The Way of Kings


The Way of Kings is the opening chapter of Brandon Sanderson's 10-book cycle The Stormlight Archive, and Tor Books went all out to give this title a massive push. Indeed, they produced a veritable work of art. Kudos to everyone involved in the overall design, from the cover art to the interior illustrations. Such treatment is usually reserved to limited editions and other collector's items. Yet there is no denying that The Way of Kings is a beautiful book.

It's evident that the folks at Tor Books believe in the author and feel that this will probably be the fantasy genre's next big thing. The potential is there, no question. But based solely on this first volume, in light of its shortcomings, it might be a bit early to give Sanderson the crown. I'm not claiming that The Way of Kings isn't a good read. Far from it. But that's just the problem. It is merely a good read, while with all the noise made regarding that novel I expected a great one.

Compared to the opening chapters of the genre's previous "next big things," The Way of Kings ends up a distant last. Which doesn't mean that The Stormlight Archive doesn't show the potential to blow them all out of the water. The potential is there, believe you me. But when I reached the end of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Goodkind wasn't always the political crackpot he became later on in his writing career.), as well as Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, I knew with certainty that these series were going to be something special. You could just feel it. With The Way of Kings, while it's obvious that this is an ambitious project brimming with potential, this first volume simply doesn't deliver the way the other four did.

Here's the blurb:

Widely acclaimed for his work completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga, Brandon Sanderson now begins a grand cycle of his own, one every bit as ambitious and immersive.

Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.

One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.

Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.

The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.

Speak again the ancient oaths,

Life before death.

Strength before weakness.

Journey before Destination.

and return to men the Shards they once bore.

The Knights Radiant must stand again.

The worldbuilding is probably my favorite facet of the novel. If you've been reading my reviews for a while, you are aware that I attach a lot of importance to worldbuilding. Creating a living and breathing environment for your story to unfold is one of the hallmarks of most great fantasy sagas. And with over 2000,000 words of worldbuilding notes and files, no one can say that Brandon Sanderson hasn't done his homework for The Way of Kings. The world of Roshar truly comes alive through Sanderson's narrative, down to the fauna and flore and other minute details. Having said that, too much worldbuilding can get in the way of the storytelling, all to the detriment of the tale the author is trying to tell. Which is exactly what happened in this book. The Way of Kings is riddled with info dumps, bloating the prose to the point where it affects the rhythm of the narrative. The "show don't tell" editorial rule is broken on numerous occasions, though I have to admit that in most cases Sanderson couldn't really have imparted the information he was trying to convey without breaking the rule. What you end up with is a bloated and slow-moving narrative filled with minutiae which at times can become quite a drag. Some chapters or discussions serve absolutely no purpose other than to act as disguised info dumps to convey yet more worldbuilding details. As much as I enjoy detailed worldbuilding, I feel that Sanderson went overboard with this facet in The Way of Kings, and that in this case it is to the detriment of the various storylines he's working on.

There are times when the characterization leaves a lot to be desired. Sadly, I couldn't identify with any of the three principal POV characters. Kaladin is the star of The Way of Kings, and he's a well-defined character. Trouble is, his entire storyline is so predictable that it killed it for me from the very beginning. It's obvious from the first time you see Kaladin that through their collective struggles he will get back on his feet and give his men a sense of self-worth and self-respect. And since more than a third of the novel is devoted to his storyline, even if there are a few surprises here and there, that was truly disappointing. As was the case with previous Sanderson books, The Way of Kings is populated with a cast of mostly black or white characters. Although he has his own back story and is a three-dimensional character, I felt that Sanderson tried too hard to make Kaladin into the reluctant hero and ultimate good guy. The flashback chapters were also an unnecessary distraction that killed the rhythm of the novel. They did help flesh out Kaladin's character, true, but it was most extraneous material that didn't bring a whole lot to the overall story arc.

