Announcing The 2018 Hippogriff Awards

I’m going to do something this year that I’ve always wanted to do but never followed through on.

I’m going to rank my favorite books, and give my perspective on “the best of” 2018.

I’m calling them the “Hippogriff Awards”, in which I will discuss my favorite books written in 2018 with respect to certain categories, and then choose a winner that I feel is the best of that year’s entries.

I’m also going to do a series of posts that focus on each year of entries I’ve read so far, from 2013 to 2018, with an additional entry for favorites that encompasses all books prior to 2013, since that period was before I started posting here regularly. Executing a format like that is slightly problematic for me, due to the 4 years that I took off from reading. That set me behind on older books that I’m just now catching up to, and with the large queue I’m working through I haven’t read everything that I’d have liked to.

For now, a few of the years will be a bit sparse, until I catch up with more books in the queue. Next year’s “best of” results will probably look a lot different once I get through more books in my “to be read” pile. For those years with several titles that I’ve read, I’m going to choose my favorite five.

All the books I’ve read that were published in 2018 (at least in the format I purchased, that is) consist of the following:

The Grey Bastards
Port of Shadows
The Traitor God
Senlin Ascends
The Silver Sorceress (currently reading)

That’s only five books, so all of them will appear in my top five of 2018, ranked in order with my favorite in spot #1, my next favorite in spot #2 and so on. The awards will be presented to the book that I feel was the best in each category. There are only 2 books published in 2018 that I haven’t read yet: Arm of the Sphinx and The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter. It’s a shame they won’t appear in the awards but there really isn’t anything I can do about right now…once I read the books next year, perhaps I’ll revise the awards.

I’ll be starting with my favorite books prior to 2013, so look for that soon…

Advertisements

Book Review: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

king of thornsFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2014

Pages:  449

Reading time:  about 11 hours

One sentence synopsis: King Jorg takes several big risks in order to defy attempts to bow before the would-be Emperor, but it could cost him his newly-won kingdom.

 

This series continues to polarize people, although in fairness those who despised Prince of Thorns were unlikely to read the sequel, and I don’t think they really picked up on the plot and what Mark Lawrence was going for. It’s been almost a year since I’ve read Prince of Thorns, but I feel like I still recall most of the details. So now it’s time to review the sequel, with one big spoiler embedded in one of my paragraphs, but first it’s time to see what others had to say…

 

David Stoit of Fantasy Book Review opines: “Sometimes it is hard for a sequel to meet its expectations. ‘King of Thorns’ met mine and convinced me again of Lawrence’s brilliance. Not by doing more of the same stuff, which I would have loved anyway, but by evolving the story into something with even more depth. Where book one was mainly a brutal, action-packed ride through a plot that surprised me at every turn, book two takes a slightly different route. The focus of this story is mainly about the inner workings of Jorg. The mental conflict and the change from the black and white prince into a slightly older, more developed king. As in book one there’s the overwhelming enemy force, but next to that and even more important Jorg has to fight himself at every step. He still is not buggered by any conscience but he comes to an understanding that every evil committed comes back around in some way. In other words, Jorg changes. He grows up, evolves into a young adult. An exceptional one, still being able to function without much of an conscience but one that slowly acknowledges emotions. Acknowledge actually isn’t the right word for it, because Jorg seems to do his best to convince himself and us the readers that he’s the same. That he doesn’t care in who he puts his blade, as long as it takes him closer to his goal and if he gets it back of course.

