From the sun-kissed lands of Tolkien’s Middle Earth to the frostbitten realms of Martin’s Westeros, we thought we’d seen it all in fantasy.
Ah, bless our naïve little socks. Little did we know, the genre was primed to be knocked squarely on its ethereal arse by an unassuming bloke named Brent Weeks and his seminal novel, “The Way of Shadows.”
In the dimly-lit world of fantasy, where elves prance about with their pointy ears, dragons spew fire like faulty North Sea gas wells, and wizards wield staffs with the girth of telegraph poles, Weeks cast a dark, smoky shadow of refreshing realism.
‘The Way of Shadows,’ published in 2008, introduced us to the enchanting city of Cenaria, a place as pleasant as a wet weekend in Scunthorpe and twice as grimy.
Here, Weeks crafted his protagonist, Azoth, a scamp with the morals of a pickpocket and the fortitude of a stale pork pie.
But the lad had ambition. And that’s always a good start, right? Well, not quite.
Weeks took Azoth, our lovable rogue, and yanked him through a schooling as a wetboy—a word Weeks insists means ‘assassin,’ but I can’t help picturing a soggy tween wielding a knife down by the bus station.
Nevertheless, this was a stark contrast to the usual well-lit halls of wizardry or dashing knight academies of conventional fantasy.
Instead, we delved headfirst into an underworld teeming with grit, grime, and more moral ambiguity than an MP’s expenses claim (I went there).
And there, precisely, lies the crux of Weeks’ influence on fantasy fiction: ‘The Way of Shadows’ sidestepped the well-trodden path of light vs dark, good vs evil, Marmite vs Bovril.
The lines were smudged, the moral compasses skewed, and reader expectations tossed out like a controversial referendum result.
Suddenly, fantasy wasn’t about some prophesied lad with the personality of a damp lettuce leaf taking down a dark lord with an affinity for eye makeup.
Instead, it focused on the common man, or, in this case, the common guttersnipe, and his moral journey in a world where the road to power is paved with daggers and dodgy dealings.
Moreover, Weeks was unflinching in his depictions of violence and societal horrors.
It was as if he took George R.R. Martin’s penchant for character decimation and said, “Hold my pint, Georgie.”
He wove a tapestry of a world where life was cheaper than a Lidl’s meal deal, and, let’s be honest, was it mesmerising.
Weeks’ gift to fantasy was a murky, grimy realm where the heroes are just as broken as the villains and the outcome is as predictable as a British summer.
With ‘The Way of Shadows,’ Weeks proved that even in a world overflowing with magic and monsters, the most compelling stories revolve around characters with depth and a sense of humour darker than a bar of Bournville.
Post ‘The Way of Shadows,’ we’ve seen a surge of grimdark fiction, a subgenre that’s less ‘unicorns and rainbows’, more ‘corpses and rainclouds…smashed into the mud…with blood and guts everywhere…and screams…lots of screams…and bits of sick.’
A more sinister tone to the fantasy genre seems to have taken root, spreading like unchecked ivy across a trellis.
And for this, we have Brent Weeks to thank (or to send a sternly worded letter, depending on your disposition).
So, Brent Weeks didn’t so much change the face of fantasy as grabbed it by the jowls, gave it a good shake, and told it to buck up its ideas.
His influence continues to be felt with every morally ambiguous protagonist, every sinister cityscape, and every grim depiction of reality that creeps into our beloved genre.
For better or worse, ‘The Way of Shadows’ gave fantasy a gritty facelift. And honestly, it’s a look we’re starting to quite fancy.
Ten Essential Assassin Fantasy Books for Fans of Brent Weeks
Here are ten fantastic fantasy novels featuring assassins, published after Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy.
Each of these will plunge you into worlds of shadowy intrigue, where lives can be taken as quickly as a pint at last call:
“The Emperor’s Edge” (The Emperor’s Edge #1) by Lindsay Buroker (2010)
Buroker’s charming and cunning ensemble, led by an infamous assassin, will keep you entertained and hooked from beginning to end.
“Half a King” (Shattered Sea #1) by Joe Abercrombie (2014)
This series opener introduces us to a gripping world of politics, backstabbing (literal and otherwise), and a royal youth thrust into the midst of it all.
“Blade’s Edge” (Chronicles of Gensokai #1) by Virginia McClain (2015)
In a world where magic is forbidden, two young girls must use their secret abilities to survive.
“Darkblade Assassin” (Hero of Darkness #1) by Andy Peloquin (2018)
The title says it all, really. Peloquin’s moody hero, the Hunter, stalks the grimy streets of Voramis, serving as judge, jury, and executioner.
“Never Die” by Rob J. Hayes (2019)
This is an East Asian-inspired fantasy, where a band of ‘heroes’ is resurrected to serve the whims of a mysterious child. Among them is an infamous assassin, whose skills prove essential to their mission.
“Blood Song” (Raven’s Shadow #1) by Anthony Ryan (2011)
In a tale of warfare, intrigue, and dark magic, a young boy, trained to be a killer, rises to power.
“Dance of Cloaks” (Shadowdance #1) by David Dalglish (2013)
Follow the journey of a young heir to a criminal empire, trained in the arts of stealth and murder.
“Kings of Paradise” (Ash and Sand #1) by Richard Nell (2018)
Dive into a world of shadowy politics, brutal warfare, and a protagonist who knows a thing or two about killing.
“Free the Darkness” (King’s Dark Tidings #1) by Kel Kade (2015)
Follow the story of Rezkin, an assassin with a stringent code of honour, in a tale that blends action and adventure in a fantastic fantasy
“Age of Assassins” (The Wounded Kingdom #1) by RJ Barker (2017)
Barker has certainly outdone himself with this rousing foray into the fantasy genre. “Age of Assassins” is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of deceit, intrigue, and surprise that gleefully chucks you into the life of our protagonist, Girton Club-Foot.
Now there’s a selection to make an assassin blush!
Just remember to tread lightly as you wander through these pages, as these are worlds where shadows often bite back.
Would you like a free copy of my novel Birth of Assassins? Grab your copy as part of the free Ravenglass Universe starter library.