Here we go, folks: The Way of Kings, at over 1000 pages, is the first volume of Brandon Sanderson’s projected ten-book series, THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. At one book per year, we probably won’t see the end of this series before 2020, especially given that Sanderson is first planning to finish up Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME. So, if you’re looking for a new series to read, this one has some advantages and disadvantages: on the plus side, there will be a lot of reading material coming your way; on the other hand, it’ll take quite some time for all of it to get here. Luckily, The Way of Kings is a very promising start to the series. Unlike what seems to be most of the fantasy audience, I haven’t been a huge fan of all of Brandon Sanderson’s work so far, but The Way of Kings is easily his best work to date.
The book has three main characters (Kaladin, Shallan and Dalinar) and a host of side characters, who occasionally also have chapters or “interludes” written from their point of view. The main story focuses on Kaladin, a surgeon’s son forced to become a bridgeman — a form of military slavery that involves carrying siege bridges in Alethkar’s ongoing war with the Parshendi, who at the very start of the novel assassinate Alethkar’s king. Dalinar is the late king’s brother (and uncle of the current monarch), who along with nine other High Princes is running the war effort against the mysterious Parshendi. And finally, on the other end of the continent, there’s Shallan, a young noble girl who wants to become the apprentice of Jasnah, a princess and famed scholar — although Shallan’s motives for seeking this position are not what they initially seem…
Of these characters, Kaladin is the most fascinating and well-rounded one. Brandon Sanderson does a fantastic job building up his history and explaining his motivations in a series of flashback chapters that gradually ratchet up the dramatic tension and turn Kaladin into his most memorable character to date. On the other hand, the witty, independent Shallan was a bit too recognizable: add color-changing hair and you could almost confuse her for one of the sisters in Warbreaker. The heroic Dalinar falls somewhere in the middle: he’s the lone wolf warrior noble, the only High Prince to follow the ancient Alethi Codes of War, and someone you can admire — while at the same time being able to predict what’s going happen to him in the midst of nine other, less noble High Princes.
The book’s blurbs inevitably point out that there’s yet another main character, the world of Roshar — but in this case, there’s really something to this. It’s hard not to be excited about a brand new fantasy universe at the start of such a long series. Brandon Sanderson performs a fine balancing act here, showing enough hints of the vast history and depth of this new world without revealing all of it. From the mysterious “prelude”, showing events that happened 4,500 years before the start of the story, to the intriguing fauna and flora, to the nature and origin of the High Storms, to the question of what exactly a “spren” is… you’ll end up with more questions than answers by the time you turn the final page, but you’ll be intrigued and eager to read more. A testament to the quality of this book: it’s rare for me to read a book that’s more than 1000 pages long and still wish I could immediately read more.
Part of the reason for this is Brandon Sanderson’s completely transparent prose. Some authors write prose you need to savor slowly — Guy Gavriel Kay, Catherynne Valente, Janny Wurts. Their prose invites contemplation and appreciation of the rhythm, rhyme and sheer elegance of the words on the page. By contrast, Brandon Sanderson’s prose has very little artifice to it: it just exists to tell the story. It’s plain as can be, doesn’t draw any attention to itself, and rarely if ever stands in the way of the story. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate how difficult it is to write a novel in such a way that you sometimes completely forget that you are, in fact, reading. Sanderson’s prose never stands in the way of the reader’s complete immersion. As someone who is usually very aware of what I’m reading and how many pages I’ve read, I often was surprised to look up and realize that I’d just read 30 or 40 pages without even being aware that I’d been reading. There’s a real art to writing a compulsive page-turner like this, and Sanderson, who teaches Creative Writing at BYU, is becoming an expert at it.
Not that The Way of Kings doesn’t suffer from some of the same flaws as Sanderson’s other works. Characters are often still a bit one-dimensional, and some of the plot devices the author uses are too predictable and transparent. The start of the novel, describing the assassination of the Alethi king, reminded me strongly of some of the action scenes in the MISTBORN novels, with the assassin using his magic to perform gravity-defying stunts, but fortunately the rest of the novel doesn’t read like a video game’s magic system turned into a story. It’s also written more tightly and with less filler (which, again, comes as a surprise given the length of the book). The end is filled with rousing heroism and a moving, truly exciting climax, but after the Big Final Battle, there are a few big revelations crammed in a few short pages, and while those were fascinating and definitely sparked my interest to read more of the series, they also felt a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Still, The Way of Kings is, in almost every way, a better book than anything Brandon Sanderson has produced so far, and if the rest of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE keeps up this level of quality, we may end up looking back on the MISTBORN trilogy as an early practice run leading up to a work with better balance, better writing, and a much larger scope.
Finally, The Way of Kings is also a lovely book in terms of artwork. From the stunning cover illustration by Michael Whelan to the interior artwork, this book simply does everything right. Every few chapters, you’ll find a full page of artwork, e.g. some pages from Shallan’s sketch book showing Roshar’s native animals and plants, or an illustrated page from the Alethi Codes of War. These aren’t just beautifully done, but also relevant to the story. I’ve never really seen an epic fantasy integrate art into the novel in quite this way.
The Way of Kings is an excellent start to a promising series that’s sure to dominate sales charts and bookstore shelves for many years to come. If you’re already a Brandon Sanderson fan, this book will blow you away — and if you’re new to the author, you now can get started with the author’s finest work to date.