Jared at Pornokitsch states: “On its simplest level, the primary narrative (Jorg defending his kingdom) is punctuated with ‘flash-back’ style looks at his travels from four years before – when he essentially set up the groundwork for his tiny country’s innovative defense. His ‘strategic’ flashbacks also come with more personal ones, and as Jorg fights a physical battle on the mountains, he’s also fighting a deeper, more emotional one internally. What did he do four years ago? And why is it haunting him? And what is really at stake in this battle? It is all intricately planned and executed…Ultimately, the theme I gathered out of King of Thorns was one of freedom. Jorg consistently rebels against anyone telling him what he can or cannot do, and his own goal is to be in a position where he – and he alone – is is own master. If nothing else, this is a fantastical exploration of Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. On the largest level, this is core to the plot. Jorg’s opposition to the “inevitable” victory of the Prince of Arrow is based on his refusal to submit to another’s control. In fact, his entire quest for the Imperial throne is one that began purely because people dared to tell him otherwise. In smaller scenarios, whether Jorg is doing “good” or “evil” (note the scare-quotes in both cases), he’s quick to react to situations that would impose on his individuality or that of others. He’s anti-church and frees witches, anti-prophesy and kills soothsayers. He goes on a ridiculously convoluted quest with Gog because, otherwise, Gog’s destiny will be dictated to him…Women are represented badly. Katherine is the only female character with a major role… as a sex object. Her diary (another way of dehumanising her) is filled with complaints about her lack of agency – everyone only sees her as a beautiful woman and a prize (…and she tells the reader that she kind of likes it). King of Thorns is littered with third-party characters that tell us that she’s amazing and fiery and important, but we’re never shown a reason why. Her romance with Jorg is equally flimsy. Their actual interactions with Jorg mostly consist of our ‘hero’ gazing on her with ferocious lust and the two of them yelling nonsense at one another (either false accusations or actual nonsense)…The one woman that is a character (of sorts) is Jorg’s child-bride Miana, who is precociously clever and completely desexualised…I also don’t – as noted above – appreciate the twist at the very, very end. (Reiterating the spoiler warning.) The model of King of Thorns is that of a “prolonged boss fight”. If you imagine the primary narrative as one long battle (because, well, it is), the rest of the book is Jorg travelling around collecting usable resources, just in time (narratively speaking) to expend them. Everything he does in the battle comes a result of something else he’s achieved. Except – the very, very last thing, a pan-dimensional explosion where all the evil forces haunting Jorg run amok and devour his enemies. How Jorg contains and then unleashes (under his control, no less) the apocalyptic wrath of multiple demi-gods is never explained. It is dramatic and cinematic, but also nonsensical. In a book that’s been predicated on Jorg’s intelligence and self-reliance, it is frustrating to have his last, critical act come screaming out of left field.

Steve the Bookstore Guy at Elitist Book Reviews says: “There really isn’t any way to easily describe THE KING OF THORNS. The opening chapters introduce an older Jorg. He is still the same violent, snarky individual I loved in the first book, but he also seems to be learning that all his actions have consequences. Let’s be honest here, Jorg is not a good guy. Never has been, never will be. That’s why he’s awesome. He’s just sick of being yanked around and being told how things are destined to play out. Screw that. Jorg makes his own fate. The novel jumps back-and-forth between the events following the first book, and four years later where King Jorg’s castle is under siege…Much of my love for THE KING OF THORNS comes just from Lawrence’s prose. The way he describes things, the way he transitions from segment to segment, his conversations…they are all so well executed. From that point, the tone of the novel is just fantastic. We actually get two distinct Jorgs. One, more world-weary, four years in the future (which is actually the novel’s “present”), then the more blood-thirsty version we are used to from the first novel. That contrast is really what makes this book work, and what makes it distinct from the first novel. As I always say when reading a series, I like to see progression with characters…Now, there are a few areas where THE KING OF THORNS, to me, isn’t quite as good as THE PRINCE OF THORNS. Some of the things that happen (remember, no spoilers), just don’t feel connected to the actual story. Many of Jorg’s adventures feel more like a piece of short-fiction that was spliced into the novel. The effect is a somewhat more scattered feel to the narrative. It’s not game-breaking, but there are times where the direction and momentum of the story get lost. I also feel that Katherine’s role could have been a tad clearer in the end.

 

King of Thorns is a story consisting of three separate tales: the exploits of young Jorg immediately following the events in Prince of Thorns; older Jorg’s attempt to defend his throne 4 years later; and Katherine’s diary, which spans the gap between that 4 year time frame from her perspective. I will admit to being a little distracted by the different timelines. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I’m not thrilled with the use of flashbacks, and that is what the 14 year old Jorg tale feels like, thanks to the use of the “magic box” (as Jared describes above). At the beginning of the story we are dropped in the middle of younger Jorg’s narrative after the memory box is acquired. Not only does this cause a bit of initial confusion, it also slows the pace, and for some reason I struggled with Lawrence’s prose during this early section.

