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Book Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

The Black Prismthe black prism
Brent Weeks

Orbit, 2020
★★★☆☆

At its heart, The Black Prism is a spin on the classic fantasy Farm Boy trope. Kip, our farm boy, is just an ordinary 15-year-old kid living in a humble little village, when destiny suddenly comes a-knockin in the form of an army that slaughters his entire town. In the ensuing chaos, Kip discovers he is the illegitimate son of Gavin Guile, the Prism, who is a sort of religious/political figure, kind of like a Priest-King. Prisms are one in a generation; they alone are able to draft seven colors with no negative effects, making them extremely powerful; they also use this power to maintain “color balance” in the world. This particular Prism, though, is marked by a war from sixteen ago, when Gavin fought against his brother, who was seemingly also a Prism, leading the war to be known as the False Prism’s war.

There’s kind of a lot going on in this book, but also very little at the same time, so let’s break this down into categories.

Characters

For the most part, there are four major POV characters:

Gavin: Our main character, whom the world revolves around. To me Gavin was very much a Gary Stu type of character, especially as we continued to learn more about him and his secrets. He’s just sooooo talented, even for a Prism, and such a good man, and so handsome, and charming, and witty, and clever, blah blah. The narrative tried to give him depth by making him somewhat ruthless, but it never really panned out.

Kip: Ah, Kip. Our farm boy. Kip is fat, and he won’t let you forget this. Every other page he whines about being fat or feeling inadequate. He’s also smart-mouthed. But of course he’s smart and stubborn and brave and also amazing. The problem with Kip is that I could see his entire character trajectory from the first chapter; he’s fat and lacks confidence? Obviously he’s going to have a drawn-out training arc where he loses the weight and becomes a handsome, powerful, and sought-after bachelor. What’s also annoying about Kip is that he is very much a teenage boy, which, fine, the author did a good job capturing that mindset, but I’m sure I’d be forgiven for not wanting to read about some kid having all these immature thoughts about sex and women’s bodies.

Karris: Does Karris exist for any reason except to be Gavin’s love interest? I mean, really, is there anything to her character or her arc that doesn’t revolve around Gavin or his brother, both of whom supposedly fought over her? Karris also gets kidnapped at some point, which gives Kip the chance to play the hero, and also gives Karris the chance to play the Strong Female Character, complete with a skin-tight dress that shows off her nipples (this is mentioned………several times) and at some point gets torn all the way to her hip, because of course it does. How else can you identify a Strong Female Character if she’s not fighting in a Sexy Dress.

Liv: Liv was my favorite character, and honestly the only redeeming thing about this entire book; I lived for her chapters! Liv comes from Kip’s town, which is known as a backwater province that fought against Gavin in the war and so its residents are discriminated against, which has given Liv somewhat of a chip on her shoulder, especially considering that she is a rather proud young woman. At the same time, she’s pragmatic and self-deprecating, and I really enjoyed the direction her arc took in this book. It makes complete sense for her as a character.

The main problem I had with these character is that they all sound really, really similar. They’re all somewhat sarcastic and self-deprecating. They’re all smart-mouthed. They’re all funny. Their inner narratives all sounded the same.

Magic & Worldbuilding

I read a review somewhere that said it felt like the author came up with this magic system and then built a plot to fit it rather than allowing things to come together naturally, and I think that is the best and most accurate description of the problem with this magic system. There is no doubt that it is intriguing and creative, but it also overtakes the story.

So, what is the magic system? In a nutshell, drafters can draft various colors on a seven-color spectrum into something called “luxin” to create physical objects; each color has its own mass, texture, scent, etc. So, for example, Gavin, who can draft all colors, creates something akin to a hovercraft, while some other characters create body armor. You can make buildings out of luxin, clothing, weapons, your imagination is pretty much the limit, as well as how many colors you can actually draft (most drafters can only draft a single color, but there are also bichromes and polychromes who can draft two or more).

The thing is, I hated this magic system. I’m not entirely sure why, as I’m generally a fan of complex hard magic systems, but there was something about this one that felt both ugly and overly complicated. Whenever there was a battle scene featuring drafting my eyes just glazed over and I was tempted to skim. I could never really picture the process of drafting properly; I don’t know if it was the way the author described it or if I’m just not a fan of what this magic can do.

I do admire how the magic system was so heavily integrated with the world’s history and culture; I think that’s the mark of a good fantasy. I thought the worldbuilding in general was decent enough; you really get a sense of rich history and lore and culture throughout.

Plot, Pacing, & Writing

So this is where I point out again that it feels like the magic system overtakes the plot. What even happens in this book? Why is this book over six hundred pages long? It’s too goddamn long. It dragged so much. It’s six hundred pages of setup. The main villain of the series isn’t introduced until like 65% of the way in, even though he’s utterly fascinating! The pacing is all over the place.

The writing is…interesting. I’ve always thought that Irreverent Fantasy was kind of a new thing, but it seems not! This book takes great pains to be funny and casual and immature, which can sometimes be a little jarring when juxtaposed with the extreme violence that is casually tossed around. It’s very straightforward and readable writing, though, enough that it put me in the mind of a YA book.

The author also does something really bizarre which I’ve never seen before; so the book is written in third-person POV, but then there’s a lot of random sentences that are written in first-person. Normally something like this would be in italics to indicate that it’s a character’s thoughts, but here it wasn’t, and it was used very often. It didn’t exactly bother me, and it functioned as a way to get even deeper into characters’ heads, but it could sometimes be jarring and a tad confusing. (It also felt like a way to have your cake and eat it too.)

