Not only that, The Burning White has become my favorite fantasy book (like, of all time). The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, The Last Battle by CS Lewis, and The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien all fought for first place at various points over my life, ever since I started reading fantasy around eight years old. But The Burning White has officially eclipsed them (for now, until I argue with myself about it at some point in the future).
It's hard to review this book without reviewing the entire series - which I already have. But to summarize, this book follows up on the others in a satisfying, heart-rending, pulse-pounding way. It had me weeping at points, laughing out loud at others, and shouting in anger at still another. It follows all the beloved characters from the series and their POV - Gavin, Kip, Karris, Teia, and even adds in some side characters, including the ever-annoying, so well-written Andross Guile.
The book is so all-encompassing it's nearly impossible to know where to start. So I think I'll stick to one theme in particular: the overarching theme of redemption. I could write on and on about the perfection of each character's story arc, or how the pace of the book needed a little bit of work, or how Teia is really, really, awesome. But I would be remiss to not focus on the true meaning of this story - really, the story of the whole series.
Weeks tackles many, many themes, but the biggest one, by far, is the nature of redemption. Who deserves it? Who gets it and who doesn't? What is it? How is it accomplished? What is redemption from? Why do we need it? The way the author addresses each of these questions reveals the central truth: Orholam sees, Orholam cares, Orholam knows. It's not only about the characters finding redemption as much as it is about who is the one doing the redeeming. And it's not some pithy answer, either. Weeks never claims to have perfect answers to all of life's problems. As one character put it bluntly: the world sucks. But the important truth he does land on is that God/Orholam isn't some genie that we can pray and BOOM! All our problems are solved. No. He's a personal, caring, loving Being that does everything from a heart of compassion and care. And part of the reason why he allows what happens to happen is because he wants relationships, not slaves.
Now, at this point you might be rolling your eyes and saying, "Yeah, but I don't view the world from a Christian point of view, so please tell me that's not all there is." And you,, my friend, can rest at ease. This book can be read from a purely entertaining, give me a good fantasy story with war and magic, view. However, I do think that you wouldn't be getting a good picture of the beauty underlying the story itself. But anyways, I digress.
There were two scenes in particular that had me so blown away I had to step away from the book for a bit to digest it. There is a conversation that Teia has with Quentin in the aftermath of one of her assassinations. She's wrestling with the idea that if Orholam really is God, why he allows evil.
"I don't want to be this person I'm becoming, Quentin. Why would Orholam allow this?"
If Orholam can do something, and if He cares about us, why doesn't He?"
She nodded. "So what's the answer?"
Quentin doesn't answer her right away, but later on in the book, the issue comes back up again.
"You're certain you're ready to talk about evil now?"
...."Ready enough to hear. Maybe not accept," she admitted.
"Then you know your own heart better than most," Quentin said. "Very well, then. I'm a smart man, but often not a wise one, which can make for an impoverished theology or at least a poor application of it. But here's the best I've got. Why is there evil if Orholam loves us and has the power to stop it? My answer is that we are the apprentice painters, working under the master's watchful eye. He is a good master, and He has sworn not to make our work meaningless. Every smudge and every blot and every unsteady line we draw will remain. The master will soften a line or turn the darkest graffiti to chiaroscuro, but never will he take the palette knife to gouge out an imperfect piece of the work, for if He erased the imperfections made by our hands, where would He stop erasing? Everything we paint we paint imperfectly."
Weeks goes on to address the problem, then, of why God allows us to create imperfection to begin with. But I was struck by the thought that, if it's true that our imperfections are indeed an allowance to be unique and worth something, then maybe it's in the imperfections that we can experience what it really means to be ourselves - creatures, yes, but worthwhile.
This wasn't the only time I was struck by something in this book to this deep level, either. It happened multiple times. But perhaps hitting me the most emotionally was when Karris, when faced with her worst fear (I won't go into details because #spoilers), she steadfastly refuses to lose faith in Orholam, instead turning herself over completely to his benevolence. And as is his way, Weeks weaves a beautiful scene of redemption for her: not only does Orholam show up and answer, but he restores.
And really, I think that scene with Karris signifies the very essence of the entire series: bad things happen, yes, but Orholam turns those bad things into the ultimate story of restoration. I can't help but see echoes of my own story interspersed there. We all do. Whether you believe in God or not, there is no denying that we have to accept the good and the bad that life has to offer. Whether it's seeing God in the face of a child, or in nature, or in the love you have for someone, those moments of transcendence remind us that evil and pain pale in comparison to the power of love, which isn't just an emotional reality, but a transformative one.
Weeks goes where most authors don't have the courage to go. He doesn't just write a good fantasy story with all the tropes we know and love, while adding a spin of his own. He does do that, yes. But he also attempts to tackle the reality of the meaning of life, pain, suffering, joy, love, and a host of other topics that you will either love or hate him for. Or maybe both. Don't do the author the disservice of reading only for the sake of a good story. Read it as it was meant to be read: a philosophical and religious treatise, with lots of war, cursing, magic, and laughs.