Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brandon Sanderson - The Way of Kings

The gates shook. Something pounded on them from the other side.

"The storm has come," Wit said, standing up.

The guards scrambled for spears left leaning beside the wall. They had a guardhouse, but it was empty; they preferred the night air.

The gate shook again, as if something enormous was outside. The guards yelled, calling to the men atop the wall. All was chaos and confusion as the gates thumped yet a third time, powerful, shaking, vibrating as if hit with a boulder.

And hen a bright, silvery blade rammed between the massive doors, slicing upward, cutting the bar that held them closed. A shardblade.
(p. 1,000)

The Way of Kings is both the introduction to a new world, the world of the series that Tor is doing everything they can to push forward as the next epic fantasy flagship, and the story of several men who are at the center of the rising storm. At the first of those, The Way of Kings succeeds admirably. What it fails to do, however, is to also excel in the tale that it tells; everything about The Way of Kings is a prologue, and that feeling is hard to ever lose.

Mind you, The Way of Kings does display quite a few of Sanderson’s great strengths. Though I would not yet place Sanderson with masters like VanderMeer or Martin when it comes to either the feel or detail of his world, Sanderson’s skills as a world builder are exemplary. Roshar, like his other creations, is not your generic medieval world, and what is so enjoyable about Sanderson’s settings is that he actually tries to think through the implications of his decisions and then implements the results into every aspect of the book, from plot twists to diction.

At times, this can lead to a slight awkwardness – such as the curse Storm you! that is used a thousand times in the text and, while making perfect sense for the world, feels simply odd to read – the vast majority of Sanderson’s decisions in the area are a great success. His ability to draw you into the world and then twist you about once you are there leads to several of his greatest moments, twists that are (in his own words, from Writing Excuses) surprising yet inevitable within the framework that he has constructed.

To give a small example, a king is killed in the prologue, and the assassin who kills him hears his dying words. The assassin regrets the killing and wants to pass the words on, so he writes them down next to the king’s corpse. This makes perfect sense to both to the reader and the assassin, coming from outside the Alethi culture that the king is a member of. Alethi men, however, are not meant to be able to read, a fact that is brought up in separate circumstances several times. Later, a character brings up the puzzle of how and why the king learned to read.

So Sanderson’s world building is great, and it’s very enjoyable when he shows it off, especially in the one off interlude viewpoints that are scattered around the map. Unfortunately, the world building’s integration into the main storyline is far from flawless. There are several info dumps within the narrative, and, though they are rarely long enough to be a problem on their own, they occasionally clutter action scenes or hinder the pacing as a whole:

[Szeth] hit the ground in the midst of the soldiers. Completely surrounded, but holding a Shardblade.

According to legend, the Shardblades were first carried by the Knights Radiant uncounted ages ago. Gifts of their god, granted to allow them to fight horrors of rock and flame, dozens of feet tall, foes whose eyes burned with hatred. The voidbringers. When your foe had skin as hard as stone itself, steel was useless. Something supernatural was required.

Szeth rose from his crouch, loose white clothes rippling, jaw clenched against his sins…
(p. 28)

Sanderson is known for his magic systems and, in that respect, The Way of Kings does not disappoint. Though the magic is not as front and center as it is in, say, Mistborn, its impact is felt throughout the world and throughout the story. The quest for shards and plates – both of which, at first, appeared to me as something like Masterchief’s armor and a Covenant Energy Sword, but I got over that impression soon enough – is both convincing and interesting, and Sanderson ingrains us with enough of the culture’s morals and desires that when the relics come into question towards the end of the book the reader can feel the weight of the decision alongside the characters.

Sanderson’s prose in The Way of Kings is nothing exemplary, but it’s not trying to be, the ultimate goal more in line with a camera lense than a stained glass window. The action scenes are clear, flowing, and cinematic, and the atmosphere comes through strong at several moments, many of them when the highstorms are at their height and dust is swirling just past the windows. At the same time, Sanderson will occasionally repeat himself, leading to certain worldbuilding aspects (spren come to mind, in particular) being reiterated in almost the same words time and time again.

Of the three characters, Kaladin is the one with the most screen time. His story is well told and enjoyable, but it’s crippled by the simple fact that every single beat of it is obvious from before the word go. Kaladin is the reluctant hero to the last detail, the man with newfound powers who’s afraid of the responsibility they bring, the just and good leader faced with the deaths of his men. It’s all well written, and the bridge scenes that pepper his narrative are excellent, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up in the tale when every obstacle is so obviously only the most minor of setbacks.

Sanderson has said that each book in The Stormlight Archives will have one “main” character who will have flashbacks to their past throughout the book, and Kaladin’s the man with the past here. The flashbacks are, like much of Way of Kings, interesting but ultimately inconsequential. There are a few very good scenes in his childhood, don’t get me wrong, but none of it is unexpected, certainly not the kind of thing that you’d be lost around if you hadn’t been given a blow by blow tour beforehand. So, in the end, it’s something that’s not unenjoyable but also not necessary – fine on its own, but, when placed in a book so filled with excess, one of the traits that conspire to slow the glorious march of Sanderson’s world to a more stately crawl.

