Review: The Way of Kings

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!

19 thoughts on “Review: The Way of Kings

    • Sanderson is well worth a read for his fabulous worldbuilding- Mistborn: The Final Empire is part of a trilogy but quite satisfying on its own, and Elantris, his first, is completely standalone, I believe. Both are under 600 pages, if you are so inclined. 🙂

  1. I get so impatient with writers who have to show off their worldbuilding in unbearable detail, and yes, I’m afraid I have to include Tolkien in that (occasionally!). And I get even impatienter with made-up words, and even with regular words capitalized and used to mean something different. A few such words can be really effective; a lot make me want to slap the author.

    • I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that about my beloved Professor Tolkien! 😉

      A little goes a long way. I’m oddly fine with derivative words and words that play on the etymology (for instance, “matronizing” is a word in Maguire’s Oz), but words used for things that have a perfectly good word in, well, English? No fair. (And, of course, we’re to assume we’re reading the English translation of whatever fantasy language they’re speaking, so to randomly toss some words screws with suspense of disbelief.)

      There’s a whole article brewing up right now that I’ll post on Sunday. Yeesh.

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed Sanderson’s writing to date – Elantris is probably my favorite, but I enjoyed the Mistborn Trilogy, and thought he did a superb job filling in for Robert Jordan on the most recent Wheel of Time novel. I’m glad that even though there was a lot that you didn’t like about The Way of Kings that you still gave it 4 stars, and I am very much looking forward to reading it. Although I may wait to start until there are a few books in the series that I can read all at once! Thank you for a most excellent and informative review!!

    • That’s the thing- there were definitely parts where my editing hand itched, and parts where I was just awestruck. It certainly has its problems, but there’s plenty of good in there too, especially if you like Sanderson’s work.

      You’re quite welcome, and thank you for your very sweet comment!

  3. 1000 pages IS scary, especially as the series is so long. But it does sound like a book I’d really enjoy. I kind of miss being completely immersed in a fantasy world… I actually don’t think I’ve read anything that made me feel that way this whole year.

  4. I love big books, especially fantasy, but when they get bloated I tend to wander off. I do get annoyed with the made up words too, but once I get into the story, I usually don’t mind them as much but it all depends on how well it’s entertaining me.

  5. I just got The Way of Kings on Audible (i don’t have much time to read, but i have TONS of time to listen at work :D) first off, having the team that read the Wheel of Time Series do the narration (Kate Reading and Micheal Kramer) was a brilliant decision. I’ve only just scratched the surface of the forty-five (45!) hour audio book, but I am loving it so far. The beginning is very solid, but i can see hints of what the reviewer didn’t like, Sanderson does get long winded about his worlds. frankly, this isn;t a negative for me, since the world building is why i read these kinds of novels, but i can see how some might not like it.

    anyways, great review. I can’t wait to finish the book 😀

    • I think The Way of Kings gives us a very good baseline, but doesn’t explain the reasoning- why do we have horses in a stone world? Why is Shinovar so fertile while Alethkar is so barren? There’s so much that I think no one book could fit it all in.

  6. Interesting review, and I agree with most of it. I wasn’t as pulled out by the world building (except for the interlude that introduced “The Old Magic” that was then useful in the next Part’s story arc), but I was mildly annoyed with how the structuring tied the climaxes together. Dalinar’s climax was the weakest of them, in my opinion, yet at the same time the most epic, and that it tied into Kaladin’s, which was the strongest, kind of irritated me. I don’t know that in this sequence of events there is a way to push Dalinar’s climax out of the limelight of “This is the Epic Plot!” and promote Kaladin’s, but such is life. I am very glad Brandon wrote this after having worked on the Wheel of Time; you can definately see the sharp increase in his writing skill from Mistborn/Warbreaker/Elantris and this.

