It took me ten days to read The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. I could have probably read four or five books in that time, but instead I chose to invest myself in this sprawling fantasy epic that clocked in at over 1200 pages, in the mass market paperback version, and while I found the going slow at first, and even towards the middle kept literally falling asleep while reading it, by the end I was reading hundreds of pages a day and really enjoying the book.
I began the book from a fairly neutral place. I have read Sanderson before; Elantris and the Mistborn series, as well as his conclusion to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but it had been almost a decade since I’d read anything purely Sanderson. I knew that his Stormlight Archives series was the pinnacle of his writing, so far, but I’ve been out of the fantasy loop a bit, and jumping back in with a tome that weighed more than my infant child always seemed intimidating. I am glad I dove it, and I am excited to continue with Words of Radiance.
A hallmark, some might say the staple, of fantasy fiction is the world-building. Sanderson is a student and instructor in this, and The Way of Kings is almost formulaic in its ability to create something from nothing, or rather, to take what we know about our world and human relationships and tweak them just enough to create what we call fantasy.
The world of Roshar is actually further from our own world than most fantasy offerings. This is a world continually ravaged by violent storms; think hurricanes but not restricted to ocean-side cities. As such, the world has adapted: towns often exist in wind-sheltered areas, grass retreats into the ground during high winds, and there are entire areas that are simply gale-blasted, rocky plains. Even the wildlife is strange, with many of Roshar’s creatures appearing as more insectoid than mammalian (wind blows easier off chitinous plates than it does over furry hides).
This is also a world populated with new and interesting magic. Shardblades, swords of destruction beyond almost any other swords in fantasy, are the most treasured objects in the world. They are worth kingdoms, as one character puts it late in the story. I’ll admit, I loved Shardblades. I have always been a sword-guy, and Shardblades are the pinnacle of swordery. They are more like light-sabers than traditional blades; shearing through anything and summoned directly into the wielder’s hand. To go along with the Blades, many characters sport Shardplate, which is like super armor that can really only be damaged by either a Shardblade or continual and constant beating by normal weaponry. These suits of armor are powered by gemstones, which themselves are infused with the stormlight granted by exposure to the world’s ever-present storms. It all ties together nicely, and Sanderson even manages to include his currency into the power of the storms.
These magic systems are ancient, and seemed to be passed down from a group of god-like beings that we see in the prologue called Heralds, who themselves stand above another legendary group of warriors called the Knights Radiant. These god-like beings fought in a series of Desolations, wars with strange rock-like creatures that would destroy entire populations of humans, that spanned multiple millennia. In the present of the novel, it is some 4000 years since the last Desolation, and the events of The Way of Kings seemed to be leading toward another.
Those events are well-scripted, and Sanderson’s deft hand with plotting is on display by the end of the book when multiple threads are all woven together and made dependent on one another. It is reminiscent of some of the best fantasy; the Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson stuff. Again, Sanderson is almost formulaic in his ability to outline his story and then bring it all together. The problem with The Way of Kings is that it doesn’t really have the feel of a beginning-middle-end book to it, and this is with good reason. Sanderson mostly writes series, and as such his methods tend towards the bigger picture. The Way of Kings, despite being over a thousand pages long, is simply one part of something much bigger. This is great for anyone who wants to read books back to back to back, though as of this review there are only two books in the series, but for those of us who might prefer to have our books wrap up in good storytelling fashion, this can be a little frustrating. I say this having read series where every book could be read independent of every other, even if the entire experience is richer together. Harry Potter books do this well.
There are basically three main threads to this installation in the series, along with a fourth that, while seemingly as important as the first three, is almost tangential in its execution. Two of the threads are intimately tied by the end, and the third is loosely hovering around the edges. This works, for the most part, and I could appreciate that the threads were all connected. I have read fantasy in the past few months where a similar multi-threaded narrative was woven together only to have some arcs never meeting any others. That can be frustrating. Sanderson manages to have his main characters related to one another enough not to leave us feeling like some are outside of the plot.
Like with a lot of fantasy, the weakest part of The Way of Kings is the characterization. Fantasy often focuses on world-building, creating a character of the world itself that often overshadows the people walking around in it. This is not to say that the characters are bad. I quite liked Kaladin by the end, and he has a slow-burning, agonizing transformation that is beautiful to witness. Dalinar has a similar arc, and while he doesn’t blossom in quite the same way, his mental journey is one worth watching. Shallan, to me, is the worst character in the book, and I say this as someone who often appreciates female characters more than their male counterparts. Her story all takes place in one location and is heavy in its exposition dumps. I was often frustrated with her initial motives, and while I understood that she was an immature character, she fell into some trope-traps that felt obvious and at-times silly. This was a problem that Robert Jordan had as well, and so its no surprise that the heir-apparent to his throne would fall into the same pit. Male authors sometimes have a hard time writing about women.
It should come as no surprise, given the nature of the Shardblades and Shardplates, that there is the problem of invincible protagonists in Sanderson’s work. A few of the men running around killing stuff are themselves unkillable. Even one character who lacks both Blade or Plate seems nigh on invincible, and though his reasons for such power are believable (and he suffers for them plenty), it still lowers the stakes for any given scene. I never had a sense than anyone was in any danger, aside from the normal soldiers who die at an alarming rate.
Obviously, I have some criticism of The Way of Kings, and in some ways Sanderson is the target for such judgments as he is the top dog in fantasy right now, but overall I really liked this series opener and I plan to continue on (though with a healthy breather) to Words of Radiance. He definitely has something special here, and my biggest wish would be for more fleshed out characters who feel slightly more breakable. I think I might get the first wish but I’m guessing his main characters will always be superheroes. I am not claiming to want a George R.R. Martin style of “anyone is on the chopping block,” but good plotting needs some stakes. Pun intended.
Bingo Squares – Award Winning, On To Be Read for Over a Year, Protagonist over 50, AMA Author