Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publication Date: August 2010
Hardcover: 1008 Pages
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.
The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.
Speak again the ancient oaths,
Life before death.
Strength before weakness.
Journey before Destination.
and return to men the Shards they once bore.
The Knights Radiant must stand again.
Stand alone or series: The first book in The Stormlight Archive, of a planned ten volume series
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the publisher
Why did we read this book: We both discovered Brandon Sanderson last year and fell in love with his Mistborn books, as well as Warbreaker (not to mention, we’ve heard nothing but praise for The Gathering Storm). So, when we learned that the esteemed Mr. Sanderson would be embarking on a brand new epic – a ten volume series! – we of course were ecstatic.
Thea: Since Brandon Sanderson’s succession of the late Robert Jordan (to say nothing of his successes with Elantris, the Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker), it’s to be expected that The Way of Kings would receive is a book with an ungodly amount of buzz surrounding its release. The hype for this book is massive enough to make wary even the most optimistic reader – and, as someone that has been let down more than a few times this year by highly anticipated reads, it was with some trepidation that I started this book.
And…The Way of Kings is just about as good as expected.* Impressively detailed, ambitious as hell, and freaking THICK (clocking in at over 1000 pages, The Way of Kings is a bonafide doorstopper), The Way of Kings is a solid first entry in a promising new series.
* I say “just about as good as expected” because it isn’t nearly as good as the first Mistborn book. While an impressive undertaking, TWoK’s biggest downfall is that it is but the first novel in a very long series – and as such, there isn’t much in the way of resolution. And, well, it’s shockingly similar to the aforementioned Mistborn series. But, more on that in a bit.
Ana: I am a huge Brandon Sanderson fan and was waiting for this with anxiety. All I can say is: the hype is justified. The Way of Kings met my expectations and even surpassed them. It has everything that I came to expect from the author: kooky magic system, amazing world building and strong characters (of both genres) and more, because I think this is his best book (yes, even better than Mistborn) to date where I can see how his writing has matured. I started with trepidatious excitement, HOLY CRAP- ep my way through it and ended it with that feeling of sheer, unmitigated joy which only happens when discovering a new series to love. It might be only the start of a long, long series yet to come and as such it does read like a first of many, but oh, what a beginning it is.
On the Plot: Very basically because there is way too much happening in this book: Once upon a time, the Almighty tasked the Knights Radiant to protect humanity against the threat of the Voidbringers and gave them Shardblades and Shardplate – near invulnerable armor – to fight them off. Then the Radiants, tired of their task of eternal task to protect humanity against the attacking Voidbringers, put down their shardblades and armor, and walked away from mankind (or did they?). Ever since, man has been fighting amongst each other to acquire the remaining Shardblades. The book follows four main characters from different strata of society with different sets of skills (the political/war leader, the slave/warrior, the scholar and the outsider), in alternating point of view chapters, until an inevitable convergence of threads.
Ana: The Way of Kings is an epic introduction to a brand new Epic Fantasy series. It doesn’t try to do something new, it doesn’t try to break away from traditional. Quite the contrary, it embraces the very definition of epic right from the start: it is extensive, it has impressive proportions, and it involves and encompasses very traditional heroism with some very recognisable tropes and archetypical (but not necessarily stereotypical) characters and to me none of this is a bad thing. In fact, Brandon Sanderson reminds me of how much I love Epic Fantasy for these very same reasons. But where this particular book diverges from the puerile and from the danger of being just “another one” is where he makes it all his own: by further exploring themes that he has introduced in his previous books (slavery, mythopolitics, mundane theology and the creation of Gods) , by creating another entirely original magic system and by writing sympathetic, flawed characters of the heroic variety.