The further I got into the story, however, the harder the book was to put down. Despite the young Jorg flashbacks, which I agree with Steve the Bookstore Guy in that they had the feel of short stories from some other source (like an anthology) that were shoehorned into the narrative, I managed to take great interest in Jorg’s quests and what memories the box would reveal. I guess you could say this reminded me quite a bit of a video game on rails, where Jorg follows a path, collects items and allies, and then makes his stand at the end in what Jared appropriately refers to as a “boss fight”.

There are a couple of problems here, though. First, Jorg is seeking out these items and allies without knowing he will actually need them. In other words, 4 years is a long time to worry about the Prince of Arrow coming to knock on his front door. Anything could happen in that 4 years, including someone else defeating the Prince of Arrow. In a way, Jorg has been given a bit of omnipotence when it comes to what he will need and what memories he needs to store away in the box. But probably the biggest problem – SPOILER ALERT – is that the “final boss battle” is largely derivative. The scene might as well have put a disclaimer that read “borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and as I read it, I just shook my head in disappointment. All of the sword training and ability that Jorg developed in the lead up to the final battle, promising something epic, was instead nothing more than a smoke screen. The end result is an anti-climactic finish.

There are a few other inconsistencies, such as Jorg’s bride, Miana, launching a destructive weapon simply by attaching it to bricks and then hurtling it an implausible distance for a 12 year old girl. She’s also just a bit too much savvy and astute for a 12 year old. There’s also plot points where Jorg is aware of and uses his necromatic touch, but forgets about it later, and the forgetfulness had nothing to do with the magic memory box or being controlled by Sageous, Jorg’s adversary from Prince of Thorns, although the wizard does claim responsibility. These are pretty minor quibbles, however.

I remained unconcerned about the “darkness” of Jorg’s character. I’m amazed at how many readers still don’t get how Jorg’s mind was controlled by one of these Machiavellian-like wizards, and that many of the distasteful acts he committed in Prince of Thorns were done at someone else’s behest. In King of Thorns, when we see Jorg free of the mind controlling influences, his character takes on a different light. Is he stubborn? Yes. Selfish? Yes. Willing to sacrifice people in order to “win”? Yes, just like many other characters in countless stories. However, in this story, although some of those sacrificed (like the Brothers) have little impact – rightly so given their nasty character – others leave both physical and emotional scars on Jorg, and contribute to the evolution of his character, as David describes above.

In conclusion I remain conflicted by this book. Once I got past the confusing beginning, I didn’t want to put it down – until I reached the end, when implausibilities and a derivative ending served to undermine everything Lawrence had achieved to that point. Yet I enjoyed the growth of Jorg’s character. I’m certainly going to press on with Emperor of Thrones and conclude the trilogy, because I’m curious to see where the story will go and how Jorg’s character will evolve even further.

Another Extended Reading Goal Update

I finished King of Thorns last night, which means my pages read total for the year is now 13475. This leaves 525 pages to be read in order to make my extended reading goal of 14,000. I’m still on schedule…The Silver Sorceress has 498 pages, so if I can finish it in the next 2 weeks, I will be just 27 pages shy of the goal with another 2 weeks remaining in the year.

Look for a review of King of Thorns within the next few days…

Book Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

grey bastards

Format:  first hard cover edition, 2018

Pages:  421

Reading Time:  about 10.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: Jackal and his “Hoof” (gang) of half-orcs encounter challenges both natural and supernatural, which threaten not only the Hoof and the wilds, but also the entire kingdom of Hispartha.

 

I first learned about The Grey Bastards when it won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) in 2016, beating out titles such as The Path of Flames and Paternus to claim the top spot. To win such a title, a book would have to be very good, but considering the subject matter, I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d like. I became very intrigued, however, when it was released in hard cover earlier this year. Although I was still unsure about it, I picked up a copy and decided to squeeze it in to the queue once I had met my reading goal. So my review is below, and contains a few spoilers, which I will point out. First, though, some other reviews around the web…

 

