The Black Prism is the first in Brent Weeks' new fantasy quartet about the most powerful man in the world, the suddenly-revealed son he never knew he had, and the remnants of his war that almost tore that world apart. When the King of Tyrea burns Kip's village to the ground, killing everyone inside it except Kip himself, the boy -- always weak, always the victim -- swears to his dying mother that he will kill the man in revenge. When he discovers that the Prism, the leader of the world's magicians and the world's most powerful man, is actually his father, he finds himself pulled into a world of magic where, he believes, he will once again prove a failure. The Prism himself, meanwhile, must deal with the unexpected appearance of and need to protect this boy, while fighting to stop the King of Tyrea from throwing the whole world into another deadly war.
At first, I was uncomfortable with the apparent "boy's club fantasy" nature of the story. We met three perspective characters in the early chapters, all of whom were men, and the women they lusted after. One, it seems, is a sexist cheat who takes sexual advantage of his slaves. Another is a teenage boy who seems to feel somewhat entitled to the attention or affections of the girls he knows. I was, to put it mildly, a little fidgety with the story.
But then two female perspective characters appear. One is the old love interest of our protagonist, an elite magical soldier who still has lingering feelings for him but won't take any more of his crap. The other is a young trainee magician who struggles to overcome the prejudices of the magical world in order to find success. Both are, sadly, manipulated and abused by the narrative to some extent, including kidnapping and blackmail, but they maintain their strength and are certainly not damsels waiting for somebody else to save them. They have feelings and beliefs and personalities of their own, and play an increasingly important role in the story on their own terms.
The book's world and magic is not only well done, but incredibly original -- no medieval systems and magic wands here. Reading it felt like a truly inventive, immersive fantasy experience, and although the book is no Song of Ice and Fire in terms of complex female characters, it has twists and complexities, in both its characters and its plot, that made me gasp and made me frantic for more.
Of course, these things don't completely negate the problematic nature of this magical world, and the way that its male characters often accept its problems without question. But if you're looking for something a bit different in epic fantasy, and something to addict you on dark winter nights, this one is definitely worth a look.