The Way of Kings: A very promising start to a very long series

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Brandon Sanderson The Stormlight Archive 1. The Way of KingsThe Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

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.

~Stefan Raets

fantasy book reviews Brandon Sanderson The Stormlight Archive 1. The Way of KingsThe 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.

~Bill Capossere

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. “The Way of Kings, at over 1000 pages, is the first volume of Brandon Sanderson’s projected ten-book series, THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. ”

    Whoa. I’ve had whole sets of encyclopedias that didn’t clock in at those numbers.

  2. I have to like that Sanderson’s writing speed actually seems up to completing this. I have no idea how the man produces as much material as he does.

  3. I had the same thought as Beth. Maybe I’m getting cautious in my middle-age but that’s rather intimidating to me. I might have to wait and how the following books go.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.)

  7. 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. ;)

  8. I will wait, I think. I trust Sanderson, so I think it will be worthwhile, but I don’t want to have to end up re-reading previous books, so I’ll wait until the end is closer. Unless the audiobook publishers happen to send me a review copy….

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. He seems to have a great work ethic when it comes to writing and finishing the projects he starts (unlike some other… anyway.) I’m not sure, but I think the Mistborn books had a “What happened before” in the second and third volumes? It would be great if he does that here again.

  12. Kat–you’d be listening for months on end. ;)

  13. 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

  14. I was wondering how long this would be on audio. Is there somewhere you can check running time?

  15. 45 hours and 37 minutes!!! (found at WOW!!! I’d need to listen to that at double speed! :)

  16. 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.

  17. @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.

  18. 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.

  19. Jesslyn /

    …..and its 2013 with no 2nd installment…..

    • He’s been working on the Wheel of Time these past years. He mentioned that after he finished it, he could finally get back to his own stuff.

  20. Kevin S. /

    This is my last attempt at a Brandon Sanderson book. He’s officially my “most overrated author ever”. I started this monster book because everyone from Kim Jong-whatever to the cast of Hamilton have given it 5 stars. Oh, and my son told me to read it. I gave it my best try. I really did. Is it possible to overdose on “world building”?? Seriously, this book is okay but it just goes so deep into the world building that it drags on forever. I got about halfway in (I think I was on page 7,486,392) when I realized this is a whole lot of OKAY…and it’s only book one of a ten book series of 1,000 page books. That’s 10,000 pages of OKAY. No thanks. I’d rather read 400 pages of excellent book. If I want that much world building I’ll actually move to a foreign country. Oh, and has anyone noticed that Sanderson has a habit of combining two words into one when naming creatures and characters in books?? It’s extremely repetitive and that’s not good in such long books.

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