As an introduction, as the first of what promises to be a long series, it is very much about setting and presentation. It starts with a bang and it finishes with another bang and it has serious moments of kick-ass action but for the most part, it takes its sweet time with introducing the main characters (their past and their present) of this play, placing them in the required position for next move as well as slowly disclosing the world and its politics, economics, theology and even biology , magic (or lack of) to the reader and Sanderson does so with a small amount of exposition. For a book that it’s 1000 page long, I fully expected to be bored at the some point or to come to the conclusion that it could have been shorter but no. Even though it reads as an introduction, I was left with the impression that it is a necessary introduction and never once felt that it should have been shorter and that in itself is surprising to me. One of the things I questioned when reading Sanderson’s previous books was the amount of repetitive information and thought processes (i.e. the needless, endless mental masturbation that characters such as Elend went through) but The Way Of Kings is very… clean and it reads so, very well and easily making it at the very least, the best of his books in terms of writing.
I am in fact, in awe at the sheer insanity that this book presents: the amount of peoples, locations, times, creatures, characters, etc is mind blowing and I can only but to bow down to Sanderson’s genius.
Ultimately, for me, the book does what is supposed to do: I am completely hooked and prepared to carry on reading the series.
Thea: I do have to agree with Ana that The Way of Kings embraces the Epic side of fantasy, and that it is an ambitious and well-conceived undertaking. There are plot threads branching off of plot threads, each as tantalizing and promising as the last. The magical system, the setting, the writing itself are all expertly crafted and executed, and in that I can find no fault with the book.
Since Ana’s already covered all the good, I’ll be the bad cop and point out what didn’t quite work for me. My problems with The Way of Kings are two-fold. The first problem I have (and I should note that this will not be a problem for everyone) is that The Way of Kings is boilerplate Mistborn.
A reluctant but dedicated hero. A post-apocalyptic, dead landscape ravaged by an ever-pressing weather phenomenon (instead of ashfall and eerie mists, you have shattered deserts and these great storms). A mysterious race of creatures that no one really knows anything about (the Kandra in Mistborn, the Parshmen here). A dead God. A prophecy (un)fulfilled. A misinterpretation of visions and texts.
It’s almost as if the template for Mistborn was taken and embellished for The Way of Kings. This isn’t to say that The Way of Kings isn’t good, because it is. It’s ridiculously good, and even though it’s a thousand pages long (with really tiny text and really large pages), I never felt tired of the story or that I was slogging through just to get to the ending. This is testament to Mr. Sanderson’s skill as a storyteller that he manages to tell almost the same story and kept me reading it the whole way through with a minimum of skepticism.
But enough with the comparisons – how does The Way of Kings stand on its own? Pretty solidly. There are possibilities of deeper issues to be explored – the divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised; the intriguing split between sexes (scholarship is a “womanly” art, whereas warfare is a male art; sweet food is womanly and unfit for men, etc). In Sanderson’s prior books, there really isn’t much in the way of social critique or symbolism, but there is this possibility in The Way of Kings (whether or not the books will ever go there is a different story). There is also some talk of religion and ethics, but again conducted on a superficial level. I don’t doubt that Brandon Sanderson has the capacity to go deeper with these ideas – the question is, will he?
Finally, in terms of writing, the alternating character viewpoint chapters are effective and build the story on multiple fronts (with the added benefit of readers not getting too tired with a single perspective – for example, if I had to read ONLY Kaladin’s story for the whole book, I probably would have gone insane – but more on that below!). My only qualm in terms of writing and plotting technique is that I wished that there was more time spent on Shallan and Jasnah’s storyline, as opposed to the constant Kaladin overload. But now I’m getting ahead of myself again.
On the Characters:
Ana: With regards to the characters, The Way of Kings has not only recognisable Fantasy archetypes but it has also recognisable Brandon Sanderson-style characters. The vast majority of characters in the books are that of a good, heroic, variety. That is not to say that they are cookie cutter, Mary/Marty Sues types: they are flawed, they have inner struggles for a variety of reasons (betrayal, loss, struggle with political and religious beliefs) and some of them traverse a more grey area of morality (like for example, Shallan, one of the female characters, aka the Scholar) and they sound more realistic than his previous characters for all that.
Even though I love to read about dark, morally dubious anti-hero characters, I will shamelessly admit to have a preference for the truly heroic ones, hence Kaladin (aka The Slave) is by far my favourite: he is someone I rooted for from beginning to ending, on his failed attempts not to care about his comrades and his eventual surrender to his role of protector. I totally fist pumped the air when his time came to be The Bravest of Them All.
