Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's good to be king: Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings reviewed

I believe in Brandon Sanderson.

I first heard his name when he was tapped to complete the late Robert Jordan's widely acclaimed Wheel of Time series (Tor Books, 1990-present). Even though I haven't yet taken on that particular fantasy behemoth (please hold your stunned gasps and calls for my head on a pike until the end, thank you), I'm told that Sanderson's work on the series has been an impressive tribute to Mr. Jordan.

My first personal encounter with Sanderson was his Mistborn trilogy (Tor, 2006-2008). Taken as a whole, this was unquestionably the second finest work I read in 2010 and the finest fantasy that I read that year. It's a bold, complex post-apocalyptic fantasy saga with a little bit of Hong Kong kung-fu action. Its world building is solid and detailed. Sanderson's grasp on his characters is truly excellent: in each of them, we see strength coupled with vulnerability played out in a thousand fascinating facets, and yet each of these characters are their own individual. By the time I finished the trilogy, I was genuinely sad; I felt as though I'd just said goodbye to dear friends.

Okay, so Warbreaker (Tor, 2009) wasn't excellent. But I knew that Sanderson was capable of great things, so I was enthusiastic about The Way of Kings, the first volume of his proposed Stormlight Archive.

The Stormlight Archive is an ambitious undertaking, and would be for any author. According to Sanderson's website, his original plan was for it to span ten whole volumes (no telling whether or not that plan has changed). This would put it in a league with such fantasy heavyweights as George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Bantam, 1996-present), Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth (Tor, 1994-2007), and of course, the aforementioned Wheel of Time.

We're off to a fine start.

The best word to describe The Way of Kings is "epic." Everything about this book is done on a grand scale. As with Mistborn, there's a multinational plot whose roots trace back thousands of years, to a time when gods walked the land with men; a caste system whose strictures are threatened; magic, including what might as well by lightsabers; a continent of flora and fauna specially adapted to survive the harsh terrain; and a cast of fully realized and unique characters with whom you'll laugh and cry, struggle and despair and triumph.

That doesn't mean that Sanderson's delving into the same old territory as Mistborn. Though all of the skills that he perfected there are brought to bear here, Stormlight's world and characters are their own.

More immediately obvious than the book's internal elements is its outward physical size. It's positively titanic, weighing in at over one thousand pages. While this verbosity may be seen as a failure of some other authors who, as the old saw goes, were failed by their words and so used too many of them to overcompensate, let me hasten to assure you that this is not the case with Sanderson and The Way of Kings. This is a big book, but it's so packed with action and character development that there's nary a dull moment. Like a mighty river, this book flows smoothly and rapidly over rocky terrain; like a little inflatable raft on that river, Sanderson relentlessly carries us towards the waterfall finale.

This is the story of the soldier-slave Kaladin, who struggles to keep his team alive against impossible odds while discovering mysterious powers within himself. It's about the plotting scholar Shallan, whose quest for knowledge reveals secrets she never imagined. It's about Dalinar and Adolin, father and son aristocrat warlords who have to face an unknown enemy on the battlefield and unseen threats from their fellow nobles.

It's the story of Roshar, a continent continuously assaulted by sweeping killer storms and divided by nationality, ethnicity, and religion, and the looming threat, centuries-old, that hangs over the whole land.

Themes of leadership, integrity, self-assurance, and whether or not the means justify the ends, abound. Kaladin's quest to survive and lead his troops out of Hell's backyard incorporates an internal struggle against despair, powerlessness, self-doubt, and distrust of authority. Shallan's studies overtly court the discipline of ethics while she contemplates whether or not to betray her mentor's trust in order to help her family. Dalinar follows a strict code of ethics which dictate his every move, while around him people whisper that he's either grown too pompous and self-righteous, or mad, or both, to continue to lead; Dalinar wonders if they might be right. Perhaps more so than Mistborn (itself a cerebral trilogy), Stormlight promises to be a story of ideas.

While Kaladin is probably the "main" character of the book -- and he's a damn good one -- Shallan is the one I want to know more about. And it's worth noting that, while I didn't think much of Dalinar or his story arc in the beginning, by the end, I couldn't help but root for him.

Perhaps more intriguing are the secondary characters: Sadeas, who may or may not have good intentions while he does bad things; Szeth, the mournful assassin; Jasnah Kholin, who clearly isn't telling us everything; Wit, who definitely isn't telling us everything. Hopefully, their stories will be told in full as Stormlight unfolds.

While fairly self-contained, The Way of Kings sets the stage for a truly awe-inspiring fantasy epic that grips the reader's mind and heart. The Stormlight Archive has the potential to be truly monumental.

In Brandon Sanderson we trust.


  1. As much as I enjoyed Way of Kings, and I did enjoy it very much, there was one glaring problem. It reads like it is setting up a ten volume epic fantasy! The end comes with more questions than answers, and frankly I want to read the next book in line right away. I suppose though, as problems go, that is a problem you want to have!

  2. I agree with what you say, though I'm not sure I really see that as a problem!

  3. It is not. But it could have been written like The Final Empire. Just the beginning, but a whole story itself, without the "it just a prologue of 1000 pages"-feeling.

    However, it's a masterwork :-)