Book review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings
The Way of Kings was probably one of the most highly anticipated fantasy novels of 2010, with the popularity of The Wheel of Time series and Sanderson being selected as the author to complete the series after Jordan’s passing. The Way of Kings is the first novel in an extremely ambitious new ten novel series, titled The Stormlight Archive. This series is undoubtedly Sanderson’s offering to fantasy fans that will make an attempt to reside upon the shelf next to other such large fantasy series, ala The Wheel of Time, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and A Song of Ice and Fire. How does this first novel fare as a stand alone novel, and how does it stack up against other first novels in similar series? Let’s dig in.
First and foremost, The Way of Kings brings classic Sanderson to the table. The heroes and villians are fairly apparent, like previous Sanderson novels, not the truly multi-faceted characters we see in A Game of Thrones, for example. This really isn’t a problem for me, and I think its really a matter of reader preference. I personally enjoy having a character that holds hope and good intention above all else, and will make huge sacrifices in order to uphold these beliefs. I think its noble, and a fairly essential element to any fantasy novel. The Way of Kings focuses on three main characters, very similar to Elantris, and chapters rotate between their view points. There are also intermissions where Sanderson gives us glimpses of other aspects of the world he’s created, and these were some of the most enjoyable scenes for me in this novel.
The world building in The Way of Kings is fantastic. This is a believable world with believable characters. Humans who fight for personal gain. A vast plateau terrain, dubbed The Shattered Plains, where military action takes place on a grand scale. Troops move like chess pieces using permanent and temporary bridges to span the area between the plateaus, in search of gemstones which power the suits of armor and other magical items used in battle.
The magic system in The Way of Kings is on par with previous Sanderson novels, which is to say, head and shoulders above magic systems in modern fantasy fiction. The magic systems Sanderson has created in Elantris, Mistborn, and now The Way of Kings are not only unique and inventive, they are all believable in that they all have some grounding in science or nature. The Way of Kings offers a magnificent system, in which small stone-like spheres are the form of currency, but they have to be infused with storm light by leaving them out in a storm, lest they become dun. The energy from these spheres is what is used by talented knights to fuel their special powers, which include heightened strength, endurance, and the ability to “lash” themselves or objects in different directions than gravity normally dictates. This same storm light is what fuels the coveted swords and armor in The Way of Kings, which Sanderson has dubbed shard blades and shard plate, respectively.
In The Way of Kings, we see Sanderson maturing as an author, as he brings in more subject matter for the reader to ponder than his typical themes of hope and belief. While his theme of hope is present and strong as ever:
“Somebody has to start. Somebody has to step forward and do what is right, because it is right. If nobody starts, then others cannot follow.”
He also touches upon other topics, such as maturity:
“A man’s emotions are what define him, and control is the hallmark of true strength. To lack feeling is to be dead, but to act on every feeling is to be a child.”
“Authority doesn’t come from a rank,” Kaladin said, fingering the spheres in his pocket.
“Where does it come from?”
“From the men who give it to you. That’s the only way to get it.”
and he even manages to mix in a little comedy:
“All right. First, find a cliff.”
“That, it will give you a vantage to see the area?”
“No”, Kaladin said. “It will give me something to throw you off of.”
The one blaring issue with The Way of Kings is the pace of the novel. The Way of Kings reads like the first novel in a ten book series, not like a quality stand alone novel that should serve as the flare to ignite reader’s passion to swallow a ten book series. It really is unfortunate, as this is a very well written novel, and everything else is extremely well done, all the way down to the quality of the hardbound edition with a Whelan cover and numerous interior illustrations. The Way of Kings just doesn’t have to be as big as it is, and that’s one of Strunk & White’s cardinal rules for writing: omit unnecessary words. I do enjoy character background detail, and also building believable scenarios, but The Way of Kings goes a few steps too far. I really enjoyed the bridge runs, but we could have cut back on a few, and the plot line with Shallan was good, but maybe just a little too extended for the eventual punchline.
Despite the pacing issues, The Way of Kings is a good first effort in a new epic fantasy series. How does it stack up against similar competition? I’d recommend the first novels in A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time before The Way of Kings to people new to the fantasy genre, but would strongly recommend The Way of Kings to Sanderson fans. I am a huge Sanderson fan, and I think his previous work in Elantris and the Mistborn series is top-notch, so I’ll look to the next novel in this series to resolve the pacing issues, as everything else is there for this to be a home run fantasy series.
You can purchase The Way of Kings over at Amazon.com.