Dalinar is, like Kaladin, a familiar character. He is the noble lord, the man who will do what is right even if it kills him. What sets Dalinar apart from his fellow Noble Lords is the visions that take him with every highstorm, throwing him into a past place and time and instructing him of what to do in the present. Dalinar acts on what they tell him, but can never get over the fear that he is mad for doing so. Compounding the problem is his son, Alodin, who is convinced that their father is running their house into the ground. The tension between the two is the highlight of the arc, though some of the drama is dampened by the sheer amount of time spent on it. The dilemma is interesting, but Dalinar spends what feels like entire novels worth of text debating his sanity, flip flopping back and forth and announcing grand decisions only to renege on them, then perhaps renege on the reneging, then perhaps… well, you get the idea. Furthermore, the visions are never really resolved, they simply grow in scale, leaving us to try and guess their meaning and importance until the next thousand page opus.

The final main character is Shallan, and her chapters hold some of my favorite and least favorite aspects of The Way of Kings as a whole. Shallan is attempting to become the ward of world renowned scholar Jasnah, the king’s sister, and, as such, her chapters involve more studying and contemplation than slashing power swords through breastplates. The change of pace helps the story keep from growing stale, and Shallan’s character comes through perhaps the best of the three. Her storyline lacks the major upheavals of, say, Dalinar’s, but the information uncovered is interesting and the relationships that develop feel natural and conflicted. Best of all are Sanderson’s descriptions of her art, which colors her chapters beautifully and makes her immensely likeable, at least from my perspective.

Of course, it’s also interesting to see that the person facing the far, far more minor decisions than our beloved Noble Lord also makes her decision in a bare fraction of the page’s that he does – perhaps a novella rather than his seven volume saga. Still, a novella’s worth of buildup is hardly rapid, and how much you enjoy Shallan’s plotline will, in large part, depend on how much you are willing to tolerate character’s debating over imaginary topics. Those sections are broken up by Shallan’s wit, which is, to put it lightly, a mixed bag. Most of what she says is decently clever, but it’s the kind of clever where you smirk for about a second, not the kind where everyone in the room starts guffawing – which, of course, everyone does. Every time. That’s not to imply that there’s nothing of real interest going on, though; Shallan’s plotline has one of the novel’s absolute coolest scenes about halfway through it, and the slow build leads to an excellent climax.

The final recurring viewpoint character appears only in interludes and shadows, which is a shame because it’s in Szeth’s storyline that Sanderson really plays to his strengths. Szeth’s is a fast moving tale filled with obscured meanings and motivations, all made great by clever action and an ability to think through consequences in a way both understandable and unpredictable:

Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king. The white clothing was a Parshendi tradition, foreign to him. but he did as his masters required and did not ask for an explanation. (p. 21)

Shallan’s climax isn’t the only great one. It’s only at the end of the book that Sanderson really steps it up, but, when he does, it’s impossible to miss the fireworks. The Way of Kings ends with a barrage of confrontations and twists that propelled everything that came before to new heights, validated some of the long waits, didn’t quite validate some others, and was generally a more subdued version of the explosion of twists at the end of Mistborn, with the difference here being that the foundation Sanderson was building off of was even greater.

It’s probably telling, though, that I said, for all three major plotlines, that the buildup was too long. It is, for each and every one of them. There are no truly wasted scenes in The Way of Kings, no six chapter sub plot that feels like a pure digression upon completion, but there is still far, far, far too much stuff hanging out in that gray area where, yes, it does give us a bit more insight to the character, but it takes up twenty pages, and when you do it again and again for this guy, and again and again for that guy, you’ve got a book that doesn’t so much strut as stagger. The set pieces are all good – great, even – and the characters are generally good, the atmosphere’s engrossing, all of that’s where it should be, but there’s simply too much book here. The world building was needed to establish the epic feel that Sanderson was going for, and it’s the best part of the book, but it’s hard to deny that the world building got tired, sat down, and smothered the main plot under its many, many, gratuitous layers of fat.

In short, I’m not saying that Way of Kings is a bad book. It’s not. I’m not saying that Way of Kings is the best series opener since A Game of Thrones, because it’s not. What it is, is a good, enjoyable book that’s got some flaws, but also has plenty to love for fans of Epic Fantasy. Will Sanderson make The Stormlight Archive more than that? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.


  1. you just finished this? how can you be a revblogger if you read this slow.

  2. Allow me to direct your attention to my various Reading In... posts. I read an average of ten books a month, and Way of Kings took me a handful of days. The review was delayed because I figured that more people would be interested in the comparatively unknown Ligotti or Andreyev, or even Parker, than in yet another review of Way of Kings.

    And I'm unsure what reading speed would have to do with quality of analysis, anyway.