The Way of Kings: Well worth reading

Brandon Sanderson The Stormlight Archive 1. The Way of Kingsfantasy book reviews Brandon Sanderson The Stormlight Archive 1. The Way of KingsThe Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings is the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s new series, The Stormlight Archive. By most accounts (including Sanderson’s), the series will be massive: ten books perhaps, and with The Way of Kings clocking in at right about 1000 pages, we aren’t talking a bunch of novellas. Add in that Sanderson is finishing up Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, has a YA series still going, and has mentioned a follow-up novel to Warbreaker, and a reader can figure on some few years before The Stormlight Archive wraps up. So you’ll need to decide which fantasy-reader camp you’re going to belong to on this one: the “read each book as it comes out and agonize during those long interludes” reader or the “wait until a few months before the final book is released and start digging in, assuming reviews have been kind and the author hasn’t died so the series is being finished by someone else” kind of reader. We reviewers, though, don’t have the choice of door number two, and thus here we are.

Sanderson has come to be known as the “cool magic system” guy, based on his earlier books. This reputation is certainly accurate in that his magical systems are assuredly original — and yes, cool. But it does him a disservice as a writer, as a cool magic system can really only hold up a short story (maybe a long one), not a full-length novel or series. To keep your readers with you for that long, you need to be good at two basic components: character and plot/pacing. Sanderson showed in the Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker, and to a lesser extent, Elantris, that he can handle both with ease, and the same holds true in The Way of Kings, even if it does have its flaws (and yes, it does have some new magic systems).

The plot has multiple strands, told mostly by three point-of-view characters. One strand involves an ongoing war begun six years ago when the Parshendi assassinated the king of Alethkar at a celebration of their recently signed treaty. The war takes place in a huge area known as the Shattered Plains and is being led by the assassinated king’s son, aided by his Uncle Dalinar. Dalinar wears Shardplate and wields a Shardsword, rare armor and weaponry that make their bearers nearly invincible. But Dalinar is having strange visions and has begun to wonder about the war he’s fought for so long.

Also on the Shattered Plains is Kaladin. The lowest of the low, he is a slave sold to the army as a “bridgeman”— one of the highly expendable laborers whose bridges allow the knights to cross the many chasms that split the Shattered Plains. Though he endures the war from the opposite end of the spectrum from Dalinar, he shares with Dalinar the slow reshaping of himself into someone different from the man who first arrived at the Plains. He shares as well a bit of supernatural oddity, not dreams, but his association with a “spren,” a type of being that normally has little to no intelligence, memory, or long-lived interest in events. Yet somehow one has attached itself to him and appears to be growing ever more self-aware and intelligent.

The second strand of the plot takes place far away and follows a young woman, Shallan, as she desperately tries to apprentice herself to the famed scholar/heretic Jasnah (the current king’s sister), who is seeking (for unknown reasons) old texts buried deep in the famed library of Kharbranth.

As one might expect of a 1000-page book, there are many, many subplots as well: possible attempted assassinations on the current king; Shallan’s reasons for being so desperate to get near Jasnah; a rival of Dalinar who may be a traitor, brand Dalinar a traitor, or may just be an honest noble fighting for his king and country; what’s going on with the assassin who killed the old king; back-story about how Kaladin became a slave, and more.

With two of the major point-of-view characters being on the Shattered Plains, and with another of the interweaving plotlines being Kaladin’s back-story, I sometimes felt we spent too much time away from Shallan. Outside of that small sense of imbalance, though, Sanderson juggles the many plots and subplots pretty smoothly. Movement between them is smooth and effortless, and pacing within and among the various storylines is sharp, save perhaps for the first few chapters where a lot of names, places, world-facts, and so on get tossed at us and slow the reading a bit. But the book pretty much sped by, never feeling as long as it actually is, something I’ve found pretty typical with Sanderson’s work. In fact, The Way of Kings felt much shorter than the fantasy novel I finished just prior, despite Way of Kings being 300 pages longer. (It’s no coincidence that it took me only two days to finish Way of Kings but nearly ten — an eternity for me — to finish the other.) Kaladin’s back-story and his time as a bridgeman is by far the strongest and most moving part of the plot, while Dalinar’s plotline offers up plenty of action and suspense. Shallan’s storyline isn’t as strong — mostly because there’s less sense of urgency, less danger, and the stakes aren’t as high — but it picks up quite a bit in its latter half (not that the first half is uninteresting, just not particularly gripping).

Characterization, another of Sanderson’s usual strengths, also shines in Way of Kings. Dalinar and Kaladin are especially complex, compelling characters. Shallan is less so, but some of that is probably due to the more narrow nature of her situation and the fewer number of pages we spend with her. She does develop and change somewhat, but in smaller and more predictable fashion than the other two. Many of the side characters are also sharply drawn, including a young Advent who debates Jasnah on religion and also courts Shallan; the assassin who killed the old king, the current king’s “Wit” (a character familiar to those who pay attention to the fact that Sanderson’s books all utilize the same universe and background story); Dalinar’s rival Shardknight, Kaladin’s father, and several of Kaladin’s fellow bridgemen.

