Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Published : Tor, 2010
Series : Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive

The Book : 

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.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson, and it kicks off the Stormlight Archives series, which is planned as a 10 book series.  The series further fits inside a 36-book set of novels set in the same universe (which includes Elantris, Warbreaker, and the Mistborn trilogy).  I will probably read more of the Stormlight Archives, but I think I’ll probably space out the reading. I participated in a 10-week-long read-along of The Way of Kings, and much spoiler-filled discussion can be found in the 10 previous posts: 1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

My Thoughts:

It’s clear that a massive amount of thought went into building the physical world of Roshar, its cultures, its magic and its history.  It seemed that there were always more details to uncover, and I feel certain that there is still much left to be explained. The magical ‘highstorms’ evolved wildlife that makes me think of the ocean; there are many creatures with exoskeletons and plants that can retreat from the storms.  Several sources of magic are introduced, and it seems likely that they are all connected.  There are also mysteries about the warlike Parshendi species, and their possible connection to the passive, placid slaves kept by the people of Roshar. Another class of species that seem likely to become very important in the future are the ‘spren’, which appear to be attracted to (and/or cause) various things, such as fear or inebriation.  There’s obviously far too much for me to go into everything here, but I was impressed with the wealth of detail lavished on building the world of Roshar.

It seemed to me that some of the sillier cultural quirks in this fictional world might be intended to quietly illustrate the absurdity of various traditions that exist in reality. For instance, many real aristocracies are based on heredity, while Alethi nobility is explicitly conferred by eye color.  The system is not so different, in the end, but defining nobility by the possession of light-colored eyes somehow seems more ridiculous.  There are also weird gender-specific traditions, such as well-bred women having to keep one of their hands idle and concealed, or defining completely separate foods for men and women, since “women like sweet things”.  I’m not sure if these quirks intended to mock reality, to show Roshar as a world of extremes, or both.

The story followed a number of different characters, some of which appear only for one chapter in the ‘interlude’ sections.  Some of the stories converge in this novel, others show clear signs of doing so at some point in the future of the series, and others appear to have been one-off stories to show some aspect of Roshar.  The one-off chapters contributed to making this a somewhat overlong novel, but I’m hoping the context they provide will be nice to have in the future of the series.

The heroes seemed to be very typical of the epic fantasy genre, but they are still very likeable. First there is Kaladin, a very young, humbly-born man who carries great power and seems to have an important destiny.  He meets with a lot of difficulties throughout the story, but his magical spren companion and his natural amazing skills help him through. I liked that the story eventually began to address his youthful sense of self-importance, though. The highprince Dalinar and his son Adolin provided a viewpoint from the opposite end of the Alethi hierarchy. Dalinar serves as a beacon of honor in the otherwise pathetically corrupt nobility, and his adherence to propriety hampers his ability to politick, to his son’s dismay.

The heroine, Shallan, was the most interesting character to me. She is a noble from a relatively unimportant house, who is determined to become the ward of the king’s sister—and then to steal something precious from her. Shallan is clever, though she has mostly been forced to educate herself.  She makes quite a lot of her ‘wittiness’, which always struck me as just a little too awkward and wordy. Shallan’s story holds a lot of mystery, plenty of tension as she interacts with her mentor/target, and a lot of internal struggle, as Shallan tries to balance various desires and responsibilities that would require mutually exclusive decisions.

As might be expected for such a long novel, the story moves at a pretty slow pace. In the case of Kaladin, I think the pace helped to make his eventual triumphs seem more hard-won and believable, but Dalinar’s story sometimes seemed to be treading water.  However, the last hundred pages or so ramped up the energy and momentum impressively, delivering a very exciting climax and resolution to all three of the major storylines.  I don’t know if I’ll be on board for all 36 novels or not, but I will certainly grab a copy of Words of Radiance.

My Rating: 4/5

The Way of Kings is a very long epic fantasy novel that kicks of a 10-book series, within a 36-book set of novels set in the same universe.  Many of the main characters aren’t particularly out of the ordinary for epic fantasy, but they are still easy to like and fun to follow.  My personal favorite main character is the conflicted minor noblewoman on the edge of ruin, Shallan, who I hope to see more of in the coming novels.  The world of Roshar is imagined with an impressive amount of detail, and I feel sure that even after over 1000 pages, there are still many secrets that are left to be discovered.  I felt that the novel was longer than it probably needed to be, and several of the plots seemed to drag at times.  However, the conclusion was very exciting, and has left me looking forward to see what will happen in the next volume!

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