    As an aside, it was a pleasure meeting you at Dragon*Con (The Art of TWoK panel), and if you are interested, here is my review of the book in more detail (complete with some yanked art that Tor through in there): http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/08/in-a-kingly-way-brandon-sandersons-the-way-of-kings

    • I quite liked how their climaxes worked together (since they occurred at the same battle), but I can see how Dalinar’s can be weak. And I totally agree about writing skill- while I liked Mistborn, the tinny ear for dialogue irked me.

      And it was a pleasure meeting you!

  7. Finished reading this book, unbelievable how over hyped this novel is, the story comes to a grinding halt after page 47 and doesn’t pickup until about 643 pages later. Will tax even the most experienced readers. For such a long book it was shallow and barely provided characters and situations that a reader could immerse themselves into and connect with, Over extended scenes(Kaladin and Bridge Crew 4) that went nowhere, each character is stuck in a set piece for hundreds of pages with nothing happening that pushes the story forward until the very end of book( alround the last 200pages). The ending is definitely not worth the time investment.Don’t be fooled by the hype.

  8. Okay so here goes; Beware of spoilers, for they are many and quite serious.

    Personally, I found The Way of Kings very close to the edge of mind blowing brilliance. I didn’t mind modt of the world building chapters all that much. A few of them felt a bit strange, mostly the one with the lake-society and fishing – half felt like a minor character introduction, half-like some semi-pointless world explaining, which I must admit was an inch over the edge for me. The other interludes mostly seemed illuminating, interesting and the one in Shinovar with merchants even felt like a story that might develop further, maybe. Will surely be interesting to see if these characters continue as minor characters through-out the series or at least some of the books. But then, I like worldbuilding, especially when it makes the world feel special and magical, which I believe Sanderson makes a great job of.
    Can’t see why the language is such a bother to everyone, things like that is exactly what puts me into a “Yes”-feeling about the book – often I’m annoyed by books where the world is not developed enough to have a world-phenomen-based language and accidentally uses preset ways of speaking from reality, when they don’t actually feel like they make sense in the context.
    Personally the book ended several thousand pages too early. I sat with a feeling of “I NEED to know more. Now” for hours after finishing the last chapter. But I do suppose lengths of books are really a matter of taste.
    Kaladins story arc, as the main focus, felt intriguing, yet I actually, sadly, ended up with the feeling that he might, in the long run be the least important character. His background chapters, get a little extensive for my taste, but then, I was itching for more of especially Shallans story. Yet I do not feel that the background is entirely unjustified. I kind of like that we never get the specific scene of Tiens death, but some of the other things I would feel missed if they weren’t there, yet they seem a bit too much like breaks in the current storyline, more so than always, ultimately, neccesary. However especially the development of his hatred for lighteyes would be missing, I feel, as he would seem pointlessly prejudiced, especially against Adolin and Dalinar. Well, enough about Kaladin.
    Dalinar started out as my least favorite character, and, for what happens in this book, a lot of the story arounds him seems a bit like a slow go – but when his visions start to really develop and his plot gets more attention his story turns into the one I suspect might turn very important later on. As a character Dalinar annoys me a little, he seems just a bit too hardened and moralistic some times. But then the sequences with Navani and about his wife do a lot to soften him up to me and make him much less hard to endure.
    Szeth, I’m split about, I love his story-line for the story it tells, but it leaves me with a powerful feeling that something about it just isn’t right. Intriguing, but I do wish we got just a little more on it.
    Finally, Shallan, my darling when it comes to storyline, is very interesting but gets too little attention. I am glad that I hear the second book will focus more on her (her, and Dalinar, for what I’ve been able to discover). Loads of intriguing things unfolding with more than one surprise, which leaves me feeling that she is the most rounded character, complete with flaws, secrets, unexpected talents and enough importance to the main story to reassure me that there’s more to come and it feels like it can only get better.

    Well, enough of this, slightly long-winded, talk, and thanks for an interesting review, which I must say I like and understand the points of, while I do not agree.

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