The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
As I mentioned in my review of Mistborn: The Final Empire, I’m scrambling to read Sanderson because he’s coming to Dragon*Con. I got my hands on The Way of Kings before I rented the other, but one thousand pages is intimidating, no matter which way you slice it, especiallywhen it kicks off a ten book fantasy series. But I wanted to have it read and reviewed before its release date, let alone Dragon*Con, so even as I headed back to school, I plowed my way through Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings concerns the Alethi royal family a few years after the assassination of the old king, Gavilar, at the hands of the Parshendi, a strange, almost crustacean-like people from the East. The war started for revenge has denigrated into politics. Dalinar, the old king’s brother and a highprince commanding an army, suffers from strange visions that reveal the past and urge him to unite the kingdoms. Shallan, a girl from a fallen noble house, seeks out Princess Jasnah to restore her family’s fortunes. Kaladin, a soldier turned slave, finds himself as a bridgeman in the army of Dalinar’s rival. And Szeth, the assassin who killed Gavilar, is still forced to obey the murderous whims of his masters. As the political intrigue grows sharper, the evil of Dalinar’s visions grows ever closer…
Brandon Sanderson’s greatest strength as a fantasy writer is his worldbuilding–it’s always interesting and fresh, and his magic systems have organic limitations. However, Sanderson can occasionally feel smug and indulgent here. There are a few chapters in this book that do nothing but show off the worldbuilding, and that does not sit well with me. I don’t feel I’m asking too much for a scene or a chapter to either advance the plot or develop the characters. Worldbuilding should come through naturally; if I wanted to know about every little detail, I’d read a fantastical history. However, other than those annoying detours, there’s plenty to like about Roshar. Men are warriors; women are scholars–it’s even considered unmanly to be able to read, so a pictograph system has emerged. Hurricanes, called highstorms, strike constantly, seriously messing up the weather. Money comes in spheres that glow when exposed to highstorms with “Stormlight”; the largest library in the world is also a treasury, a detail I adored. While I did scoff at the back copy comparing Roshar to Dune and Middle-Earth, it’s a thoughtful fantasy world with interesting gender dynamics that makes sense, although the names for the Alethi characters don’t feel part of a cohesive culture to me.
I do have to mention the fantastical language, although I’ll delve into it more on Sunday. There’s enough of it that the learning curve is a little steep; the first mention of chulls, the giant lobsters used as pack animals, pulled me out of the story. There’s a fantasy calendar, and plenty of invented words (and invented phrases of languages) that don’t always work well; I had to roll my eyes when a particular historically important covenant is called the “Oathpact” (really?) and the constant use of “storming” as profanity makes me giggle. There’s too many invented words here that are either superfluous or go explained for my particular liking, but once you’re in the thick of things, they’re not that distracting. It just makes the learning curve a little rockier than I prefer.
Out of the three main characters, Kaladin is our main focus, and I really enjoyed his character arc–a man who has failed so many times thrust into a hopeless situation, as bridgemen are considered fodder by their superiors. Watching him slowly come back into his own was great, and here we have a Chosen One who is put through hell and back to earn his victories. I could have done without the flashbacks, though, as Kaladin is a strong enough character that they’re largely unnecessary. I loved Shallan, a sheltered scholar pitted against Jasnah Kholin, the greatest scholar of her age and an atheist. Jasnah is sharp, vicious, and wonderful, and her engineer mother, Navani, is equally marvelous, though not as vicious. I enjoyed Dalinar as a regretful soldier trying to do his best for a struggling young king even as he starts to consider the toll of the war. Like Kaladin, he very much earns his ending. The hilariously named Szeth, a natural born killer, is our window into our villains, as his vows force him to obey whoever holds his Oathstone. It took me a little bit to warm up to him, because I was initially afraid he was superfluous, but I liked him too. The hasty characters sketches of Mistborn: The Final Empire are gone, replaced with warm, human characters, especially in Kaladin’s story. The tinny ear for banter has improved somewhat, although Shallan’s wit involves a truly atrocious pun concerning arrogance. But it’s still improved, and these characters are much more serious than Kell and his crew.
While Sanderson retains the addictive pacing and gives us a thoroughly satisfying climax here, The Way of Kings suffers from bloat. There are the aforementioned chapters that are just showing off the worldbuilding, but even the first three chapters are largely useless, as they neither introduce us to the world that well or introduce main characters besides Szeth (and it’s not necessary to even see the murder). Adolin, Dalinar’s son, gets several chapters, but his story arc–a man learning to trust his father and his father’s teachings–could have easily been done from Dalinar’s perspective. And because Kaladin is so well-developed, his flashbacks feel largely superfluous–we don’t need them to feel his pain or understand him. This is a thousand page novel that could have been a better eight hundred page novel.
Bottom line: A good thousand page novel that would have made a better eight hundred page novel. The worldbuilding is lovely, the story interesting, and the characters great, but Sanderson occasionally indulges in showing off his worldbuilding rather than advancing the story or characters, and the amount of invented words can make the learning curve a little steep. Not the place to start with Sanderson, but a good, if bloated, novel in its own right.
I won this advanced review copy from Tor/Forge’s blog.
The Way of Kings will be released on August 31–tomorrow!