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “The camaraderie and banter of the Bastards’ is top quality throughout and reminiscent of the crews in Malazan or The First Law. Orcs are often presented in fantasy as brainless brutes but with half human emotions thrown into the equation as presented here they often extremely likable and relatable. The majority of the characters are fully fleshed out and each have detailed motives and opinions…The worldbuilding is excellent throughout with the environments and its inhabitants brimming with details and intricacies. Although The Grey Bastards includes a fair amount of fantasy tropes including wizards, elves, orcs, halflings – it is crafted in such a way that combined everything feels new, fresh, exciting and original. There are many different nations, races, and factions each with their own religions, hierarchies, and histories which are all well-crafted, however, I still believe we’ve only just touched the surface of what The Lot Lands trilogy has to offer…This novel is filthy, dirty, and gritty but in the best possible way. It is dark fantasy done right. The Grey Bastards is extremely adult in nature featuring certain moments of vulgarity and also the swearing count is high from the very first page. There are a plethora of standout scenes dotted throughout this sharp brilliant debut. Ambushes, swamp-battles, and an assault made by beasts straight out of mythology are but a handful of occasions that spring to mind. There are many exquisite and dramatic confrontations but a scene that stood out the most to me was a conflict battled with wits and words rather than javelins and swords. The character dialogue throughout is unbelievably tight, not just for a debut novel but for any top fantasy novel. In The Grey Bastards, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next I was blindsided and then the chaos, twists, drama, and unpredictability gave me an Orc-powered punch to the gut! French has composed a stunning opening chapter to his trilogy that is well worthy of the hype that has been garnering.

Bill Capossere at Fantasy Literature writes: “It’s foul-mouthed, has a good amount of graphic language…sex, and violence, and much of that is aimed in ugly fashion at women…It was a close call as to whether it was a book for me and honestly, I’m not sure I would have finished it had it not been a review copy. Now, I don’t want to imply the author is espousing these views, and there’s an argument to be made that the author is highlighting the negative aspects of a culture. Plus, there are hints that things are changing. But I do think the execution muddies how these views are meant to be seen, and that is problematic. There’s a lot to like in French’s novel if you can look past all that, but I had great difficulty in responding positively at many points; it often took me out of the reading experience, and made me frequently wonder if it was all truly necessary…First and foremost, the characters are a lot of fun. Jackal, as the main character, is mostly likable and has an engaging personality and voice. Even better, and one of my favorite aspects of The Grey Bastards, is how he’s presented as someone who thinks he has all the right answers and motives. And in most novels, that’s where the characterization would end. But time and again Jackal is thrown for a loop (as is the reader), and his confident plotting thrown awry by learning that the world is more complex than his relatively short life experience has prepared him for…The worldbuilding is slowly revealed as The Grey Bastards goes on, and it’s still not fully laid out by the end; it’s more than a little thin, but clearly there’s a second book coming and one assumes we’ll learn more about it. The exposition can be clunky at times, and though the war/division of land at least explains why the regions are homogenous, I admit I’m a little tired of the one-race/one land set up and am ready for some fantasy that presents lands as more cosmopolitan…Plot-wise the action is vibrant, fast, bloody, and deftly handled in terms of logistics. The entire book is also nicely paced and shows good balance and smooth transitions as it moves between fight scenes, chase scenes, political arguments, and more intimate one-on-one conversations. A few cliché moments pop up, as do some a few unexpected twists to balance them out. Dialogue is quite well done for the most part, save the aforementioned language, misogynistic, homophobic “bro talk” moments.

Finally, Writer Dan at Elitist Book Reviews opines: “The world-building French has done here is pretty good, despite employing the fairly cliched races of orcs, centaurs, halflings, and elves. The story begins fairly tight, focusing solely on the half-orc hoof and small bands of human soldiers that occasionally come into the badlands called the Lot. This is the world of the hoof, and so little more matters. The humans don’t want them around, the orcs are too violent to abide, and any time a half-orc is sired the child is given to the hoof to raise. As all of the half-orcs are sterile, this is the only way to grow their numbers, and this fact lends to an overabundance of sexual freedom that has obviously defined their lives. It is present in every aspect of their life; from action, to thought, to speech and definitely humor. As such, women are debased as objects and left to raise what children are left with them, and the males play the strong and powerful…From a plotting standpoint, French also did a marvelous job. Right from the get-go, there is conflict and consequence and decision and action. One piece moves us to the next and the next, never lagging in its pacing or level of tension. Several times I was surprised by what happened, and the consequences of those happenings…There was one point though that really held the story back for me. About halfway through the book, I realized that it had lost some steam, but the story was still moving along at a great clip, so it took me a while to figure out what might be going wrong. Eventually, I realized that I was losing my excitement for the story because of how little characterization there was of the main character, Jackal. Once I realized that, I started looking for those pieces that define character for me, and I found they were almost completely absent. This was something else that really surprised me because I had so enjoyed the beginning of the book and literally ALL of the other characters. But I realized at that point that I really didn’t know Jackal much at all and he should really be the character that I know the best. I mean, I knew that he wanted to be chief of the hoof, but other than that he was mostly a blank. So, I was losing that drive to read more of the story because I didn’t understand his motivations: why he’s doing the things he’s doing, or why he’s making the choices he’s making.

