Book Review: The Black Prism
I've been waiting for a book that I really felt like I could give five stars to. This one is it. If you like fantasy and clever magic in books, you should read this. I'm serious. Super big recommendation from me if that means anything to you.
I'm always looking for that next book that really hooks me in and gives me that sense of escapism that I think I look for in fiction. Since I'm a bigger reader of speculative fiction, a lot of the time it's in the fantasy genre that this happens, since it's far enough removed from the real world that it engages my imagination in new ways. Science fiction can get me there, but only if it's done really well. Done poorly and my engineer's brain starts poking holes in it and I can't really let myself fall into the narrative.
The first time I really remember being whisked away in a story was with the Star Wars X-Wing series (no longer canon, of course). Now, don't make the mistake of thinking that Star Wars is science fiction. It's not. It's fantasy. Space fantasy, but fantasy all the same. Anyway, I remember checking out the books from the library and being excited to get the next parts of the series even though they weren't out at the time. It really hooked me and made me read more and more, looking for that next hit. I found it again in Ender's Game (actually science fiction), and The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, and more recently The Name of the Wind and The Lies of Locke Lamora.
I'd put this book in that group, though probably just below the latter mentioned books.
It's interesting people can be swept away in a story. When I read I can disengage my brain from all of the stress of my day, from everything that I've done or have yet to do, and just relax in the moment in this fictional world. The really powerful thing about it is when you can learn something about yourself or about others through reading. It might not have even been the author's intention to make a point about something, but our brains have a way of using narrative to look inward and examine ourselves.
Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. On to the review.
The big idea behind this book is what if light was the fuel for magic, and there was one man who was leaps and bounds more powerful than everyone else. This man isn't just a magic user, he can actually split light without aid, like a prism. He is the figurehead of the government, the religious leader of the magic users, and the commander of armies. But the thing about being the Prism is that they never seem to stick around for very long, and this particular prism knows that he only has five years left. Five years and five goals to accomplish. What if the most powerful man in the whole world, the emperor, the Prism himself were to discover his illegitimate son just as the entire world was rising up against him?
First of all, fantastic world building. Sure, maybe a teensy-bit preachy here and there, but I never felt pulled out of the narrative by it. It seems like a rare thing to get a book that doesn't just dump everything on you at the start, or conversely shove a million new concepts and ideas at you to digest in the first few pages. This book hits that sweet spot where you learn as you go and never really feel lost. Questions are answered in a way that bring up more questions. There are layers upon layers of detail, and when you think you've figured something out there's even more to learn and discover.
The magic system is smart and fleshed out and has rules and religious connotation. It makes sense. The different colors of light are represented in interesting ways with different personalities and abilities based on what color of light a given person can use. People who can use red light are passionate, people who can use green light are wild and spontaneous, and the list goes on. It's still abstract enough that what you know about the magic can change as you read further, but when it's explained it all fits together really well.
For instance, I would clearly be a blue drafter. The people that use blue light are calm, logical, introspective. I think that fits my personality better than any of the other colors, plus I'm what they would call a Subchromat (Red/Green color-blind) so that would mean there's no way I would be able to use anything in that part of the spectrum.
Another thing that I really like in books is a great twist. And let me tell you, the twists were so good. The first twist comes at about the 30% mark, though there is plenty to hook you in from the first page. When that first twist came though, I was completely sold. I didn't see it coming, it was good and complicated things, but also made things more clear. That being said, there are twists that are easier to see coming, but even those pay off well. There's something satisfying about being right about a story twist, about calling what's going to happen and still have it surprise you a little bit. It's a testament to good writing that when the reader is proven right in their prediction that they feel good about it. So when I hit that final twist that I saw coming from the start, and he added some interesting new details to that twist that just deepen the plot and really complicate things for the protagonists, I was still sold.
Where this book fell down a little bit for me was with one of the protagonists. Kip, the young boy we meet at the very beginning, is a little bit annoying, overly self-deprecating, and just generally clueless at times. He has redeeming qualities, I think, in that he genuinely cares about a few of the people around him, but it did get a little difficult to read through more inner dialog about how this character was useless and never did anything right. It's the first book in a series, so if I had to guess this is just part of the character arc. Kip is sort of the reader's surrogate in the world as he learns magic, and thankfully there are more point-of-view characters than just him so you're never stuck in his head for very long.
Overall though? Highly recommended. Give me the next book.