The Way of Kings

Only serious readers need apply

Themes Explored: social caste systems, slavery, lust, power, politics, betrayal, loyalty, death, war, tyrants, scholarship, folklore, legends

Synopsis: 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.  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. The Knights Radiant must stand again.  (Synopsis adapted from Goodreads profile)

Review: Brandon Sanderson is one of the best modern fantasy writers. After the success of This Mistborn Trilogy and completing The Wheel of Time Series, Sanderson embarked on a mission to write the next epic fantasy series. The result is The Stormlight Archive, a planned ten-book series. The Way of Kings is the first installment in the Archive. The basic premise is that mankind has been expelled from heaven and are now living on Roshar, a world besieged by frequent magical storms. There have been several millennia of brutal wars with the group responsible for leaving mankind a shadow of its former self. Now only legends about past greatness fuels the current ruling class.

The plot introduces half-a-dozen protagonists but mainly focuses on three. Kaladin, the main protagonist, is a slave with a living death sentence. He is now a prisoner of war but is also the son of a surgeon and once had a promising future. But he is now a beaten down and ragged soldier with a debilitating case of survivor’s guilt. Kaladin begins the story by being shipped off to the Shattered Plains to serve on the dangerous bridge crews. The Plains are the location of a decades-long battle between the nation of Alethkar and the mysterious Parshendi.  Now Kaladin and the other violent slaves must race ahead of the Alethi armies and lay down bridges across the plains’ deep fissures. Kaladin is an enigmatic and compelling protagonist, he is my favorite character in the book. I hope Sanderson continues to evolve Kaladin and flesh out his character.

Dalinar is an Alethi Brightlord and is the second main male protagonist. He is in charge of commanding one of the armies at The Plains. Also, he owns one of the incredibly rare and highly prized sets of Shardplate armor and matching Shardblade. These magical artifacts are from the time of legends and a nation’s strength is measured by the number of Shardplate Warriors in the ranks. Most of Dalinar’s narrative deals with his struggle to remain in control as there is a growing concern about his fitness for command. There is a growing concern about Dalinar’s sanity because he keeps experiences debilitating visions.  Whenever the Plains are hit with a magical highstorm, Dalinar experiences hallucinations of legendary events. Dalinar’s visions serve as the foreshadowing of an apocalyptical event. Overall, Dalinar is an intriguing character but he is not as compelling as Kaladin.

In this world the arts, scientific research, scholarship, and literacy is considered to be feminine vocations. Shallan is the only daughter in an impoverished and dysfunctional noble family. She decides to travel to the coastal city of Kharbranth to seek direction from the prominent scholar Jasnah Kholin. The only problem: Kholin has a reputation for her unwillingness to take on new apprentices. Being a plucky heroine, Shallan is able to convince Jasnah to take her on as an apprentice. However, Shallan has an ulterior motive. Of the three protagonists Shallan’s story takes up the smallest portion of the novel. Sanderson does a great job depicting Shallan as an intelligent young woman who is also hopelessly naïve about the world. She will have to learn to look up from her texts and learn about the complicated world. Shallan has the potential to be a great, she just needs a more exciting narrative.

Sanderson excels at world-building and most of the novel deals with creating a new world. The Way of Kings is definitely the first book of a long series, there is a lot of detail encased within the narrative. After reading this book, you will know this new world like the back of your hand. Most of the descriptions are fantastic and the detail is astounding. Sanderson also explores the backstory of the protagonists, the history behind the legends, and the current political intrigues. However, there is very little action for most of the book. The action scenes do not occur until the last fourth of the novel. While the narrative is engrossing and appropriately dramatic, the book’s length bogs down the narrative sometimes. The book could have easily been about 300 pages shorter. This would have improved the pacing and the suspense. Nothing would have to be deleted, just slightly condensed.

My largest problem is that the main characters are lost in limbo for several hundreds of pages. Over the course of hundreds of pages, everyone is abused, tormented, humiliated, and torn down. After a while I just wanted someone to accomplish something. While tragedy and extreme situations help to flesh out personalities, the constant abuse gets tiresome. By the 1,000th page it is still unclear how all the protagonists relate to each other. All the characters are interesting apart but the meshing of the plotlines takes too long. After about 700 pages of misery, the narrative picks up in speed and throws in a lot of fight sequences. The plot is intriguing, but it is definitely slow burning. Most of the conflict arises from the social and ethical relationship between the darkeyes (the working class) and the lighteyes (the nobility). Most of the plot deals with the societal struggles between the two groups.  It is an interesting exploration of social caste systems and the difficulties of a darkeye trying to rise above his station. But most of this exploration comes at the cost of dramatic pacing.

Despite its length, The Way of Kings is a strong start to a promising series. However, I hope Sanderson cuts down on the length with the future installments. Though Words of Radiance, the second installment, is even longer. The Stormlight Archive and The Wheel of Time Series have several similarities in that they have strong characters and great world building. However, Robert Jordan sacrificed pacing for description and slowed down the action. Sanderson could easily go down this route and drown his narrative. Hopefully this will not happen and the action will pick up with the third book.

The Way of Kings, Tor Books, 2010, ISBN 9780765326355