 

All the bloggers above make excellent points…I can’t say I really disagree with any of it. I guess I’m done here.

Just kidding.

Yes, the story is trope-ridden, and yes it is full of cursing, homosexual jokes, misogynist material, and a few sex scenes. However, it also has some positive things going for it. The worldbuilding is superb. French has captured the contrasts in the badlands perfectly…from territorial battles to banding together against a common foe, from humans that seem to be one thing but are actually different, from dangerous elves on one side to dangerous orcs on the other. Now imagine all that, in a setting that is a cross between a medieval village and the old west of America. French has put a lot of thought into how the half-orcs would eek out a living in a land with limited resources – what kind of ideals would drive the Hoof, what the roles of everyone would be, and the constant threat they live under that requires a violent response. It’s really quite brilliant.

On the other hand, I didn’t quite appreciate the characters quite as much as my fellow bloggers did. Most are a little too one-dimensional, although there are some standouts like the wizard Crafty and the mysterious Hoodwink. Jackal himself is likable, and his flaws of ignorance and overconfidence, as Bill states above, make for great characterization…things often don’t go the way Jackal plans them, and he discovers that he doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows. However, Writer Dan is spot on when he says that we don’t always know why Jackal does something – he just does it, and there’s not enough insight into his thinking.

The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, often in directions I wasn’t expecting. There were at least a few times when I had no idea where the story was headed, but even seemingly random events all tie together nicely by the end. The pace is fairly brisk, never really bogging down, as scenes which are not driven by action either have crisp dialog, or tension as events build up, especially at “the table”, which almost reminds me of the Knights of the Round Table, if the knights were ax-throwing half-orcs that rode giant boars instead of horses. There are a few deaths at the end of the story, and two of those were lacking a bit in emotion (maybe that’s by design), but the third had a big impact on me and made me a little sad.

As Bill infers, at times the swearing and sexual innuendos seem a bit – I don’t want to use the word gratuitous here, perhaps overused is more appropriate – and so one of the same things that makes the story fairly unique also holds it back a little, as it is occasionally jarring and causes the reader to focus on that aspect instead of the story itself. As to the misogynist material, I’m a bit conflicted. On one hand you don’t want to pretend that those types of things don’t happen, as they surely did in the American west near the end of the 19th century or in medieval times. It feels like something that would truly be present in a half-orc society. On the other hand, that doesn’t make it a pleasant reading experience, and a writer treading that slippery slope can really struggle with it and risk alienating readers, as my review of Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows can attest to. Ultimately I have to say that while it’s not a good choice for the author to make, here French has defined it as part of his half-orc society – it is a cultural norm. In this manner, it’s still possible for the story to overcome such unpopular views.

And to a large degree, The Grey Bastards does just that – the good outweighs the bad enough to make it a good read. Between the unpredictable path of the plot, to the fine worldbuilding and the fast pace, The Grey Bastards has a lot to offer. I never felt like I wanted to put the book down and walk away, and I very much enjoyed many aspects of the story, in spite of the negatives. I’ll definitely spring for a sequel if French decides to write one.

Extended Reading Goal Update

I finished The Grey Bastards today, which means my pages read total for the year is now 13026. This leaves 974 pages to be read in order to make my extended reading goal of 14,000. I’m right on schedule, as I need to finish a book every 2 weeks from this point forward to get there. Next up: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.