I will also confess to being terrified right now: this series is going to be long, what are the changes that all of these characters introduced now will make it to the end? (and the fact that I am even worried about this is another sign of how much I am on board of this train).
Another important point worth mentioning. I have always appreciated Brandon Sanderson’s treatment of his female characters as characters with agency of their own. Mistborn’s Vin is one of my favourite Fantasy female characters of all time. And it is no different here. A couple of protagonists are female characters and they are great but not only that, there is a special thread which concerns the very roles that women play on this society (for now, they are respected as the scholarly ones and they are the only ones that can read – but never fight) but there is an underlying discussion as to how this norm is an imposition and not a “natural” role and the seed for breaking the norm has been sowed in this first instalment and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
Thea: Here’s where I’m a little more…divergent. I mentioned above that while I thoroughly enjoyed this book, my problems were two-fold. The second, larger problem, lies with the characters: they are all so ridiculously GOOD.
The biggest goody-two-shoes of them all being Kelsier-I mean, Kaladin (their NAMES even look the same). A Ben Hur-type badass warrior that has become a slave, that has become a leader again, Kaladin is undoubtedly the Hero of this book. And, he is in the tradition of old heroes, unerringly Heroic. He cannot help but save people. He takes the young and the weak under his wing. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — I mean, he floats like a butterfly and stings like a — I mean…
You get the picture.
That’s not to say that Kaladin is infallible – indeed, for the good majority of the novel (and this is an overwhelming majority, as of all the characters, Kal is the only one to have a running narrative in all five parts of the book), Kal is a self-tortured hero, wallowing in the pain of his failures. (Again, to compare to the Mistborn books, Kal has shades of Elend and Sazed – the grating, constant self-doubts; the ceaseless self-torture over his past endeavors and deaths at his hands) After a couple hundred pages of this, my sympathies towards Kaladin and his terminal Jack Shephard syndrome (Oh Em Gee, Kaladin is even a SURGEON! WITH DADDY ISSUES! Didn’t even make that connection until now!) were zilch.*
This is, of course, a matter of personal preference. In modern fantasy, there is a dearth of truly Heroic characters (more morally ambiguous anti-heroes currently en vogue), so for that alone I do have to give Mr. Sanderson props.
My frustration with Kaladin aside, however, the bigger problem is that almost every protagonist and supporting character in this book shares this over-the-top goodness and nobility. The bridge crews, Alethi King’s uncle Dalinar, his son Adolin, even the purported “villains” – highprince Sadeas or assassin Szeth, for example – have best interests at heart. I find it hard to believe that in the bridge crews, there isn’t a single rotten, heinous character. Not all the “nobler” characters are so unpalatable, however. Like Kaladin, Dalinar is a similarly noble but tortured character, conflicted over the assassination of his brother Galivar, the former king, and tormented by visions. His storyline as he grapples with decisions and the accusations that he is going mad is undeniably gripping.
And, these criticisms aside, I do think there were a few fascinating characters that were at the periphery of this book – and I dearly hope to see more of them in the next volume. In particular, the female characters of Shallan and Jasnah, and the king’s Wit. Shallan, purportedly one of the three protagonists of this book (though her storyline gets far less time than either Kaladin’s or Dalinar’s) travels far and long to become high princess Jasnah (Dalinar’s niece and sister to the king)’s Ward – but her motivations are not so pure. Though she discovers a love for scholarship, Shallan’s primary objective is not to become more educated and to be married off. Jasnah is undoubtedly my favorite character of the book, as she is the most morally ambiguous of the book – there’s one particular scene in which she attempts to teach Shallan something of ethics and philosophy by way of example, and it is badass. I can only hope that there is much more of this duo – especially given their revelation at the end – in the next book.
And finally, there is the King’s Wit. I’m not quite sure what his story is, but he’s a fascinating figure, and one that I think will figure into the overall story in a much larger way.
Of course, there are a multitude of secondary and tertiary characters that we haven’t mentioned – but, despite their sickening tendency towards doing the noble/right/good thing, they are all very well written and impressively varied; i.e. they are more than just bland filler in the background. And that is impressive in and of itself.
