Book Club: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Autumn is coming: curl up with The Black Prism and a Tim Hortons coffee

Book Club: <i> The Black Prism </i> by Brent Weeks

Brent Weeks is not the first author who I mention to people when I say that I love fantasy. I tend to lean toward Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, and Brandon Sanderson — all producers of the beloved literary warhorses that dragged me into the genre.

Weeks’ novels were typically the ones that I paused on and never actually brought home. However, The Black Prism hit me like an emotional dump truck, and I can confidently say that this book is one that I will treasure forever, in multiple first-edition copies, after I finally pay off my library fines.

The Black Prism is a high-fantasy novel that is set in a land with a colour-based magic system. Certain people are able to produce a mystical element called Luxin, which can be used for construction-, attack-, and compulsory-type magic. However, the properties of the Luxin are tied to a colour, and most characters can only create Luxin of one colour — a gift that comes at a deadly cost.

Gavin Guile, the protagonist of the novel, is the only person who can create all seven colours of Luxin. He is worshipped as a divine figure known as the Prism. But Gavin is scarred emotionally and physically from war and is haunted by the acts that he performed to bring peace to his world.

Weeks’ story feels intricately planned. Many fantasy books fall into the trap of mimicking others in the genre. There are several novels that contain a Gavin-like character — The Name of the Wind, a familial feud — American Gods, or even magic based on the colour spectrum — Warbreaker. However, this book is exceptional because, despite the old tropes that feel like familiar friends, the novel spools out plot twists and double crosses in a way that I can only describe as masterful. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that no one is who they appear to be in this book, and everyone is the better for it.

At times, though, the writing is almost too painful to read. Weeks includes many heavy plot points in the novel. Characters face war, devastation, and heartbreak, yet the novel is set largely after most of these events occur. There is an omnipotent central character, but many of the points of view come from characters who are forced to play sidekick to the legends.

The most emotional scenes come from the ordinary people who are called upon to live in the mess that was created by the giant war, those who have dealt bitterly with those consequences for years after. Weeks never shies away from this idea, which is extremely appealing in a genre that often glorifies and focuses on the stories of the never-fallen.

Finally, this book is perfect for autumn; it should be accompanied by vivid scenery. As so much of this book is based on the ideas of colour and light, Weeks’ writing dwells on the beauty of the natural world and makes a pretty convincing argument for watching the leaves fall from the trees.

This book is funny, well-written, and matches Red Rising in the number of quotable, dramatic, and slightly arrogant phrases. I would recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy or wants to love it.

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is Canadian literature at its strangest

Sadness and laughter are intertwined within the novella, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s  <i> Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow </i> is Canadian literature at its strangest

What would Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis look like if it was written today by a Canadian who has an absurdist knack akin to Pynchon, Saunders, and Vonnegut? It would look like Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow by Jason Heroux, published in 2018 by Toronto-based Mansfield Press.

Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is a novella that falls into the realm of magical realism. The story is a puzzle perfectly jigsawed together to capture both the mundane nature and the complexities of everyday life.

The book is set during the Age of Transformation, when everyone and everything is transforming into each other. Owen’s father, once a meaty-hunk of personhood, has transformed into a bicycle lost by Owen in front of a Chinese restaurant.

Meanwhile, Owen struggles to come to terms with his past: he used to be a dog named Scooter owned by a couple, who wants him back to be their dog. Not wanting to leave his wife, Lila, Owen goes through everyday life coming to terms with the fact that he will have to, by dictum of nonsensical yet eerily realist property laws, return to his owners and act like a dog while actually being a person.

It is through the juxtaposition of the outlandish premise with the scene-by-scene mundanity that the book derives its charm and subsequently its profundity. Scenes twist and turn between banality and absurdity. In one scene, Owen goes through the everyday motions of ordering a double double dark roast — a Canadian thing — only to get an elderly man afflicted with Tangier disease.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is about messiness in a world where everything always seems in order. Heroux shows readers the volatility of a world that seems static. Binary oppositions of familiar and strange, change and stasis, and confusion and order are playfully subverted until the boundaries of said terms become indistinguishable from one another.

The brilliance of the novel is that it treats these bizarre switch ups so nonchalantly that the reader cannot differentiate between what is the familiar becoming strange and what is the strange becoming familiar: in this case, the server cannot take the elderly man back because of the store’s no-return policy.

The book is Timbit-sized — only 104 pages — making it a quick and unintimidating read in an era when most people do not read.

The short length ensures that every chapter is a rewarding experience, bubbling with absurd humour, cosmic alienation, and identity crises, often all in the same page. Sadness and laughter exist together in every paragraph, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis.

It’s the type of prose where one catches oneself unconsciously mouthing the words of each sentence as if they are under the book’s incantation. In many senses, this impressive feat of brevity is also where the book momentarily wavers. As the book draws to a close, readers will feel unsatisfied with the way the story resolves itself alongside the stagnation of Lila and Owen’s relationship.

But that’s where Heroux’s artistry shines through: in life, resolutions are always a bit disappointing, and relationships always end up stagnating at some point. It’s only by acknowledging that banality, and by showcasing it in inventive ways, that one can start to understand the maze of contemporary life. In Heroux’s world, one is always lost in that maze, dissociated with their surroundings and cosmically alone against the absurdity of the universe.

One never has a clear grasp of who they are or what they are doing as the hours slip away in conferences and phone calls. Heroux’s world is not unlike our own.

In a world where reality TV stars become presidents, most of us wouldn’t be surprised if we started to transform into mundane objects tomorrow. Heroux’s world is one where absurdity is taken more seriously than seriousness.

In one of the funniest, but also exasperating, arcs of the book, Owen and Lila install a Home Automation service that doesn’t work. They spend the rest of the novel trying to get it removed, going to lawyers and support groups in the fight against the convoluted contract from a big corporation. In one scene, after a harrowing phone call with an agent for the Home Automation company, filled with the standard frustrations of trying to cancel anything over phone, Owen is told that the service can be removed.

Upon hearing those words, Owen is flooded with “feelings of peace, tranquility, balance and harmony” and “the universe [seems] full of mysterious hidden beauty.” In those moments, Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows understands that what David Foster Wallace called “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence” are where the most important cosmic battles are taking place; the most familiar battles end up as the most mysterious.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows explores the forgetfulness and always-changing identities that are core to the human experience, asking that confusing question of who we are in a world that constantly transforms, but somehow stays the same.

In the everyday bureaucracy of life, that grand feeling of dissociation hits us out of the blue, and we realize that, deep down, we are not so different from the bicycles and spoons of the world. We, too, are subject to the whims of agents outside our control, merely existing, going from places day-to-day in fleeting moments that culminate in death.