Look for a review of The Grey Bastards sometime this weekend…

Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

way of kings

Format:  Hard cover, first edition, 2010

Pages:  1001 (not including appendices)

Reading Time:  about 25 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Highprince Dalinar fights battles against a hostile race, political foes, and unusual visions; the slave Kaladin attempts to keep his fellow slaves alive; and young Shallan must make a bold attempt to steal an artifact that can save her family.

 

The Way of Kings has been sitting in my “to be read” pile for 7 years. The thick, doorstopping, massive tome had been intimidated me for those 7 years, because I knew it would take a long, long time to read, and I wouldn’t have much to blog about while I was trying to complete it. As time passed, the sequels Words of Radiance and Oathbringer came out and added another 2200+ pages on top of the 1001 pages found within The Way of Kings. I asked myself if I really wanted to tackle these massive works when I already have my hands full with the Malazan series, and with visions of Robert Jordan’s bloat in my head. On the other hand, Brandon Sanderson brought that bloated Wheel of Time series to a close, so perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I finally managed to conquer The Way of Kings, and have a review ready, but first I’ll look at other reviews on the internet.

 

Thomas Wagner of SFReviews.net states: “But what we are left with at the end of the day is, for all its very real merits, one of those thousand-page tomes in which far too little takes far too long to happen. For all the artistry of its execution, The Way of Kings never duplicates the sheer breathless entertainment value of the Mistborn novels. It’s too invested in being literary to remember to be plain old fun. Sanderson fills the book with one absorbing scene after another. But up to the point we’re nearing the climax — literally, I pegged the 900-page point with the note “things finally starting to get exciting” — The Way of Kings reads less like a novel than a collection of beautifully-written scenes in search of a novel. It all comes together just fine in the end, I’m pleased to say. But the readers who’ll end up appreciating The Way of Kings the most will be fans of epic fantasy who care far more for an immersive worldbuilding experience than taut storytelling. Sanderson has some of his characters experience the philosophical epiphany that life is much more about the journey than the destination. I’d have preferred a few more thrills along this journey, that’s all…In this way, the book’s length is a liability. Sanderson could easily have shorn about 200 pages from the final draft, not deleting anything of great import, but simply condensing passages that go on and on in a way that conveyed the same information. And, being tighter, the result would have been more palpable suspense…For all this, I remain deeply impressed by Sanderson as a writer, and it would be a real disservice to fail to mention the book’s virtues. I was fascinated by just about every aspect of Sanderson’s development of his world, all the way from its deep history, to its flora and fauna, to its intricately detailed system of magic, which is pretty similar to that in his other books. (This physical component is tied to that power, and so on.) The expected climactic battle scene is still plenty exciting, and there are good hints that the sequel will considerably raise the stakes. And while it’s hard to ignore that, like Sanderson’s previous books, this one eventually reveals itself to be a superhero story at heart, the superpowers some characters find themselves with are just part of a greater storytelling picture, and not the whole.

Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review writes: “I wasn’t even a quarter of the way into this book before I realized I was beginning something impressive. Sanderson writes as if for his life, knowing just when to leave a point of view for another, when to bring the character back from the brink and when to test a character’s mettle. From a purely writing standpoint Sanderson is showing himself to be one of the best. Not only is his grasp of his characters impressive, but the way that he imparts that to us is stunning. Every character seems to be intricately carved into what we read, with a mixture of flaws and qualities that make them figuratively jump off the page. The action scenes – whether they be from the lowly servants to the mystically enhanced generals – are nothing short of spellbinding and leave you breathless with anticipation throughout…Maybe the area in which Sanderson achieves his highest praise is in the manner with which he depicts the headspace our characters live in. Not only in their reaction and understanding of the world around them and the manner in which it reacts and has reacted to the continual storms that batter its landscape, but also in how the characters seem to be baffled by concepts that to us are normal, but in their world are foreign. Their bafflement leaves the reader similarly baffled, all too great effect.

