Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson developed a decent following based on his own fiction, but it was his selection to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s sad, premature passing that placed his name among the rock stars of epic fantasy. One has to believe that it was in part due to Sanderson’s exposure to the inner workings of The Wheel of Time that helped to inspire him to dust off a shelved concept for his own multi-book series. The Way of Kings (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is book one of The Stormlight Archives, a planned 10-book series.

As a long-time fan of The Wheel of Time, I have nothing but praise for Sanderson’s efforts to complete the series. However,
I’ve also enjoyed Sanderson’s own Mistborn series. In this respect, I really want more of Sanderson’s original fiction, and was quite pleased when I heard that The Way of Kings was in the pipeline. In spite of the pressures of limited reading time in my life I was equally excited when I learned that The Way of Kings is the start of a big fat fantasy series. Whether or not Sanderson’s exposure to The Wheel of Time influenced the development of The Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings is superb beginning to a series that will likely be the face of epic fantasy for the next decade or more.

A beloved king is assassinated leading the nation of Alethkar to wage war against a mysterious foe beyond its borders. This war and others throughout the world of Roshar seemingly distract humankind from an oncoming apocalypse where creatures of myth seek the destruction of all people. We see the story unfold from the points of view of just a few scattered across the land.

Let’s not dance around it – The Way of Kings could be a defining example of big fat fantasy. It weighs in at a hefty 1,008 pages in hardcover and is only the first book in a projected 10-book series, and I daresay that each volume will probably be rather long. This is classic epic fantasy – an imagined second-world setting, magic, and good versus evil, though identifying a specific quest is a bit trickier. In some respects The Way of Kings holds much in common with beginning of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – the real evil that must be faced (and most probably overcome) hasn’t really revealed itself as the typical concerns of humanity get in the way. In fact, while you could probably quickly identify the ‘good guys’, identifying the bad guys is far less certain. Thematically, this is the point, and a point that I think will only grow more important as the series progresses.

The Way of Kings is essentially told from the point of view of 3 characters. Dalinar is the brother of the assassinated king and uncle to the new king. Kaladin is a slave with a unique past sold into service of the army of High Prince Sadeas. Shallan is the daughter of a disgraced and impovershed house looking for a way save her family.

The Way of Kings is character-based in that the success or failure of the story lies with the characters much more than other elements of the story. In this Sanderson succeeds with characterization that is by the far the best I have seen in his writing to date. As one would suspect, the characterization does vary a bit, though it feels intentional and one’s reaction to it will largely be a personal one – in other words, I may like Kaladin best, but someone with differing life experiences from me may relate to Shallan much more.

As I indicated above, Kaladin is the character I found myself enjoying the most. While still relatively young, he is weighed down by the hand life has dealt him – a promising career, a rising star in the army, glory on the battlefield, a fall from the top of society, hopelessness and despair and throughout a sense of failing those around him. Throw in a natural ability to lead and a bit of mystery and Kaladin is a classic protagonist of epic fantasy that fans will flock to.

Kaladin contrasts with other characters such as Shallan. Shallan is young, naïve and selfishly motivated. Shallan’s goals are to get into the good graces of Jasnah, a smart, powerful, heretical woman, and steel her greatest possession. Her motivation may be to save her family, but it’s really hard to truly like a character with the annoyance of youth with questionable motivations. Or contrast Kaladin to Dalinar – an old honorable man who often comes across as a prudish, stuffy old man out of touch with those around him. Of course he’s also a great warrior, an inspiring leader and someone who just may save the kingdom.

