Monday, May 23, 2011

Book review: "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

Last two weeks I've been reading "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson. I have to confess that I have been having prejudices before starting to read it. As most know, Sanderson is most famous for two things. One is his "Mistborn" trilogy, which I have read and like, but I don't hold it in any special regard. It is a very good trilogy, but there are better ones. The other thing, that probably made him famous, was that he was selected to finish "The Wheel of Time" series. WoT was for a long time by most favorite series (currently I would pick "Malazan Book of the Fallen", but I still adore WoT) and Sanderson did and is probably still doing a great job with it. Except that, he wrote "Elantris", which is a single-book fantasy with good reviews, although I didn't read it yet, and some other minor stuff.

So it's not like he has 20 master-pieces behind himself and that his name guarantees a hit. "The Way of Kings" was one of hits of last year in fantasy circles, but somehow I was thinking that it was because of large base of WoT fans (some convoluted idea of being famous by association; The Wheel of Time-Brandon Sanderson-The Way of Kings) and big promotional campaign (most prominently by

After reading it, I freely admit I was wrong. I was very impressed by this book. I can't say that fantasy books are my career or that I am some kind of professional reader or reviewer, but reading has been my most prominent hobby for more than 20 years; I own more than 70 fantasy books and I have read and reread probably few hundreds of books, most of that fantasy and lot SF. I am just saying this to prove that I am not very easily impressed and that I can make an objective opinion. I expect it would be more influenced by WoT (although Sanderson claimed to write it years before his involvement with WoT), only with more scientific and colder approach of Mistborn.

In WoK ("The Way of Kings") we have three protagonists. Most prominent one is Kalading, a young man who ended in slavery after being betrayed by his lighteye lord (lighteyes are kind of nobility in Alethkar, Kaladin's homeland). Kaladin is not exactly a typical innocent hero-to-be kid. I mean, this IS an epic fantasy novel, so we can expect some tropes, but Kaladin has seen some of the world. He was trained as a surgeon by his father, he has been a soldier and he has been betrayed. On the other hand, he is young and has not seen much of his world, nor does he know everything he is capable for. His main characteristic is that he always try to save people around himself, but his curse is always to fail. He will find himself in really unwelcome conditions: sentenced to be a figurative cannon-fodder in conflict on Shattered Plains, where high-princes of Alethkar wage war against barbaric Parshendi. In really inhuman conditions, surrounded by dredge of people, he will have to try hard not to succumb to circumstances and make his and his fellows life better.

Shallan, on the other hand, has very different life. A lighteyes of high status, she was pampered by her father and brothers, leading a life without much responsibilities. Now, after the death of her father and in danger of her family ending in ruin, she is now forced to commit herself in dangerous and desperate course of actions. She is sent by her brother to try to become a ward of notorious Princess Jasnah, famous heretic scholar and sister of King of Alethkar. When she is successful in that, she is to steal Jasnah Soulcaster, source of magical power they could use to restore her family's wealth. But she will find both parts of this plan very dangerous; not only because of circumstances, but because of her own morality.

Dalinar Kholin is one of most powerful people in world: high-prince and uncle to Alethkar King, warrior of great renown and owner of Shardblade and Shardplate, which make their carrier an unstoppable machine of war. But after death of his brother, previous King, he finds himself different than hot-headed warrior of his youth; he is now more concerned about future of Alethkar and his people. His has also become follower of strict and archaic Codes, which makes him unpopular between more easygoing fellow nobles. But his problems have become much greater lately: he is troubled by fits during the highstorms, during which he has strange visions and keeps being warned that the end of the world is coming: a true Desolation.

Although the book is not without flaws, in every aspect it is great. Let's start with worldbuilding. Although I don't think Sanderson took Erikson as a model (I don't even know if he ever read it), there is a similarity between two of the how them. Sanderson in this book reveals very little of his world in details, but he indicate much. We also don't have any wise counselor that is used to explain how things work, but we have to discover it by ourselves. I am not claiming that this book is in any way similar to Erikson's (I don't think it would be easy to mimic him, not in style, nor in scope and complexity), but I like this approach with both of them. I am looking forward to future books to find out more. And world itself is extremely unique and imaginative. It is not modeled about typical settings (like medieval, Middle East or oriental), but you realize how strange it is only after few hundred pages. At least it was like for me: I realized how different Roshar (the name of the world) only it was somewhere at quarter of the book. And we visited only a little part of the world. But the thing I appreciate most is that I am not sure if anything of this real. I am halfway expecting something like in "Tsubasa Chronicle" (can't remember any adequate literal example): our heroes arrive in medieval world only to later discover that this was a virtual game played by real people. It's not that I can give any proves to these claims or that I expect something exactly like that, but I feel there is something more to all of it.

Characters are also great. I already described three main ones. They are done very realistic and believable. There is more of supporting and important characters, several of we have POV perspective, but not as much as you would expect from book this large (1000) pages. Most of them are also done well, and as for world, I hope they will be described and explored more in later books. Also, I liked how we don't have any big-bads in this book. There are several characters that we see as negative ones, but they are not really evil. Nor there is any real evil being that tries to destroy the world or evil organization that helps it. We get only few indications in later parts of book, and few unexplained facts at the very end. I really don't know who the bad guys are or what is in stake, but I really like it this way.

As I said, there are several flaws. The world and characters are good, but there were few instances that felt too naive and trope-ish for me. The most prominent one was Rock and his Horneaters. They are described like something I would expect in some children book. The dynamic of the royal court could also be done much better; it was too simple in this instance. And the revelation who is behind Shin Truthless really didn't fit well for me (although I like the relative grayness it). But I admit a possibility that this will turn well in next books...

The style is not something I am very competent to judge, but I didn't have any problems with it. I've seen some complaints about relative slowness of the plot, but this is an advantage to me, I am patient. There is some very good visual art inside the book which helps to see what author is describing. There is no long internal monologs and over-lengthy descriptions some would find boring. The book consists mostly of action and dialogs, while explanations and descriptions fit nicely between them.

As single book, "The Way of Kings" works very well. It is a definite recommendation for everybody who like fantasy, and especially epic fantasy, and do not expect something experimental. It is a classical epic novel and a great start of new series. As for whole "The Stormlight Archive" series, I will have to wait for several more sequels to give it a final opinion. But judging from this book and Sanderson's integrity as a writer, I expect it to be a success.

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