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How to begin to talk about The Way of Kings?

I could start, perhaps, with a plot synopsis, an account of some of the more pertinent events chronicled in this daunting, 1000-plus page threat to innocent forests everywhere. I could introduce you all to the three central characters on whose shoulders the narrative responsibilities of The Way of Kings rest; know them, and by way of your knowledge you will inevitably come to understand the insurmountable-seeming challenges they face, the obstacles they—and you—must overcome in order to go, in the great tradition of stories through the ages, from beginning . . . to ending.

If neither plot nor character are up to the task of formalizing the heavy foundation stones of Brandon Sanderson’s latest, and in turn the critical discussion thereof, then perhaps setting will suffice: perhaps I could offer up an eagle’s-eye view of Roshar, a sweeping establishing shot from on high of this “world of sand and stone” in all its broken glory. I could describe to you a key scene, slightly embellished for the sake of clarity, wherein the armies of two rival highprinces join forces to assault the Tower, the greatest plateau on all the Shattered Plains. At its centrepoint, amidst the collective mass of opposing soldiers—red versus blue—two Shardbearers hold court, wearing full plate, bearing Final Fantasy-scale swords formed from nothing more than mist, and leaking light from hairline cracks in their mystical armor; while in the middle distance, a Highstorm approaches, broiling over with enough elemental force to slaughter every one of the countless combatants on the Tower, Alethi and Parshendi alike, around whom a host of elemental sprites—Sanderson christens them Spren—zip and flit fearfully about.

But I have begun, it seems, by discussing beginnings. A fitting enough tack to take, I would argue, given the nature and purpose of The Way of Kings as volume one of an epic cycle of ten set fair to inherit The Wheel of Time‘s legion of readers. In an interview with Shawn Speakman of Suduvu, Sanderson emphasized the significance of that number: ten is not only how many tomes the author projects it will take to complete The Stormlight Archive, but also how many orders of knights there are on Roshar, how many essences (such as vapor, blood, and pulp) govern it, and so on. Do not thus expect an introduction to each of the historical orders just yet, then, nor a practical demonstration of each essence. From its multiple prologues and preludes through to its calm-before-the-storm last chapter and indeed beyond, The Way of Kings is all about beginning. Even its appendices are beginnings after a fashion: a cryptic endnote and an Ars Arcanum rich with definitions of things hinted at yet never explicated upon promise of things to come.

Beginnings. The Way of Kings itself has begun several times before, a multitude of chapters in, it begins in earnest. In a tantalizing prelude to the series entire, Sanderson introduces us to Kalak, one of a band of (you guessed it) ten immortal warriors bound together to face down the horrors of the Desolation for all eternity. Bodies litter the smoldering landscape of their latest battle, and it is to be their last battle, too. The men have grown weary of the Oathpact that holds them: in the aftermath, all but one of their number casts aside his Shardblade. The cycle is broken . . . and so Roshar’s fate is sealed.

Cut to another beginning, four and a half millennia later. “Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king” (p. 21), and kill a king he does. Gavilar’s assassination on the eve of an alliance between the Alethi and the Parshendi casts the entire kingdom into chaos. Two tribes go to war, and five years on, when The Way of Kings begins once and for all, the war rages on—though to say “rages” is perhaps to overegg the pudding. Under the leadership of Gavilar’s justifiably paranoid son Elhokar, the Alethi find themselves far from home. They camp out upon the brokeback plateaus of the Shattered Plains, entrenched in a part-time war of attrition over Gemhearts, precious stones buried in the glistening gristle of monstrous Chasmfiends with which both sides can renew their resources and so prolong the conflict. Any notion of a pitched battle between the Parshendi and the Alethi has long since been exploded. This war, waged that the latter might avenge the former’s transgression, has become a competition between Alethi highprinces: soldiers, archers, and bridgemen now die in their countless thousands not for glory, vengeance, or even survival, but for the favour of a weak king.

Of the ten highprinces, only one tires of the petty infighting which has so nearly brought the vast kingdom of Alethi to its knees in the mud and dust of the Shattered Plains, but Gavilar’s brother Dalinar looks to be losing the king’s ear. Enigmatic visions haunt him with each passing Highstorm, urging the veteran to “unite them” (p. 186), though he knows not what to unite, nor how to go about doing so were he to try—nor even whether the lucid dreams he experiences can be trusted (and that’s to presume they’re not just hallucinations). Rumors of his presumed madness spread like corruption through the warcamp, gracing the ears of the highest Alethi nobles and the lowest slaves alike.

