Every aspiring writer has that one grand story they want to tell. This is especially true of aspiring fantasy and sci-fi writers, who can (and often do) construct entire universes in which to set epic stories. The problem, though, is getting that world to function well on paper. After all, it’s one thing to have all those stories in one’s head; it’s another thing entirely getting that world to play nice on the page.
Not all writers do this well. There are plenty of novels out there that make a complete and utter hash of what might otherwise have been a magnificent, beautiful world. Sometimes it’s the world-building, sometimes it’s the characters, and sometimes it’s the themes. Whatever the case may be, there are many books out there that make me want to put the book down in boredom or – in the worst case scenario – regret I ever bought it in the first place.
But thus far in 2014, I’ve been lucky. Thanks to a combination of friends and the right online venues, I’ve read some amazing sci-fi and fantasy stories. There have been a few flops so far (and one outright atrocity, in the form of To Your Scattered Bodies Go), but approaching the midyear, I have to say that the reading has been remarkably good.
Usually, though, every year brings a handful of books that are true standouts, books that are so amazing in their concept, or their characterisation, or their themes, or even all three, that I can do nothing but babble in my head and type and re-type my review over and over again, searching for just the right words to capture how I feel. The first this year was Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, followed by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and then by Andy Weir’s The Martian. Those three books featured characters I cheered for, worlds I wanted to inhabit (or not, in the case of The Martian), and tackled interesting themes and/or posed fascinating questions.
But this year was also the year of release for Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the second book in his massive ten-book Stormlight Archive series. I’ve already read four of his books before: the first three books of his Mistborn series, and the standalone Warbreaker (though there’s now rumour of a sequel for Warbreaker, which I’d very much appreciate because that book left me wanting more). Because of this, and pressure from well-meaning friends who said they’d disown me if I didn’t start reading the series soon and join them in their post-Words of Radiance agony, I thought it was as good a time as any to pick up The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archives.
The novel is mostly the story of Kaladin, a young man reduced to slavery due to certain important events in his life. He is sent to the Shattered Plains, where the Alethki are pursuing a war against the Parshendi as a result of the events told in the prologue. However, the war against the Parshendi is a small thing compared to the greater events going on in the world – events in which Kaladin, and a handful of other characters, will – or must – play an important part.
First thing the reader needs to know is that The Way of Kings is long – and I mean long. I’m more accustomed to Sanderson’s shorter works, which usually move the plot along at a rather decent clip, but that’s not the case here. With The Way of Kings Sanderson takes his sweet time to build the world of Roshar as he thinks it ought to be built – and that is only a good thing. I’ve already mentioned in other reviews how good Sanderson is at world-buildng, and it’s pretty clear that the work he’s done to create the world of Roshar is his best yet. One can begin The Way of Kings and pretty much expect to settle in for the long haul – something I haven’t encountered in a book, or even a series of books, for a good long while, and I really like that.
Of course, I’m certain some people will find the length daunting: it’s so long that the Gollancz edition is actually split into two volumes. It also doesn’t help that nothing much (in terms of the grander plot) really happens during a good chunk of the story. Some reviewers have accused Sanderson of wandering, of having no fixed centre upon which to build and move forward. They claim that The Way of Kings is bloated and overwrought, and if one were to just look at the book (or books, in the case of the Gollancz edition), one might easily agree with that assessment.
But that is, I think, a terribly unfair assessment of this novel. A lot of novels nowadays have a plot that moves at a driving pace, encouraging the reader to keep flipping pages, to stay up for “just one more chapter,” and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it does make me miss a slower kind of novel, one that really takes the time to build a world and a cast of characters, as well as a plot that is three or more layers deep and takes a lot of time and patience to get through and comprehend completely. Those are the kinds of books one “lives” in: books that can take weeks, maybe months, to get through, but which one can immerse oneself in so completely because everything is there, whole and entire and waiting to be experienced.
The Way of Kings is precisely that kind of book. Sanderson drifts back and forth across Roshar, focusing first on one character, then another, building those characters so that the reader understands (for the most part) who they are and what drives them, all the while subtly building the rest of the plot – not just for this novel, but for the other novels to come. Even better, the characters are not pulled hither and thither by the whims of the plot (though it does seem like that, sometimes), but are integral to it, their decisions and actions raising questions or creating moments that lead to something that might be vitally important further down the line. This means that the reader is invested in the characters, wants to know what happens to them and whether or not they’ll succeed.
As for the themes, there’s obviously quite a few that Sanderson is working on and building upon, and he’s actually remarkably good at that kind of thing. The first three Mistborn books, for instance, tackled some very hefty concepts and played them out incredibly well, without sacrificing characterisation and plot in order to do so. Sanderson continues that pattern in The Way of Kings, which plays with some pretty big (and, some might say, controversial) ideas.
One of the big ones involves certain questions about religion and what it means to be “good”. This has mostly to do with Jasnah, who is considered a heretic because she is a Veristitalian. She doesn’t believe in the existence of the Almighty, but only because she can find no evidence strong enough to prove the Almighty exists – in short, she is an atheist (albeit one of a specific, less dogmatic stripe than some of the ones one might encounter on the Internet). This raises quite a few questions amongst other characters (Shallan, in particular), who wonder whether or not Jasnah is a “good” person because she doesn’t believe in the Almighty, and, therefore, doesn’t subscribe to Vorinism (the main religion of the Alethi). There are a handful of scenes between these two characters that are worth reading because they do tackle these questions, and the way Sanderson approaches them is done very well, and very respectfully.
Since this is an epic fantasy novel, questions about honour and doing the right thing play a large part in the storyline – in fact, if there is any “central theme” in The Way of Kings, it’s probably that. One can see it in Kaladin’s storyline, and also in Shallan’s, but it’s at its most prominent in Dalinar’s. If one has read A Song of Ice and Fire, or has at least seen Game of Thrones, then it’s highly likely that the first thing that will come into one’s mind when they read about Dalinar and his sons Adolin and Renarin is: they’re the Starks. Well, it’s more complicated than that, since Dalinar isn’t quite Ned Stark (and Sanderson isn’t George R.R. Martin), but the parallels are obvious.
However, Dalinar and his sons handle the concept of honour far better (and far more fluidly) than Ned Stark ever did, which is, again, how I prefer to think of the concept. Holding to a code for the sake of honour might be perceived as rigid (and Dalinar is perceived that way, even by his own sons), but what I like about how Dalinar was written is that he has a very good reason for wanting to uphold that code. It’s not something that he does out of habit, but something he does because he firmly believes in it – and he’s flexible enough to realise when that code can be turned around and perceived in another way, without completely sacrificing its intent.
Overall, The Way of Kings is an amazing beginning to what promises to be an equally amazing series. It’s slow to start, but very big things tend to take some time to build speed, and it’s very clear that The Way of Kings is just the beginning of something very, very big indeed. Sanderson has written some mind-blowing books, and I fully expect The Stormlight Archive to live up to his reputation – especially since this promises to be his masterpiece. I have full confidence he’ll live up to any and all expectations.
Word of advice, though: make sure to have a copy of Words of Radiance close at hand. The ending of The Way of Kings is a doozy.