbit is releasing all three volumes of the trilogy in the span of three months. And I have a feeling that Brent Weeks could enjoy the same sort of commercial success that Gail Z. Martin savored in 2007. Similarly to Karen Miller's books, this series will probably get savaged on various message boards and by a few critics. Nevertheless, as R. A. Salvatore makes regular appearances on the NYT bestseller list, I believe that The Way of Shadows and its sequels, Shadows' Edge (Canada, USA, Europe) and Beyond the Shadows (Canada, USA, Europe), will sell extremely well, regardless of the fact that it will likely not be held in high esteem by the SFF fandom's "in crowd."
The final verdict: 7/10