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Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings

October 31, 2011

133. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (2010)
The Stormlight Archive, Book 1

Length: 1008 pages
Genre: Epic fantasy

Started: 10 October 2011
Finished: 22 October 2011

Where did it come from? Purchased from Amazon.
Why do I have it? It was Sanderson’s new book! Of course I was going to buy it.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 September 2010.

Summary: The Alethi army has been fighting the Parshendi army for control of the Shattered Plains for the past five years, ever since the Parshendi sent an assassin in white to kill the Alethi king. But the war is dragging on and on, with no resolution in sight, and its effects are beginning to tell on Alethi politics and society. Kaladin used to be a soldier in the king’s army, but is now a slave, and has been sold into Highlord’s Sadeas’s forces as a bridgeman – the lowest position in the army, with the highest mortality rate. Highlord Dalinar, brother to the late king, tires of the war, even as he must deal with the young king’s paranoia, his own son’s chafing at the strict codes of morality and conduct Dalinar imposes, and the violent fits that come upon him during every highstorm, complete with cryptic visions and dire warnings from the ancient past. Elsewhere on the continent, Shallan has set out to become a pupil of the great scholar Jasnah, despite the woman’s reputation for aloofness and prickly temper. But it’s not learning she seeks, so much as the opportunity to steal Jasnah’s Soulcaster, a powerful magical artifact that Shallan can use to rescue her family from the brink of destruction.

Review: I’m going to start this review with a contradiction, and then attempt to work my way through it: I liked this book, but I was also disappointed by it. Because while I absolutely did like it – really liked it, in fact – I was expecting to love it. I wanted to love it, kept waiting to love it, and it never quite got there… hence the disappointment.

Before I try to tease apart the reasons why, let’s focus on the good things. And make no mistake, this book has a plethora of good things. The characters are well-drawn and for the most part really engaging. I liked Shallan’s story better than Kaladin’s or Dalinar’s, probably because I’d rather read about science than war, but I was certainly caught up in the lives of all three main characters. The plot(s) are original and compelling, the prose is smooth and unobtrusive, but the real star of the show is Sanderson’s worldbuilding. I’ve read a fair amount of fantasy, and I’ve never come across another one with the depth, detail, and creativity of worldbuilding that Sanderson packs into this one. Geography, natural history, culture, religion, magic – everything is accounted for, and about the only thing common to our world is gravity… and even that only sometimes. And apart from the broad sweeping differences, there were a number of smaller details that absolutely caught my attention… the crustacean based fauna, the idea that scholarship is a womanly art (and therefore almost all men are illiterate), the omnipresence of spren, the twisted landscape of the Shattered Plains… All vividly realized, and all just so cool.

So, while all of the necessary pieces for me to enjoy a story – characters, plot, writing, worldbuilding – were all well done, my problem was that there was a LOT of each of those things. I know I whine about the prevalence of pigboy stories (where the orphan has to leave his uncle’s farm to go save the world) in fantasy, but the reason that it’s such a common trope is because as a narrative device, it works: you can introduce your reader to the broader scope of your world gradually, at the same rate as your naïve farmboy protagonist. The Way of Kings has no hint of clichéd pigboy about it, instead taking a sharp turn in the opposite direction. There’s no gradual introduction to anything; Sanderson throws you straight into the deep end of his world, tossing four POV narrators at you in the first five chapters, and providing little-to-no exposition about any of the elements of his worldbuilding, instead leaving the reader to glean these things from context. (And because I’ve read other of Sanderson’s novels, I fully expected some easily over-looked detail to become massively important later on, so I was reading very, very closely.) It took me some 400 pages to feel like I was at least minimally conversant in how Sanderson’s world worked; even now I’m not sure I understand more than half of what’s going on in the story writ large.

That lack of understanding of “what’s really going on” is a large part of my disappointment with this book. Sanderson plans for this to be an epic series – ten books this size, I think, was the last count. That, in and of itself, is not a problem, but I feel like in any series, each book has to have a complete story arc and a satisfying payoff. And while The Way of Kings does have its story arcs intact, I felt like the amount of payoff that I got, in terms of increased understanding of larger threads of the series, wasn’t sufficient to satisfy after how long it took to get there. There are a number of things – too many things – regarding how Sanderson’s world works that I remain just as confused about as I was 100 pages in. So, I guess, in brief: the journey’s a great one, but the destination was not as great as I’d hoped. Still, it was an interesting read, and hopefully now that most of the initial worldbuilding has been accomplished, future installments might provide some more satisfying answers. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book is not for the casual fantasy reader: it’s a chunk, and it requires a major investment of time and mental energy to get into. But for those dedicated epic fantasy fans, The Way of Kings is unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Bunches of them, over at the Book Blog Search Engine.

First Line: Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumble to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2011 9:26 am

    I read this a couple months ago with a bunch of other bloggers as a groupread and absolutely loved it. One thing that Sanderson did well was to skip the general two hundred page info-dump that most fantasy writers can’t live without. Sanderson introduced everything far more organically. I loved the world-building too, as it wasn’t too much like Earth.

    • November 15, 2011 9:44 am

      Grace – I understand and can appreciate the organic nature of the worldbuilding, but I still occasionally felt like just when I was getting a handle on the way things work, Sanderson would throw in another wrinkle that put me on the wrong foot, again.

  2. October 31, 2011 1:21 pm

    I don’t recall being thrown by the worldbuilding; if anything, I found the interlude chapters where Sanderson does nothing but just show us his cool world a little frustrating. But I can definitely see it happening.

    • November 15, 2011 9:46 am

      Omni – The interlude chapters were part of it, for sure; it took me a long time to settle into the story, since whenever I was starting to get my bearings there was a different POV chapter or a new system of magic or whatever.

  3. October 31, 2011 10:17 pm

    I loved this book. I believe I read it when Grace did. It was lots of fun to read it as part of a group and it was such a good book! I hope you will carry on with the series and maybe there will be a group read of the second book!

    • November 15, 2011 9:47 am

      Kailana – I’ve never done a group read; maybe that would have helped? I’ll definitely be carrying on with the series, though, especially now that I’ve invested the effort and finally feel like I have at least a loose handle on how the world works.

  4. November 4, 2011 4:00 pm

    I loved this, but I came to it with no expectations at all. I can see your point though–he’s certainly not in any hurry to tell the story, and you have to have time to absorb it.

    • November 15, 2011 9:48 am

      Shelley – I was expecting a slow-ish build – that’s pretty common in his other books – but I was also expecting the “Sanderson avalanche” on the other side, where I hit a point and absolutely cannot stop reading, and I didn’t really feel that in this book.

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