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.