The entire premise behind Shallan's plotline streches the limit of credibility, which makes it difficult to countenance at first. But as the tale progresses and you can finally look beyond that particular shortcoming, her becoming Jasnah's ward opens up a world of possibilities. Jasnah is the most fascinating character in The Way of Kings. Unfortunately, one must go through the Shallan POV chapters to learn more about her research, but thems the breaks! A lot goes on around Shallan, most of which will be explained in future installments. Again, I felt that the author tried too hard to make her into the charming and witty young woman he wanted her to be. There are quite a few good lines throughout the book. But the prolonged dialogues in which Sanderson attempts to showcase Shallan's wit habitually take a turn for the worse and sound lame in the end. Still, with the revelations about her and with Jasnah's research, it is evident that there is a lot more to Shallan than meets the eye and quite a few things to come for her. Hopefully she can grow on me in subsequnt books. . .

Danilar's plotline is without a doubt the most interesting, regardless of the fact that we know as little about everything that's going at the end of the book as we did at the start. His storyline probably has the highest number of engrossing elements, and I have a feeling that a lot of the secrets from the past will be channeled through this character. But yet again, we have that black or white character syndrome rearing its ugly head. As was the case with Kaladin, Sanderson tried too hard to make Dalinar into the stiff-necked and battle-weary Shardbearer. There are too few shades of gray in Brandon Sanderson's various characters. Dalinar's approach toward everything political is similar to that of Elend in the Mistborn books, meaning that it's a bit to idealistic and juvenile for my taste. Maybe I'm too much of a cynic in my view of everything that has to do with politics, but I find it hard to believe that an adult and a nobleman to boot would think and act that way. . . His sons, Adolin and Renarin form an interesting pair, and I'm looking forward for a bigger role for them in what is to come.

Another aspect which is being discussed at length on various message boards is the lack of swearing and sexuality. God knows that there is no need to riddle one's work with profanities and graphic sex scenes. Brandon Sanderson and Richard Morgan cater to different crowds, after all. But the utter lack of both, directly in the narrative or implied, conjures up a world that is a bit unconvincing and chaste. In that regard, Sanderson's voice in The Way of Kings is definitely YA. What is odd is that the author doesn't shy away from graphic violence in his action scenes. Blood and gore are all right, it seems, but the F-word and sexuality are not to be touched upon.

Speaking of action sequences, Sanderson demonstrates yet again that he just might be the best in the business. On the downside, however, there are simply too many of them. Hence, the level of excitement wears off dramatically as the story progresses. So much so that I was skimming through the last few battles. This is a 1000+ pages book, after all. The bridge runs were so much fun at first, but they became redundant after a while.

And although he did tone it down a bit in this first volume, the magical system Sanderson devised for The Stormlight Archive appears, from what little glimpses he provided, to be another winner!

The pace was good at the start till about the end of Part 1. After that, it gets extremely sluggish in certain portions of the book. The bloated prose, the info dumps, and the flashback scenes make for a slow-moving affair which takes away a little something from the overall reading experience. The Way of Kings is, in my humble opinion, about 200 to 300 pages too long.

Though it suffers from a number of shortcoming, all in all The Way of Kings is a good read. There is evident potential in this multilayered story arc, there's no question in my mind. Some are saying that it's Sanderson's best work to date, but I beg to differ. While it is obviously more ambitious than anything he has ever written, it's nowhere near the quality of Mistborn: The Final Empire. I just feel that he needs to go a little easier on the worldbuilding notes and the extraneous material bloating the narrative (the last time I encountered such bloated prose was in the infamous The Wanderer's Tale by David Bilsborough), and just by quickening the pace a little it would make quite a difference. Too often does The Way of Kings get bogged down in unnecessary scenes or conversations that act as info dumps and bring little or nothing to the actual plotlines. I feel that Brandon Sanderson needs to concentrate on the story itself. . .

Will we ever mention The Stormlight Archive in the same sentence with The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, or The Malazan Book of the Fallen? Possibly. But not based on the tale contained within the pages of The Way of Kings. The potential for greatness is there, but it's too early to tell whether or not Brandon Sanderson can pull it off. The good thing is that he's got nine more volumes to do it.