The world-building is solid. With ten long books to work with, Sanderson can afford to take his time with the details, so he avoids major info-dumps and chooses to gradually reveal the workings of the world. For instance, regions are subject to fierce “highstorms” and so life has evolved to deal with them: for instance, there is no soil, only rock, and trees and plants can retract themselves into shells. We see more and more specific examples of this kind of life as we move through the book, as we do with the various types of “spren”: painspren or fearspren that appear when people are, well, in pain or feeling fear, and so on. We spend a lot of time with the Alethi, who form their ruling class solely from people with light eyes (nobles are known as lighteyes or brighteyes) and learn some things about the Parshendi, who fight them on the Plains (and who are seemingly related in unknown fashion to parshmen, the docile, nearly mute servants of the Alethi. Other nationalities and lands are mentioned to varying degrees. One assumes we’ll see more in other books, but the simple mentioning of them (along with their varied cultures, architectures, religions, etc.) gives the worldbuilding a sense of fullness and depth, as does the slow revealing of legend/myth/religion involving ten Heralds and ten orders of “Radiant” knights who fought with shardblades and armor against the Voidbringers, who came 100 times a 100 times to try and drive humanity out.

There are several magic systems in use or alluded to, as well as an interesting mix of technology and magic as “engineers” try to emulate the shardplate and shardswords and other magical items. The major system we see here involves gemstones. It’s nowhere near as delineated as the allomancy in Mistborn, but as with the world building, one assumes we’ll get more and more detail as the series continues. There is also the use of “stormlight,” which resides in gems, and three “lashings,” which seem to involve manipulation of gravity. The magic is pervasive in the story, but doesn’t feel as central to the storytelling as in Sanderson’s other works and not quite as concrete. And I do have questions about some of its use with regard to power, but as mentioned, I don’t consider these questions flaws so much as TBAs.

Writing style has been perhaps the area where Sanderson falls short of the very top echelon of fantasy writers. He is not by any stretch a bad writer; I never find myself pulled out of the story by a clunky line or horrible metaphor/simile and I’ve never really noticed those annoying tics you find in some authors (though here his focus on clothing — particularly women’s dress — becomes too noticeable and repetitive). And his writing has an ease and naturalness to it that helps speed you along, one of the reasons his books seem shorter than they are. So, not a bad writer (in fact, I believe his writing style was a clear and noticeable improvement over Robert Jordan’s when he picked up the Wheel of Time authorship), but I can’t call him a memorably good one either. I don’t get pulled out by terrible lines, but I also don’t find myself responding purely to the language/style either, as I do with China Mieville or Neil Gaiman, authors where one revels as much in the language as in the stories. But that’s a pretty high bar so I don’t fault Sanderson overmuch for failing to reach it, while hoping for some further movement toward it (the kind of movement one can see when comparing Warbreaker to Elantris).

One poor comparison between Way of Kings and earlier Sanderson works, unfortunately, is a drop-off in humor. Mistborn has a good sense of humor woven throughout it and Warbreaker is filled with wonderfully written comedy. Here, though, the humor feels quite forced. It’s mostly centered on Shallan, who prides herself somewhat on her “wit.” Alas for us readers (as she employs it often), it isn’t really all that funny or clever. Much better is the camaraderie-type grunt humor found among Kaladin’s bridgemen, though it’s much more sparse due to their incredibly grim situation.

So, I can’t help you with that decision on whether to start The Stormlight Archive with book one or wait until he’s almost done, but I can say that The Way of Kings is well worth reading due to its strong characterization and plotting. Shallan’s storyline and character are the weakest areas, but take up the least amount of space and are mostly weak only in comparison: you’ll still be interested in what happens there. But mostly you’ll care about what happens to many of these characters and find yourself alternately thrilled, moved, or compelled to keep turning pages, especially in the scenes involving Kaladin and the bridgemen, which are especially strongly written. Highly recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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10 comments

  1. Hmmm.. both our reviewers gave this book 4 stars..Not bad, but for a series predicted to be so huge, but that doesn’t leave much cushion for the following books.
    I’ve only read Mistborn and it didn’t win me over (I realize that may mean I’m some kind of primitive throw-back :-)) )
    I’m still on-the-fence about jumping into this one or not.

  2. I give a lot of things four stars myself–for me that means “I enjoyed reading this, but it didn’t quite blow me away.” And as I enjoy a lot of books, I give a lot of four-star ratings. ;) If something goes down to three, there’s usually a problem but I still liked it, two usually means boring, one means it actively p*ssed me off!

  3. That’s kinda how I choose my star rating too. However I do have to admit, that sometimes I will read a book that really blows me away enough that I re-think some of my 5 star reviews.