Finally, Aidan Moher of A Dribble of Ink says: “It’s difficult to argue that any novel requires 400,000 words to tell its story. It’s an even tougher road to expect a series to need ten such volumes to reach its conclusion. On the surface, The Way of Kings should be enough in-and-of-itself to solidify any chance of anyone arguing successfully for behemoth-sized novels: it’s slow, plodding, over-complicated, and, even at the end of it’s final page, feels more like a prologue to a larger story than one of the longest published novels of the last decade. There’s a lot wrong with The Way of Kings, by all means, it’s a slog of a novel, but despite all of this, I found myself eagerly looking forward to every opportunity I had to crack open its many pages, to immerse myself in Roshar…Sanderson is so earnest, so effusively enamoured with his fictional creations, that it’s difficult to read The Way of Kings and not be washed over by the love that the author has imbued in his work. It’s a love of his own creation, but also of the epic fantasy’s lauded history: the enormous scale of Robert Jordan; the worldbuilding and ethnic diversity of Ursula K. Le Guin; the clashing armies of Terry Brooks; the otherworldliness and humour of Jack Vance. The Way of Kings is an homage to ’80s and ’90s fantasy, and, for anyone who grew up reading the great authors of those eras, there’s an almost irresistible desire to forget the novel’s flaws and just enjoy the ride…The Way of Kings has that same obsessive, addictive quality that makes all of Sanderson’s other works so effective. It’s not so much about what it offers readers, but about what it can offer readers. Promises abound, hints of world-changing events, and mind-bending character developments to come. Nobody does foreshadowing in epic fantasy as well as Brandon Sanderson, and, if his previous work is any indication, every small detail in this early book will have a ripple-like effect on the volumes that follow. Every chapter is full of questions, full of the type of plot developments and world building that fills chatter around water coolers or playgrounds…The Way of Kings is very clearly the first chapter of a much larger tale. Despite its flaws, The Way of Kings proves that Sanderson has the ambition to fill the hole left after the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and continue establish himself as one of the most successful and prolific young fantasy novelists. Like many opening volumes before it, The Way of Kings convinces readers that the best is yet to come.

 

There’s something special about this book. I do remember that early on I was surprised to see that 400 pages had gone by and I hadn’t noticed the progress I had made. At 800 pages I remembered thinking that the amount remaining was just a small part, compared to what I had already read, and I wasn’t sure how I had gotten through those 800 pages so fast. Despite its size, Sanderson’s prose, as it has in previous novels I’ve read (such as Towers of Midnight or Mistborn), flows effortlessly. As Aidan says above, the book has its flaws…despite that, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the story. Here you won’t find ponderous language, extreme attention to every little detail and overly complicated plot devices like you do in other books of this size; rather, while the pacing does stagnate at times, it never feels as if size or page count is the impediment to finishing The Way of Kings.

In all respects, The Way of Kings does what it is supposed to do as the first book in a series – it sets up the narrative and background while introducing us to the main characters, at the expense of action sequences. This is normal for an introductory book, and I would very much expect the next two releases to have a different focus and pace. As Sanderson uses The Way of Kings to explore the world he has created, the reader can see the passion he has for that creation in the details…at times it seems like Sanderson has thought out every effect and consequence of those details that he has created. From races such as the Parshendi (with their black and red skin and armor growing out of their body), to the rock based plants, to the various Spren, to the extreme weather…Sanderson has created a completely alien world. At times Sanderson lays it on a bit thick – I remember thinking, “not another type of spren!” when a new one was introduced later in the story. Still, it is quite ambitious to imagine such details, when most authors are content with variations of Earth’s Dark Ages. And I love the Highstorms…I had once imagined extreme weather as part of the setting of my own book, but Sanderson’s ideas are far superior to my own.

Although the world-building is top notch, at least with respect to flora and fauna, I still haven’t wrapped my head around the thousands of years of history that precedes the current time. Much of that is by design, as Sanderson has some secrets that he is not yet ready to reveal. As a result, we hear things like the Heralds, the Voidbringers, and the Knights Radiant, but what is revealed is often contradictory and confusing…this is by design but it doesn’t make things easier. A few bones are tossed to us at the end of the story, but there’s still a long way to go until clarity is achieved.

The characters in The Way of Kings are its strongest assets. Highprince Dalinar seems to be a by-the-book, straight-as-an-arrow, goody two-shoes, but he wasn’t always that way; in fact, not only was he a supremely talented fighter on the battlefield who enjoyed killing, he very nearly did something extremely dark in his past to a family member. Those less than noble deeds and thoughts still haunt him at times, and he strives to hold his older, current self to a higher ideal. It’s a concept that takes what should be a two dimensional character and gives him more depth. During Highstorms, Dalinar has visions of events in ancient times, but its never really clear why only he receives them and why the visions only come during Highstorms.

