The Burning White by Brent Weeks has been on my list of anticipated books for years, basically since the previous volume in the Lightbringer series, The Blood Mirror, released. It is easily my most anticipated novel of 2019. When any novel has this level of expectation associated with it, one of the big questions is whether it lives up to those expectations. For me, The Burning White, is a fun conclusion to the series, but also ends up as a very mixed bag.
First, we have to talk about the parts of the novel that really stood out. The first of these that comes to my mind is the magic system. The Lightbringer series has one of the most innovative, unique, and imaginatively stunning magic systems ever conceived. This continues to be the case in The Burning White. By this fifth entry in the series, we know how the magic works, but there are still some reveals here and there that are great fun. We also get to see some of the characters who started out completely unskilled in drafting now being able to do all sorts of things, and that’s a very cool aspect of this novel. There are some very tender character moments as well. This is especially true for Kip and the Mighty, but includes characters beyond that close-knit sphere. These intimate character moments are probably the scenes from this book that are going to stay with me the longest. Seeing characters that we’ve come to know and love make connections with one another, care about one another, and be willing to sacrifice for one another is incredibly powerful and moving. I want to avoid spoilers, but I truly appreciated this aspect of Weeks’ work. The author also brings his trademark action sequences to this novel. There continue to be battle scenes that feel fresh and new, even though we’re in the fifth book of the series. The climactic battle felt very epic, engaging, and tense. I couldn’t really put the book down once it began, and found myself with that feeling of needing to turn the page and find out what happens next, trying to read faster so I could get to the next page, it’s a great feeling to be hooked in that way, and the ending of this book certainly has that.
There were a number of elements that did not work for me in this novel, however. First and foremost is that this entry in the series takes a massively theological turn. Without getting into specifics, there are multiple deus ex machina moments in the ending that at times felt quite forced to me. They ended up largely removing agency from the characters or meaning from their actions. I didn’t like that at all, and I found that in the end it detracted significantly from what could have been a very satisfying ending. In addition to this, Weeks attempts to tackle questions of forgiveness and redemption in this one. I think those themes are extremely relevant and worth grappling with. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the answers the characters in the books settled on to be anywhere near satisfying. If anything, the focus on radical forgiveness without any sort of repentance or acknowledgement of wrongdoing sets up powerful people to continue exploiting people. Forgiveness and radical mercy are topics I’m personally quite interested in, but because of this I feel that they need to be nuanced. In fairness to the author, perhaps a series that has been more action-oriented isn’t the best place to have a nuanced take on these topics, but I think fantasy as a genre is quite capable of bringing that nuance into all sorts of topics and I would have liked to have seen more of it here.
The first half of the novel was also very slow. For a book that had four other books to set it up, it felt like it took far too much time for the real action of the novel to kick in. Once it did, the read was enjoyable and action packed, but that first half was a bit of a trudge. I also felt like many of the characters weren’t growing. Most of the characters we wanted to see succeed were stuck making the same mistakes they always have, showing no real signs of growth or maturation other than perhaps an acknowledgment that they were making a mistake or some slight increase in their amount of self-control. This is even true of the antagonists, with the Color Prince appearing infrequently and not receiving a satisfying conclusion to his plot threads, as the novel shifted its attention to questions of philosophy and theology.
There are definitely interesting ideas in this novel. Especially about reason, about theology, and about convincing oneself that you are right. But ultimately, I felt that these didn’t have much chance to shine through because the characters are sort of stuck in place. A somewhat spoilery example: Kip and his interactions with Andross. Because Andross has to be Andross, Kip has no room to grow. He can’t become someone because Andross is defined primarily as being better than everyone. Therefore, for Andross to continue to be himself, no other character can best him, thus significantly reducing the room for growth that other characters have. In the end, much of this book did not work for me. It was still fun, and I’m not disappointed I read it. Other longtime fans of the series may find that they are less bothered by its weaknesses and therefore more able to enjoy its many strengths.
The Burning White is the engaging and thrilling conclusion to the Lightbringer series. While it isn’t a perfect ending, fans will find things to love, things to dislike, and perhaps much to debate, in this tome of a novel.
Review by Calvin Park
1 positive reader review(s) for The Burning White
6 positive reader review(s) in total for the Lightbringer series
Brendan from Australia
A decent read. As several reviews have mentioned, the theological aspects were some of the real weak spots in the story. I think it might be that Brent Weeks' personal beliefs became too much of an influence in his writing. I had a flashback while reading this book. It made me remember a time when I was reading a Terry Goodkind novel and realized that I was being preached at by an ideologue instead of just reading a book. The authors frame this in similar ways - it happens during discussions between characters, where one person, in the guise of a 'doubter' has an ideology patiently explained to them - in enormous detail, and where their every doubting response or question is met with ethereal wisdom. It is the kind of setting that probably seems totally plausible, even awe-inspiring - in the mind of an ideologue, but to someone reading it, it comes across as ham fisted, immersion breaking, preachy and even disrespectful. I had to stop reading Goodkind, because he just got worse and worse, and his novels just started to feel like thinly veiled rants. I'd hate to stop reading Weeks, and I hope I don't have to. When his writing is good, it is extremely good, and really enjoyable. I had some issues with pacing and with character consistency. But overall, a really good read and a satisfactory conclusion.
7.4/10 from 2 reviews