The final verdict: 7.5/10

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25 commentaires:

Todd said...

Thanks for the review! I'm holding off a little to read it. I'm following the Tor Malazan read (my 1st time), and in the middle of some other stuff before I jump into WoK.

Mathias Johansson said...

I had quite the opposite reaction, that WoK was even better and more vivid than Mistborn. As the opening chapter it was a thrilling read that I never felt I could put down. (except because of weight-related exhaustion)

Seven point five said...

Seven point five

Anonymous said...

It was a good yarn but I would have rated it a little less imo. Shallan was rather irritable and condescending from the get go. Didn't think much of the magic either. =/

Anonymous said...

Didn't you know we Americans don't swear or have sex? We're more into violence.

machinery said...

well, one thing is for sure :
i'm not starting another big series until it reaches number 8-9.
had enough shit thrown at me with wot and soiaf.

Anonymous said...

No sex. No swearing. Yep - exactly the type of book I'm looking for.

I'm sorry, but it seems like recent fantasy novels just have way too much of both of those. Real world? Not in my book. 'Hollywoodized'? Absolutely!

I sincerely hope Brandon keeps it up!

Brett said...

Sanderson's "cleanliness" is possibly related more to his religious background than other things, but perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

Personally, I wasn't particularly bothered by Sanderson's black and white characters. While I appreciate the greyness in ASoIaF and Malazan, it's not the nebulous thought process of a character that endears him/herself to me. So that was less of an issue for me.

I've read most of Sanderson's work (with the exception of Elantris, it sits on my bookshelf to this day), and I think this is probably one of his best. I was a huge fan of Mistborn, and the first 2 in that series were really good. I think I might put this right after those two, maybe tied for second place with Well of Ascension.

For the beginning of a series, I think it's a solid start, and I'm hoping a lot of the world building won't be extrapolated upon so much in the future installments, simply because so much of it was done here. There's just so much going on, and I'm willing to forgive a bit of "up-frontness" to get it out of the way now so we don't have to see it all later.

8.0 or an 8.5 out of 10 from my perspective.

saalon said...

I got an advance copy of this book (ok, I won it from Tor; I just got lucky) and finished it about 2 weeks ago and had much the same feelings on it you did. Personally, I found the Kaladin portions the most interesting (sans the unnecessary flashbacks), and I, too, think what was good at first started to wear a bit by the end.

In fact, it had started to wear so much in the last third that when the huge plot revelations came in the last 50 pages or so, they knocked me over. They were great twists on the world building he'd done, I just wish it took about 200 less pages to get to them.

All that said, I hope this has the opposite trajectory of the Mistborn books, where I loved the first but felt frustrated and impatient at the end. I liked TWoK, but I hope I love what comes after.

Though, 10 books? Really? Yeesh, that sounds a mite bit long.

Anonymous said...

"well, one thing is for sure :
i'm not starting another big series until it reaches number 8-9.
had enough shit thrown at me with wot and soiaf."

Ditto...I can barely remember the series I've got going now...

Anonymous said...

Have to feel a little bit bad for Sanderson. Would we really be looking at this novel in comparsion to WOT or ASOF if had not taken on finishing WOT.

Elfy said...

Damn good review, Pat. Thanks.

The Grand Leaf said...

There is no story worth telling that takes 10 books to tell it ;-)

I'm with some of the others... the excerpt intrigued me, but I really don't feel like starting a book and then waiting 10 years (probably more like 20) to read the end.

I've really liked the trend lately towards stand-alones and trilogies. Better to break the 10 books into 3 or 4 series, if you ask me.

petec said...

Thanks for the review, Pat.

I'll have to agree with what tGL and others have said. I've stopped picking up series until a majority or all of the books have come out.

Anonymous said...