Kaladin was probably my favorite character. He has the ability to manipulate the feelings of people around him, as well as certain events, without even realizing it. Some of this is through magical talent, and some is through force of will. There is a quote on the back cover from Orson Scott Card that says, “It’s rare for a fiction writer to have much understanding of how leadership works…Sanderson is astonishingly wise.” This quote particularly applies to Kaladin and the way he naturally leads others by example. It seemed very familiar, but I was unable to remember where I had read something similar before. The closest parallel to Kaladin’s story that I could think of was Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Faith of the Fallen – not an exact parallel, but rather some of the elements are similar. The only issue I had with Kaladin’s story is that much of his past is detailed through flashbacks, which I feel are a far too common vehicle for storytelling these days. Flashbacks have become routine and more accepted than I would prefer, often bogging down a story to visit a time in the past and destroying pace and continuity in order to develop a character, simply because it’s trendy. Other than that nitpick, however, I did enjoy Kaladin’s viewpoint the most.

Shallan is a bit of a mixed bag. At the beginning we learn she must steal something to save her family, but there really isn’t enough emphasis on why we should care or even why it should be compelling in the grand scheme of the plot. It is only later that we find out that Shallan has some kind of unique gift, which may become important in the future – but it was of no importance to the overall plot of The Way of Kings. In essence, by working for the scholar Jasnah, Shallan proves to be a vehicle for disseminating information to the reader that we wouldn’t otherwise know, and that seems to be her only function in this first book. Time will tell if her role justifies the amount of pages devoted to her narrative. There are a few other viewpoint characters: Adolin, Dalinar’s son; Szeth, the Shin assassin, who has a minor role here that seems like it will become more important in the future; and another random viewpoint or two.

In his typical fashion, Sanderson drops a few reveals at the end of the story to whet the reader’s appetite, reminding me a lot of the ending of the first Mistborn book. I should note that there are other elements that remind me of Mistborn, such as the way men can move with superhuman speed and strength in their shardplate (magical armor), and also in the way that Szeth can walk on walls and ceilings while lashing (pushing and pulling) objects. Then there’s the magic system itself: using certain gemstones determines the magic that can be used, which is incredibly similar to the well-defined system of Allomancy in Mistborn. Of course there’s an index in the back of The Way of Kings to refer to if you get confused about what the gemstones can do. And finally I should note the illustrations within the book – they are numerous, useful, and occasionally beautiful. The beginning of each chapter has a strange saying, along with a notation by some kind of scribe. These sayings and notations are at first meaningless, until a reveal near the end brings clarity to their use.

In conclusion I’d have to say that despite its flaws, The Way of Kings is a masterful work, ambitious in scope and easy to read. As the action picks up near the end and the pace accelerates, and Kaladin crosses paths with another viewpoint character, the tension ratchets up and I actual got a little misty-eyed as events unfolded. I hadn’t expected that powerful of an emotion to manifest during the story, and it was a pleasant surprise. The first part of the book drags a bit with regard to pace, as do some of the chapters devoted to Shallan, but once you get past that, the story moves along just fine. There’s an incredible world here that Sanderson has developed, and I’m actually looking forward to Words of Radiance, the next 1,000+ page entry in the series, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.

New End Of The Year Goal

In my last post, I talked about how I met the reading goal I set for myself this year. But wait! The year’s not over yet. It’s exciting to think of how much farther I can push the “pages read” count by December 31st. What follows are the details to my approach for the rest of the year.

There are over 7 weeks remaining in the year. If I could read a book every 2 weeks, with an additional week to finish The Grey Bastards (which I’m over halfway through), that means I could have 4 books completed in that 7 week span. The titles and page counts look something like this:

The Grey Bastards = 421
King of Thorns = 449
The Silver Sorceress = 498
The Tainted City = 402

total = 1,770 pages

Adding that to the 12,605 pages I’ve read to date, that would be 14,375 for the year.

Over 14,000 pages. Wow…

So there it is…my goal for the remainder of the year. I’ve updated the crawl chart in the upper left sidebar to reflect this new goal. I hope I can pull it off!