*Ana: OH NO YOU DIDN’T JUST EQUATE KALADIN WITH JACK SHEPHARD! *engages in fighting stance*
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: Despite its strong similarities to the Mistborn books and it’s over-the-top Goodhearted characters, I still truly enjoyed The Way of Kings. I am beginning to grow familiar with Sanderson’s favorite devices – alternating storylines that ultimately converge; noble-minded characters; detailed magical systems & worldbuilding; lengthy religious/ethical debate – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Though these favorite tropes are easily spotted, Mr. Sanderson is clearly refining his technique, growing more skilled as an author and storyteller. I think the Stormlight Archive has the potential to be a better series than Mistborn trilogy – though it isn’t there yet (I still think that Mistborn is a much better first novel in comparison to The Way of Kings – though TWoK is more complex). One of the best new fantasy novels I’ve read this year…but I’m still waiting to be wowed.
Ana: I more than enjoyed The Way of Kings, I loved it truly and deeply. I think it is already better than the Mistborn trilogy not only for its epic scale but because it is a better book when it comes to the prose. Regardless of how much I loved it, I do agree with Thea that it is still not quite up there in terms of being a Totally Awesome Book but the series has a lot of potential to be just that at some point. The Way of Kings reminded me of how much I love epic fantasy and now much I love heroic, honourable characters and it’s definitely one of the best Fantasy novels I read this year, I rank it on my top 3, in fact, alongside The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin and City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the Prologue:
The Stormlight Archive
Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protrusions from its chest broken and cracked. The monstrosity was vaguely skeletal in shape, with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulders. The eyes were deep red spots on the arrowhead face, as if created by a fire burning deep within the stone. They faded.
Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver. The beast’s hand was as long as a man was tall. He’d been killed by hands like those before, and it hadn’t been pleasant.
Of course, dying rarely was.
He rounded the creature, picking his way more carefully across the battlefield. The plain was a place of misshapen rock and stone, natural pillars rising around him, bodies littering the ground. Few plants lived here. The stone ridges and mounds bore numerous scars. Some were shattered, blasted-out sections where Surgebinders had fought. Less frequently, he passed cracked, oddly shaped hollows where thunderclasts had ripped themselves free of the stone to join the fray.
Many of the bodies around him were human; many were not. Blood mixed. Red. Orange. Violet. Though none of the bodies around him stirred, an indistinct haze of sounds hung in the air. Moans of pain, cries of grief. They did not seem like the sounds of victory. Smoke curled from the occasional patches of growth or heaps of burning corpses. Even some sections of rock smoldered. The Dustbringers had done their work well.
But I survived, Kalak thought, hand to breast as he hastened to the meeting place. I actually survived this time.
That was dangerous. When he died, he was sent back, no choice. When he survived the Desolation, he was supposed to go back as well. Back to that place that he dreaded. Back to that place of pain and fire. What if he just decided . . . not to go?
Perilous thoughts, perhaps traitorous thoughts. He hastened on his way.
Tor has been doing a fabulous job teasing and promoting this title – in addition to the Prologue and Chapters 1-3, you can read Chapters 4-6, Chapters 9 & 11, and Chapters 12 & 13 online. (Why the jump in chapters, you ask? Because the preview focuses on a single character’s storyline – Kaladin’s. Don’t worry, you won’t be lost or confused should you try to read the chapters in this order!) You’ll need a Tor.com account to read the excerpts – but don’t worry, it’s free and easy to sign up.
Additional Thoughts: We happen to be pretty big Brandon Sanderson fans – and if you’re daunted by The Way of Kings‘ substantial girth, and are looking for somewhere else to start, look no further! We *highly* recommend his Mistborn Trilogy (Mistborn, The Well of Ascension and Hero of Ages) for those looking for a completed series…
…or if you’re looking for more of a self-contained novel, Warbreaker is superb.
Thea: 7 – Very Good
Ana: I am wavering between a 8 and a 9. For sheer Enjoyment-Whilst-Reading, I would give it a 9 but objectively speaking I think it would be more of a 8 – Excellent, only because there is so much more coming.
Reading Next: Dust by Joan Frances Turner