UGH!!!

guys, you'd think that after a certain number of books that sanderson's writing would get suited more to the adult fantasy likings of people who have read scott lynch, joe abercrombie and many others.

lets face it, while true writers like them will live on, sanderson is and has always been a fad (one that will dissapear if were lucky).

Patrick said...

A fad???

Brandon Sanderson's style might be YA, true, but I don't think he's going anywhere any time soon.

I believe that by completing RJ's WoT, his future as an author is assured...

Anonymous said...

I know what you are saying pat but i really cant take him nor his "post-modernist" bullcrap seriously. now granted i like the way of kings better than his other novels but cant he do SOMETHING outside the black vs. white charactors?

Anonymous said...

lets face it, while true writers like them will live on, sanderson is and has always been a fad (one that will dissapear if were lucky).

+1

cseresz

Abalieno said...

FYI, you can avoid reading the book even if you were unlucky.

Lagomorph Rex said...

" Anonymous Anonymous said...

UGH!!!

guys, you'd think that after a certain number of books that sanderson's writing would get suited more to the adult fantasy likings of people who have read scott lynch, joe abercrombie and many others. "

I consider both of them to be decent writers who write crappy characters. I feel there are far far to many books from the likes of them and their imitators, and I can't wait till that fad goes away. It got old when they did it in Comic books in the late 80's too.

I'll buy a stack of Sanderson's over one given Abercrombie any day.

Anonymous said...

I like black and white characters.

I think the idea that self-interest fuelled cynicism = realistic says more about those particular readers than it does the real world.

Anonymous said...

I 'read' this book while commuting over the last month or so, listening to it thru Audible and am excited at the ideas and found some of it refreshing and new. I love the Malazans and ASoIaF and WOT is great too, and this seems like another addition to huge tales, and the new voice and ideas involvedmakes me look forward to it. Scary to know he plans 10 books already--seems most of the time the plan is for 3 and it ends up 10, who knows how long this series will really end up being.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess ratings very much come down to personal taste... I'd have rated WoK 9.5/10.

I enjoyed all the characters, I found they each got a convincing personality, with their own background and struggles.

I also loved the worldbuilding, I was never bored and didn't find the pace to be slow at all. I guess it's only slow to you if you're kinda bored.

cavendar said...

I'm not a huge Sanderson fan although we've crossed paths several times. For example, I found Mistborn to be trite and silly, to the point where I couldn't finish it. But Way of Kings is very good. If it suffers from anything it isn't the bloat or the info dumps, it's the the dizzying jumping from one character thread to another. About 10 chapters in I gave up and started skipping any chapters that weren't about Kaladin. For me, it made the book so much more enjoyable because I could keep that story thread fresh and truly appreciate the subtle and not so subtle hooks that Sanderson employs. I think you'll miss a lot of those reading straight through because you simply won't remember exact what was going on 10 chapters ago.

A comment on the cleanliness of the book. As a writer myself, I've found that sex rarely makes sense in a fantasy novel. Partly because it's not part of the world view or the motive of the characters. You can't force it on them without feeling totally gratuitous. And partly because usually there's not time for it. Hey, we're fighting a war here. Or we're stuck in a slave camp. For me, any sex scenes would have been jarring and out of place.

Lastly, as for no swearing, um, did you guys read the book? Every other page someone says something like "storming" this or "Storm Father" that or similar. That's part of world building, rather than using modern day profanity which never makes sense in a totally different world and time, the characters use the language appropriate to them.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with people touting the fact the realism in Abercrombie or Martin's books is better than traditional fantasy. I am not saying they are inferior the are very good books.
When you get down to it fantasy is an outlet for escapism. When we escape we want to see heroes killing hundreds of enemies and not shedding a drop of sweat, good triumphing over evil. Isn't that what fantasy was written for.

I respect the bunch of authors who write with realsim , but sometimes it reminds me of the world i am trying to escape from through fantasy. Thast why i can never truly love the the newer realistic books like i love the black and white traditional fantasy books.