Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.
Fantasy books often contain disturbing themes, so applying those disturbing themes to children escalates the stakes. The unstable, crime filled kingdom in Way of Shadows was going to be dark no matter who the protagonists were but making them children makes the story gritty as well as dark. This would have been a perfectly viable strategy if Weeks’ had actually written his characters age in a believable way. Azoth is theoretically eleven when the book starts but at no point does he behave like a child. There is no immaturity, or poor decision making that would be expected from an eleven-year-old. I don’t believe that this character is eleven and as such I am not appalled that it is a child in the situations the author is presenting. This book probably could have been a high impact dystopia, but I kept getting pulled out of it because what the author stated about characters and what the author showed those characters doing were contradictory things.
In contrast, the Ender series is populated by children because it is essential to the world building. The premise of needing the creativity, and innovation of children to fight aliens, means that all of your characters must be children. The world is believable not just because the children are the protagonists, but also because the children truly act their age. Ender is brilliant, driven and quirky but he is also a child who can become fixated on video games, have tantrums, and make mistakes of immaturity. That doesn’t prevent Orson Scott Card from executing a grand plot or putting the characters in upsetting situations, it just means that the characters must respond accordingly.
These believable responses from child characters is what makes the world of the Ender series immersive. There are restrictions and explanations that must take place, the adults in Ender’s life hide things from him because he is a child, but the pay off is a greater emotional impact. If the characters are children because the situation is more disturbing because they are young there has to be a level of commitment to the responses of the characters. The Ender series has this in spades (major spoiler warning here, this series is great and I suggest reading it before getting this spoiler), the moment that Ender realizes that what had been presented as training was really a genocidal war he shuts down. This isn’t even the first time he behaves like that in the series, at various other points he collapses into himself and refuses to interact. In Way of Shadows Azoth might get upset that he has killed someone, or that his friends have been hurt but it is typical adult guilt. His mistakes come from a lack of information rather than a lack of maturity and he always keeps to the path that others have set him on. I liked Azoth when I thought of him as an adult, I couldn’t get invested in him when I thought of him as a child – the opposite of what I think the author was shooting for.
Using children as protagonists in sci-fi or fantasy can create tone and help with world building, but it is not a free pass to abandon good construction in the stories. Brent Weeks’ Way of Shadows book is filled with characters who are ostensibly children but do not behave with anything resembling real immaturity. They exist purely to add grit to a novel that probably would have been better served by extra work on the descriptive writing instead. Books like the Ender Series by Orson Scott Card show much better implementation of children as a way to build setting while also having greater emotional impact because the characters are believable. Child characters who don’t act like children break immersion and are more annoying than contributing to world building.
A note: Orson Scott Card holds political and social views that I find abhorrent, particularly as a member of the LGBT community. I do not support his views but his books are a classic of the science fiction genre that are not going to disappear. There are a great many authors who come with these problems and but I think so long as we are able to think critically about where the author’s views appear in their books these stories are still worth reading.