Along with the major characters, there also a few minor, and more mysterious characters who I can’t help but want to know more about. Szeth is a mysterious assassin, more powerful and skillful than anyone he meets, and a slave devoted entirely to serving his master, whoever that may be. The few short points of view we get from Szeth always leave me craving for more. And there is Hoid, a character that has made appearances in Sanderson’s other fiction, including Mistborn (
Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Elantris (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), and Warbreaker (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). Hoid seemingly plays a larger, more critical role in The Way of Kings– does this point to The Stormlight Archives revealing the truth of a metaverse in Sanderson’s fiction? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

My review wouldn’t be complete without a least some discussion of the world of Roshar. The world is dominated by highstorms – storms strong enough to strip the soil from the land. In fact the land itself has no soil and plants and animals have evolved to shelter from these storms. The landscape feels desolate and alien, altogether different from the cloned earths that most fantasy offers. This world further comes alive through the wonderful illustrations included throughout the text. I found it amusing that as I was reading The Way of Kings descriptions of Roshar reminded me of another fantasy world, one just beyond my remembrance – I finally realized that it was the world form Mistborn that I was reminded of. Sanderson has developed his own style of worldbuilding that I find immensely satisfying.

The Way of Kings is Sanderson’s most recent original work and the first book in a planned massive series. It’s his best book to date and the start of something very promising. The world is wonderfully creative with a deep history and uncertain future, the characters draw you in and make you care, and it all combines into something very special. Sanderson’s name may have leaped into the spotlight on the coattails of The Wheel of Time (though he was certainly on his way up already), but The Way of Kings proves that he belongs. This is a book that all fans of epic fantasy need to read and it could serve a great introduction for new fans to the genre, both young and not-so-young, as long as they can get past intimidation of 1000+ page book. My final thought can only be this: Brandon, when do we get book 2, because I want it now! 8.5/10


Danny said...

I've just finished reading this one and I agree that The Way of Kings is the best book by BS to date.

But the phrase "milking the cow for all it's worth" rung in my mind while reading said book. BS editor could have cut a large portion of it and still the story would have been told better. I love thick books, but this time thick doesn't equals quality. The filler pages makes some things in the book redundant ie. Danilar's visions, Danilar's trust on Sadea.

Make no mistake I enjoyed the book but it can't hide the fact that it's one of the slowest, overwritten first book of an epic fantasy series I have come across.

The Eye of the World was lightning fast compared to this.

Neth said...


I agree that it was long, and like pretty much all epic fantasy, longer than it truly needs to be. But I didn't find it more bloated than most epic fantasy and I can see why Sanderson did what he did.

He really concentrated on developing his characters and a strong base for events to come in future books. But I found his writing well-paced, so it didn't read slow to me. And it's certainly no where near as bloated as later Robert Jordan.

All in all I gave Sanderson a pass on this and really tried to emphasize in my review that this is epic fantasy, and the start of 10-book series. Brevity is not to be expected.

RobB said...

Responding to your comment on my blog...

Yup, I think we came at this one from the same POV and as a result, enjoyed the hell out of it.

At the very least, it is far superior to WIZARDS FIRST RULE. ;)

Anonymous said...

Finished reading this book, unbelievable how over hyped this novel is, the story comes to a grinding halt after page 47 and doesn't pickup until about 643 pages later. Will tax even the most experienced readers. For such a long book it was shallow and barely provided characters and situations that a reader could immerse themselves into and connect with, Over extended scenes(Kaladin and Bridge Crew 4) that went nowhere, each character is stuck in a set piece for hundreds of pages with nothing happening that pushes the story forward until the very end of book( alround the last 200pages). The ending is definitely not worth the time investment.Don't be fooled by the hype.

Neth said...

@Anon - to each their own. But obviously I had a different opinion about the book.

Starlight said...

I also disagree with anon. I felt that each installment of Bridge 4's struggles further complicated the matter and Kaladin had to come up with a new way to save his men each time. Sometimes he failed, sometimes he succeeded, but I wouldn't say that there was no development in that plot line. Sure, it was more focused on the character of Kaladin than the fate of the entire world of Roshar, but I found the focus on this individual to be refreshing for the fantasy genre. I imagine we'll get our sweeping, world-changing battles and quests in the later books. I'll still be savouring the scenes of Kaladin's and Shallan's personal battles.


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