The Way of Kings
The avalanche of reviews has already begun and given that bigger and more prolific bloggers (Wertzone, Neth Space, Book Smugglers, Strange Horizons, and Sffworld; to name a few) have already thrown their voices into the torrent I can’t help but feel like a tiny insignificant pebble amidst the landslide. Compacting matters further are my love for epic fantasy and the fact that I was already a Brandon Sanderson fan before getting The Way of Kings. Can I really sit down and write and honest review of The Way of Kings when, book in hand, I already knew the novel was made specifically for me? In truth, I suspect that many reviewers as soon as they laid eyes on the book whether in final format or ARC knew whether or not they were going to enjoy it. I’ll do my best to keep my excitement in check but honestly if you like epic fantasy, if you’ve followed Martin and Jordan, then there’s a 99.99% (that .01% are Goodkind fans and will likely balk at the lack of naked wizards or evil chickens, ‘natch) of your loving The Way of Kings.
That is a good thing since with The Wheel of Time coming to a close within the next two years Tor is betting on The Way of Kings, the first of the planned 10 book Stormlight Archive, as the Next Big Thing in epic fantasy. Epic it certainly is weighing in a just over 1000 pages, with lavish illustrations, a glossary/appendix, and color maps printed on the endpaper Tor has certainly made it worth its money. Of course, all of that would be meaningless if Sanderson, who has released a new book just about every year since 2005 (from 2007-2009 he released an Alcatraz novel in addition to his big fantasy releases), hadn’t honed his craft to a razor sharp keenness over the years, but hone he has and The Way of Kings offers very little to complain about. Revealing an expansive world filled with expressive characters, The Way of Kings is a book full of magic and mystery and excitement that despite its weight (literally) is difficult to put down.
The Way of Kings, being the first novel of series, dedicates much of its time to laying the ground work for what is to come. The book centers around three central characters Dalinar, Kaladin, and Shallan. Each illuminates a specific subset of society allowing for Sanderson to illuminate the various structures, magical or otherwise, the form the foundations of his world. Dalinar, is a general plagued by visions and shackled by a promise to his dead King to abide by a code of honor long abandoned by the nobility he has sword to unite under the King’s son. Kaladin is the most classic hero archetype, a bourgeois surgeon’s son turned soldier turned slave, cursed to fail yet constantly finding himself in a position to lead. Shallan, is a young noblewoman whose family has fallen on hard times and who has pledged herself to apprentice with the world’s premier scholar; though her initial intentions are far from noble yet completely understandable. Sanderson far outdoes himself in term of characterization. Dalinar’s anguish and constant struggle with demands of honor and constraints of the society he lives in makes for compelling reading. Kaladin’s enslavement and the horror of the bridge-crews work (carrying a bridge while unarmored and charging a line of enemy archers) is tragic, enthralling, and frequently thrilling. The hardest of three, and the most mysterious, is Shallan. We learn surprisingly little about the specifics behind the events that drove her out into the world but her ability to use eidetic memory to draw realistic pictures, and the fascinating way that taps into something otherworldly, is precisely the combination of terrifying and fascinating that makes me want to know more.
Sanderson has always been extraordinarily good at crafting complex magic systems and The Way of Kings is no different. Indeed the magic of The Way of Kings is similar to the allomantic magic of the Mistborn series though instead of alloys the magic here uses something called stormlight trapped in gems; it is particularly similar in its ability to allow its users to execute physically impossible maneuvers that lend actions scenes in the novel a particular visual flair. The character most responsible for those moments of crazy magical badassery is one we get to know only a little: Szeth who, during the opening section of the novel, becomes known as the assassin in white. Indeed Szeth is the only character to exhibits the any kind of intentional mastery over magic in The Way of Kings and it lends his actions, horrific though they are, a palpable sense of excitement. The rest of society, notably the nobles we meet through Dalinar, use shardblades and shardplate armor and weapons empowered by stormlight and leftover from a previous age. The former cut through pass through most objects instantaneously and without harm while seemingly severing the life from living beings they touch while the latter offers all the protection of armor in addition to enhanced strength, agility and the ability to stop a shardblade. We get hints and tantalizing glimpses of some of stormlight‘s other magical potential, but lest I ruin some revelations I won’t delve into those.
As I said I don’t really have much to complain about with The Way of Kings and nothing that detracts from my overall excitement. Would I have liked a little more overlap between Shallan’s point of view and those of Dalinar and Kaladin? Yes. In fact I would have liked a little more time with Shallan since, of the three main characters, she was the one I felt I understood the least and the one whose history I was most curious about. Sanderson leaves a lot of tantalizing questions surrounding her character unanswered and even the one brief glimpse of her brother left me wanting to know more about her family. While he pops up several times over the course of the novel I could say the same thing about Szeth. In a few brief glimpses Sanderson manages to capture my interest with the intense sense of tragedy swirling around the character but one whose value system and beliefs I’m not wholly certain of; he is a character to watch and one I hope shows up more often in future volumes. There are other minor quibbles here and there, but they are road bumps and quirks that are as specific to the genre at large (particular when it comes to language and wording) and I’m hard-pressed to really hold them against The Way of Kings specifically.
The Way of Kings is only a beginning; a fact that is both depressing and utterly exciting. It only scratches the surface on the world of Roshar and the threat(s) its people face. It is but the barest introduction to a cast of characters that from hero to villain to everyday person are wholly enjoyable to read about. The conclusions are at once satisfying and wholly disappointing; the latter because the book ends right after. I’ve been reading Sanderson for years (since the Elantris hardback in 2005) and ever book he writes gets better; a fact that leaves me utterly terrified (in a good way) about what is to come in the Stormlight Archive. Rejoice fantasy fans, this one is definitely for you.