Also, there’s a lot of really detailed action sequences in this book, which is great if you like that, but I…don’t, so I found that frustrating. By the last fifty or so pages of the book, which is a very unnecessarily drawn out battle sequence, I was skimming, because I was so bored.

Women & Sexism

This is a fantasy book that is very obviously written by a man. It almost seems like the author went out of his way to hold up a sign with bright red letters reading, “I am A Heterosexual Male.”

So, this is a sexist world. It’s not Game of Thrones sexist, where women have no power, but it’s more like…modern-day era sexism, where women hold many positions of power and ostensibly there is gender equality but gender roles and sexist ideas still very much exist in varying degrees. The threat of rape exists. Heterosexuality is king. You get the gist. And that’s fine. I don’t have any objections to that at all. The problem is when the narrative does not criticize this sexism, but in fact takes advantage of it.

Kip is supposed to be a stereotypical fifteen-year-old boy, so I guess he can be forgiven for some of his immature and sexist thoughts and behaviors, but at some point it just gets to be too much. I mean, in the middle of a battle, with dead bodies strewn all around, Kip is super concerned with Karris’s nipples? Give me a break.

And it’s not just Kip, it’s the narrative itself. So much attention is paid to women’s bodies. Like, why do I need to know that this female character has sagging breasts? Why do you need to emphasize that this woman is forty but still unwrinkled and beautiful? For that matter why do both of our main female characters have to be sooooooo beautiful, and why does this have to be mentioned constantly by the main male characters? Why is there a literal assassination scene where Kip’s face is buried in the assassin’s cleavage like this is some kind of slapstick comedy?

To be fair, I do think the author spends a fair amount of time describing bodies in general; for example, there’s a scene where Gavin is for some reason naked in front of Kip and Liv and they’re caught up in admiring how crazy hot he is. And to be fair again, I think the author is just really invested in trying to be funny, but it’s very juvenile humor, the sort that maybe immature teenage boys would find funny, but that to an adult audience is just really stupid and cringey and pointless. There’s plenty of ways to make a fantasy book light-hearted without resorting to sexist humor.

Overall

I can see how this book is clearly building towards something epic. I’m sure there will be some awesome reveals related to the magic system. I’m curious enough that I will probably look up spoilers, but I have no intentions of continuing with the series, and that is mostly due to the pacing. I have no doubt that this five-book series is one that could very easily have been a trilogy. If I continue to read, I’ll just be frustrated and bored. Not to mention I only really connected with one character, Liv, and I can’t read for her alone.

I gave this book a 3 star rating that’s really more of a 2.5 star rating, and I feel compelled to remind folks of the GR rating system, in which a 2-star rating stands for “it was okay” because that’s how I felt about this book. It was okay. There were some parts I really liked. There were some parts I didn’t. I would have liked it more if it was condensed. For the most part it was a fun reading experience, except for the bloated descriptions of magic and action when my eyes glazed over. Would definitely watch a television adaptation of this, though, because the magic is very visual and would be super cool on screen.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

  1. Great review! I read this one several years ago and was left with a very similar impression. Liv was also the only character I genuinely liked, and I was also somewhat frustrated by the magic system. (I think I was mainly confused about it tbh, it seemed kind of unnecessarily complex and if I remember right the magic was draining for users so I couldn’t quite understand the appeal of using it so heavily in the first place). But I was very intrigued about some aspects, including what direction the series would take after that ending, which was for me the most interesting part of the book. And yet it’s been… 3 or 4 years, and I have not once been driven to picking up the second book. I think it’s time to admit I won’t and just look up those spoilers!

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    1. You know what’s weird? The more reviews I read, the more I see that people are super unimpressed with Liv, which I find bizarre! I thought she was so intriguing; she was what kept me going. But it seems people find her annoying or dislike her, which I don’t get.

      The magic is SO. UNNECESSARILY. COMPLEX.

      I would totally watch a TV adaptation of this series, but yeah, I have no desire to pick up the rest of the series. I watched some YouTube reviews of the following books and I really am just super Not Interested.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, that’s odd! If I remember right I had the sense that Liv’s character was mainly being built up in this first book to become more significant in the plot later on, but even so I remember liking her chapters from the start. She felt the most original of the perspectives we’re given.

        I’d much rather watch an adaptation! Hearing you’re still not interested after checking out further reviews from the series is helpful- I hate giving up in the middle but at this point I really would rather just find out what happens than waste my time! I’m off to youtube. 🙂

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      2. Apparently a major complaint from people who read the very last book was that Liz’s arc ends up going nowhere! They said that if Liz were removed from the story basically nothing would change, which is SO incredibly disappointing, because Book 1 made it seem like Brent Weeks was building her up into a Big Bad, like she would face off against Kip in the Final Showdown, BUT I give men far too much credit, sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh wow! I think I’d be disappointed by that as well, especially as I did like her early on. I would definitely agree that it seemed like Weeks was building her up for something! Such a shame when the author doesn’t seem to notice where the character is going…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Why is there a literal assassination scene where Kip’s face is buried in the assassin’s cleavage like this is some kind of slapstick comedy?”

    Oh my goodness, this sounds like something straight out of a shounen anime. smh.

    Liked by 1 person

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