The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Phew. That…that was a long book. Similarly to what was done with George R.R Martin’s A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, Sanderson’s The Way of Kings was split into two separate books in its paperback form due to its extreme length. However, unlike with Martin’s works, a giant paperback edition does exist, and it was this that I endeavoured to read, resulting in possibly the most physically large book I’ve ever read cover to cover. However, this is only the first in Sanderson’s planned ten book epic, known as ‘The Stormlight Archive’, of which The Way of Kings is so far the only published instalment, with the as yet unnamed sequel coming next year. This novel was incredibly celebrated in the fantasy community, and I am pleased to report that it, in almost every way, lives up to the hype.
The setting of The Way of Kings, the planet Roshar, is easily the largest and best established of any of Sanderson’s novel to date. Sanderson has never been someone particularly focused upon world building, and although this doesn’t come near to something like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen in scope, it’s still a vast and fascinating world begging for further exploration. That said, the novel is fairly focused upon two locations; a series of plateaus upon which a six year long war has been raging known as the ‘Shattered Plains’ and the great city of learning and medicine Kharbranth. One major difference between The Way of Kings and all of Sanderson’s work to date is that the magic system is relatively vague and ill defined, compared to the scientific and rigid approach to magic in Elantris, Warbreaker and the Mistborn trilogy. Although I was initially a bit put off by this (Sanderson’s approach to magic has always been one of my favourite things about him) I quickly learnt that this serves a purpose. It becomes clearer and clearer that the rules underpinning the magic of Roshar are there, but they are simply yet to be understood by its inhabitants, therefore meaning that it is little understood by the reader. I’m fully confident that future books will expand upon the magic system, which seems to involve the harnessing of a nebulous and ill-defined force known as the eponymous ‘Stormlight’ in several different ways. Of all of Sanderson’s novels so far, The Way of Kings is by far the most connected into the vast ‘Cosmere’ setting which unites all of his books. The mysterious Hoid who has appeared in all of Sanderson’s novel to date plays his biggest role yet in this novel, with epigraphs containing hints to events occurring on Sel (the planet of Elantris) and a few references to the ultimate villain of the Mistborn books. In fact, this novel even contains some extremely subtle cameos from other characters from those novels. However, as with all of his other novels, there is no need to have read the other books to understand The Way of Kings. That said, I’m extremely glad that I had done so, as the little references, hints and cameos are just unutterably cool for those of us who have started at the beginning.
The catalyst of the events of The Way of Kings is the assassination of King Galivar, the ruler of the Kingdom of Alethkar, allegedly at the hands of the mysterious, newly discovered people known as the Parshendi. Seeking vengeance, the new King Elokhar launches an assault upon the homeland of the Parshendi, the Shattered Plains, with the narrative picking up six years into this war. The Way of Kings is primarily centred around three narratives; the most prominent is that of Kaladin, a former soldier of high repute who, through events that are revealed throughout the novel, has been reduced to slavery. To cross the multitude of plateaus which comprise the Shattered Plains, some armies utilise ‘Bridge Crews’, who are forced into Parshendi arrow range to drop bridges for the rest of the army to use. The life expectancy of a Bridgeman is very short, and Kaladin sets about restoring dignity to those around him. We also see a lot of the story of Dalinar, brother of the assassinated King and head of one of the Alethkar armies. Dalinar has been receiving visions of Roshar’s ancient past, visions which put him at odds with the young King and the other army leaders, particularly the Machiavellian Sadeas. Finally, we have the narrative of Shallan, a witty and erudite young woman who is seeking the tutelage of the legendary Jasnah, sister to the assassinated King Gavilar and aunt to the current King, although her agenda is rather more complex than simple education.
Sanderson falls into his familiar pattern of slowly revealing snippets of interesting information about his world rather than relying on complex info dumps as in Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels or excessive exposition. Sanderson has always been about depth rather than breadth, but with this, his longest planned series so far, he seems to be allowing himself both. Sanderson makes an interesting move by including ‘interludes’ between sections of the book, short chapters which focus upon exotic and far flung locations on Roshar, giving us little glimpses into the, clearly well planned out, world upon which the series shall be set. These chapters give us an indication of what is to come, and do an excellent job of whetting the reader’s appetite for future novels in the series whilst retaining the focused plot structure which is one of Sanderson’s strengths. If you like your novels to run at a breakneck speed, this one won’t be for you however. The first and third Mistborn books were very fast paced, but Sanderson has elected for a slightly different approach here. A lot of this novel is establishing threats for future novels, and it’s clear that Sanderson is playing a long game here. Sanderson is such a focused and hard working author however that I place more faith in his eventual plan than I would for almost any other writer in the genre, a genre in which so many epic series stagnate as they go on, most notably Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, which it could be argued Sanderson rescued upon taking over. That said, if you’re hoping for a huge pay off at the end of this novel, you may be disappointed, as The Way of Kings doesn’t quite stand on its own the way The Final Empire, the first novel in the Mistborn trilogy, did.
Sanderson remains an incredibly competent writer, retaining his refreshingly straight forward narrative style that is one of his trademarks. That said, the world of Roshar is extremely well depicted, even better than Scadrial was in the Mistborn books. The primary locations of the Shattered Plains and Kharbranth are vivid and well depicted, but he also shows an excellent ability to conjure a strong sense of place very quickly. The locations we gain brief snippets of in the interludes, such as the idyllic Purelake and the rural land of Shin, are vividly depicted without an excess of tiring description. Dialogue has always been Sanderson’s strong suit, and he’s on good form here. Sanderson has a clear fondness for irreverent and witty characters, such as Elend Venture in the Mistborn novels and Lightsong in Warbreaker, and Shallan’s dialogue, particularly with the equally witty ‘ardent’, or priest, Kabsal, is a highlight of the novel.
Although the characters aren’t necessarily as ingeniously complex as those of George R.R Martin, they are all compelling and interesting figures to read about. We never discover the entirety of our POV character’s back stories, with revelations coming throughout and hints of interesting elements from their past held back from the reader, allowing us to grow attached to the characters whilst still wondering how well we really know them. However, there’s a touch too much introspection and self doubt in this novel, which sometimes doesn’t quite ring true. We know that the main character isn’t going to sink into despair and give up, so extended ponderings on their own uselessness can become somewhat wearying, but it never reaches the level of true awfulness of Linden Avery in Stephen Donaldson’s second Thomas Covenant trilogy. These are characters who have the potential to join the ranks of Gandalf, Rand al’Thor or Tyrion Lannister, and I cannot wait to see them again in a year when the sequel is set to be released.
As a little side note, I should point out that this novel has some of the most wonderful illustrations I have ever seen outside of the graphic novel format. Sketches of Roshar and the strange creatures which populate it punctuate the novel, and are simply beautiful. It’s a wonderful addition, and one I hope to see in future novels from Sanderson.
This is possibly Sanderson’s greatest novel to date, and a simply fantastic start to what promises to be a truly epic series. Who knows? Maybe in a few years ‘The Stormlight Archive’ could be the new ‘Wheel of Time’ or ‘Song of Ice and Fire’! It would certainly be well deserved. Having in recent months read all of Sanderson’s proceeding works, it has been fascinating to trace his development from the promising, if somewhat uneven, Elantris to the accomplished grandeur or The Way of Kings. If you liked the Mistborn books, you’ll love this, and even if you haven’t read any Sanderson before, this is a great starting point.