    I’m one of those people who most always really likes something or I don’t, not much middle ground. So less then 4 stars reveiws from me tend to be rare. With my time restraints, I feel like I’m wasting precious time on any book I find mediocre or less. (Most times, the only books I finish that are less then 4 stars are ARCs.)

  4. There have been a few books that make me wish there was a 6-star rating I could whip out, maybe just once every few years or so. And sometimes I give something a 5 and in retrospect I think it was probably a 4, or vice versa. (A lot of books I’ve reread until they fell apart were originally 4’s, but if they can give you years of enjoyment, maybe they’re really 5s…)

    I also try to weigh books based on what they’re trying to be/do. I know readers who don’t give a 5 unless it’s one of The Classics ™. But to me, not every book is aiming to be a Big Literary Book, and a brilliantly-executed “pulp” or “escapist” read is doing exactly what it sets out to do, and doing it very well. While sometimes a “literary” book can miss its mark, or just not be for me; I don’t like everything I ever had to read in English classes, for example. ;)

  5. For me, Sanderson’s books are very entertaining, and I won’t be missing any of his adult novels, but he can’t be at the top of my list of favorites because his writing style is not beautiful enough. It’s very good writing, but as Bill and Stefan say here (and I’ve mentioned it in my reviews, too), it doesn’t have that extra beauty. Personally, I don’t think he’ll ever be able to pull that off — it’s the way he’s wired. In fact, I think he’s wired a lot like I am, which is why I find him so funny usually. I teach scientific writing, but there’s no way I could create truly beautiful literature, even though I love it. My brain just doesn’t make the right connections. That’s probably why I’m so awed by it when I read it — it’s so far above my skill.

    I read Sanderson for the “cool magic systems” and great plot. That’s what he does best.

  6. I think a lot about these star ratings – for me 3 stars means I liked the book, 4 stars that I loved it, and 5 stars that it blew me away and is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ultimately it’s all subjective, but I never want to feel like I should be able to give a book 6 stars, so if there’s even the slightest doubt for me that it’s one of the top 5% of all the books I’ve read, it’s not getting 5 stars.

    And I agree – it doesn’t have to be Big Literature to get a high rating. At all. A fun, fast, entertaining read like this one is an art in itself. Same for the Glenda Larke book I reviewed earlier – I think Sanderson fans would love that one. If books like these lack depth or polished prose but make up for it in original world-building or sheer entertainment, I’m still happy. In the end, it all comes down to how much I enjoyed the book.

  7. For me, five stars is a blow-away, favorite book list of the year kind of experience. I don’t give out a lot of ‘em and looking over my list I don’t think I’d take any off, possibly one.

    A 4.5 means I loved the book but for whatever small reasons it isn’t in my top ten or so of recent readings. A 4 means I enjoyed it quite a bit, a lot actually, but it had some noticeable flaws. A 3 drops to an adequate or middling reading experience, didn’t do much for me but not horribly written, may have struggled to finish but not too much. Below that means didn’t want to finish, badly written, probably major problems across a range of basic areas such as plot, pace, character, style.

    I don’t have to have a “literary” book for a five, but I respond to that writing so it certainly helps. It doesn’t cover for flaws but it enhances the experience for me

  8. Usually I think I rate purely on enjoyment, but I’m not sure what my exact criteria is. I mean, I have two different versions of a 3 star rating: a) Meh, might try something else by said author if the wind blows in the right direction and the planets align properly and b) very flawed but intriguing enough that I’d try the next one.

    I was initially intrigued by this one, but the idea of spending ten years (or more) wading through 10,000+ pages, likely about the same characters, does not appeal to me. I won’t do it as a reader or as a writer because lordy, booooooooing. But that’s me.

  9. @Beth: Good point. I’m the same way about 3-star reviews. There’s “This was utterly middle of the road,” and there’s “this would have been a 4 or 5 star book but for that one huge glaring flaw.” I’m a lot more likely to pick up more books by the author of the latter. (That was my experience with Ilona Andrews, for example.)

    I tend to think of them kind of like letter grades in school. 5 is an A, and so on. So, it’s not inconceivable that I could read a lot of 5-star books in a year, if that many terrific ones really do cross my path. But I see a lot more B’s and C’s, most of the time.

    @Bill: I love wordsmiths too, and the “non-literary” books I enjoy most tend to be ones with a vivid writing style, even if they wouldn’t necessarily need that style to be fun reads.

  10. Like Kelly, I also use a school-type grading scale: 5 stars is A, 4 is B, etc. So, if a book deserves an A, it gets 5 stars. It doesn’t matter how many other A books I read. Actually, I ONLY read books I expect to be A or B+ (4.5 stars) books (no time to waste on books I think I won’t love), so I actually give a lot of 4 to 5 star ratings for that reason. A 3 from me always means I’m disappointed because I choose only books I have reason to believe I’ll love. I do read some ARCs, but again only those I expect to like. If a publisher sends me a book I think I won’t like, I don’t read it.

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