Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Way of Kings Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Stormlight Archive Book One
Pages: 1,252

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The Way of Kings is Brandon Sanderson’s first book in a planned ten book series called the Stormlight Archive.  Following in the footsteps of massive fantasy series’ like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen there is no doubt that Sanderson intends this series to be his magnum opus

The Way of Kings is over 1,200 pages long in paperback and features four different major plots.  In scope, size, and page count this is one of the largest books’ in the genre.  People who are familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s work can expect excellent world building and magic systems, but they will find he still struggles with writing prose and developing secondary characters. Nevertheless, this is my favorite book by Brandon Sanderson thus far.

The Way of Kings is subdivided into four major parts and they get an unequal amount of page time with at least half the book being narrated from Kaladin’s perspective, while Szeth only gets a few chapters of narration. From the back of the novel readers are told the large over-arcing plot will feature one of the four major characters destroying the world and another one saving it.  Bullet-pointed below are summaries from each of these major characters’ plots.
  • Szeth-son-son-Vallano is an assassin and one of the Truthless.  He has a shardblade and can use stormlight which makes him one of the most powerful killers in the world.  He serves a mysterious master who has him killing some of the world’s most influential people.
  • Kaladin is a darkeye peasant from Alethkar.  He currently serves in a bridgecrew for the High Prince Sadeas’ army.  His story contains flashbacks explaining how he ended up in the most dangerous position in the Alethi military.
  • Shallan is a minor lighteye noble.  Her family is about to fall into ruin, but she plans to become a ward for Jasnah Khollin, aunt to the King of Alethkar, to save her family from their powerful enemies.
  • Dalinar Kholin is helping his nephew Elhokar, King of Alethkar wage war against the Parthendi, a war that has been ongoing for six years.  He has recently been stricken with visions he receives during high storms warning of catastrophic events to come if he doesn’t unite the High Princes and the other powers of the world.
The most impressive aspect of Way of Kings is the world building and epic scale that this book is set on.  I enjoy world building and Sanderson has crafted a large world. The high storms, which are especially violent and resemble real world hurricanes, are a neat world altering aspect that adds a mystical as well as dangerous element to the story. However, most of this book is spent on the Shattered Plains a desolate area with huge chasms that is being fought over by the Alethi and Parshendi.  It’s makes for some exciting military action scenes as the armies must navigate difficult terrain in order to engage one another.

Military battles occupy a large portion of the story. The Alethi are more like a loosely held together Confederation, each of the High Princes engages the Parshendi themselves, rather than work together.  These armies are greedy, each of them trying to kill giant monsters called chasmfiends that appear on the plains.  When killed they leave behind gemhearts, which are worth a small fortune, and greatly enable the High Princes to grow in wealth and prestige.  This war that’s being fought is not your typical fantasy war.

The armies also hope to capture Shardplates and Shardblades – powerful weapons that turn the tides of battles.  The Shardplate is armor and imbues its wearer with supernatural speed and strength, and it can withstand a tremendous amount of punishment.  The Shardblades are summoned by their owners, arriving within ten heartbeats; they can cut through anything. These items are great, and only give the reader a small taste of the magic that dominates the world of Roshar. The only criticism of the military aspect I have is the bridgerunner portions of the battles tend to get repetitive.

Sanderson has such an extensive magic system, he leaves big gaps of it unexplained, only filling in the gaps when it’s needed.  This is an aspect I really liked. It’s a definite improvement over Mistborn, where Sanderson explained most of the magic via exposition in training sequences in the first book, only adding tidbits after.  Surgebinding, soulcasting, and voidbinding are all fascinating magical constructs and they have great potential for future books.

The major characters in Way of Kings are all largely likeable or are at least they are in interesting situations and have conflicts that are engaging.  The best thing I can say about the characters from Way of Kings is that they improve over past Sanderson characters.  Another great aspect about them is that all of them are very flawed. Character personalities can be stiff at times –  this is an issue with honorable characters like Kaladin and Dalinar – and they can be preachy and very self righteous making them hard to like.  Their willingness to stick with honor despite their experiences acquired by the characters during their journey forced me to suspend my disbelief far more than I normally do when reading modern fantasy.

The secondary characters, especially Kaladin’s bridge burning crew are forgettable and never get past being one dimensional personalities. Dialogue between characters can also feel unnatural at times.  Sanderson is not bad with prose, but he’s not great with it either.  In his previous books this was a nit-picky issue, but in a book with a four figure page count, prose starts to mean a lot more.  Well I’m not going to say the book should have been shortened, and Sanderson’s writing has definitely improved; the nit-picky things with prose stand out a lot more and become more irritating than it normally would be.

Nearly half of this book is told from Kaladin’s point of view, creating an uneven distribution between the four major characters Sanderson mentions on the back cover.  Presumably they are of equal importance for the larger plot.  The next biggest portion of narration belonged to Dalinar. This essentially means 75% of the story takes place on the Shattered Plains.  Since there aren’t other books to go by, I’m a lot more curious about Szeth and Shallan who aren’t at the Shattered Plains. I won’t say Shallan is my favorite character, but her situation both at the beginning and end of the novel were the most intriguing and I hope she gets a lot more page time in future installments.

Way of Kings also has some cool novelties, too.  There are pictures of creatures, military camps, and other beings or people from the Roshar world at the start of some of the chapters.  Interludes that occur between the five parts expand the story and give glimpses into what’s going on in the larger world.  Many chapters begin with quotes from random characters that were dictated within 90 seconds before dieing – creepy but a great storytelling device.

There is a lot to talk about after reading a book this massive and I quite simply don’t want to put it all in this review. I should note that this is probably the slowest paced of Brandon Sanderson’s books, but part five, which is the shortest section, launches into major revelations every chapter.  Each one has me eagerly awaiting the sequel. If you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, great magic systems, large casts of characters, and tremendous world building then Way of Kings might just float your boat.

Score: 9.3

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