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.

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