Unsurprisingly, one such slave is set apart from the rest: Kaladin was a spearman once, with hopes, dreams, and a reputation for such unlikely luck that his platoon nicknamed him “Stormblessed.” Needless to say, this was before they all died under his command. Kaladin had “thought there was nothing more life could do to him . . . nothing worse than losing all he had to the war, nothing more terrible than failing those he’d sworn to protect. It appeared that he’d been wrong” (p. 111). The sole survivor of tens of tragedies, a sort of scrawny, put-upon Bruce Willis in Unbreakable type, Kaladin has ended up one of thirty-some slaves in Bridge Four, a veritable suicide squad made to lay siege bridges across the yawning chasms of the Shattered Plains under highprince Sadeas’ cruel command—Sadeas being Dalinar’s primary opposition amongst the upper echelons of the Alethi.

Kaladin is our rags-to-riches hero, of course, our chosen one. His is the voice that carries: his is the only narrative perspective that threads through each of the five parts of The Way of Kings. During the first, third, and fifth he alternates chapters with Shallan, a desperate princess sort come from the land of Vedenar to win a wardship under Gavilar’s heretic daughter-in-law Jasnah—the better to steal her priceless fabrial and thus save her far-distant family from financial ruin. Simmered down into a single sentence, the part Shallan plays in The Way of Kings sounds intriguing enough. I beg to differ. Her perspective is somewhat enlivened towards the very end, and considering the climactic revelations Shallan is a party to, it will doubtless have greater bearing in further volumes of The Stormlight Archive. Here, however, she is but a function: an opportunity in a character’s clothing for Sanderson to indulge in basest worldbuilding. We learn, as she does under Jasnah’s tutelage, of Roshar’s currency, infrastructure, and belief system; we come to grips with the circle of life that is Stormlight in its myriad forms; we are given context with which to frame the stuttering conflict between the Alethi and the Parshendi. In short, Shallan serves to communicate the sense that there is more in play than a disproportionate squabble over some pretty rocks.

And Sanderson knows better. Late in the game, the King’s Wit—a character who simplistically recalls the pivotal Fool of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana—concludes an ancient fable he has related to Kaladin with the following thought: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon” (p. 806). In Shallan’s chapters, Sanderson goes against his own advice. Through her, he answers each and every question, as if lifting from a story bible. Only rarely does he allow us the use of our deductive faculties; Roshar is not a world of two and two, Sanderson insists, but four. It is, after all, “a world of sand and stone,” and too often as lifeless as that description suggests. Time (not to mention further entries in The Stormlight Archive) may sandblast that stone into a truly magnificent structure, yet you feel everything of import in this initial volume has been etched in advance.

Whenever Sanderson throws Shallan a segment, the course of The Way of Kings stutters to a silt-ridden standstill, and though the novel’s primary thread is significantly less intrusive, an unavoidable impression of predetermination similarly burdens Kaladin’s part. For more than a thousand pages we follow the Stormblessed spearman, from his foundling years as apprentice to his father’s well-intentioned surgeon through the piddling border skirmishes he’s pressganged into by a spiteful Brightlord, from his earliest service in the King’s army to his inevitable enslavement. The tale of how Kaladin came to be a lowly bridgeman is a fine one, if you can forgive that we’ve heard a hundred like it before, yet the intermittent flashbacks through which it is told are a noose tightening around the neck of his half of the narrative, for even Kaladin’s time in Bridge Four feels transitional. Sanderson positions him from the outset as a hero-in-waiting, and in so doing robs his narrative of tension: we come to see his struggles under Sadeas (several times removed) as but the first of many things Kaladin will overcome rather than the sum total of his struggles.

It is symptomatic, I think, of Sanderson’s evident desire to emulate The Wheel of Time that The Way of Kings is such a doorstopper, yet one hardly requires 1000+ pages to begin spinning a yarn, even such an ambitious one. There is too little substance in Sanderson’s novel, and too little context, to champion it as a potential successor to that landmark, if likewise overlong saga. The Way of Kings would have been better off as two books, in the end: the first a canny patchwork of Danilar and Kaladin’s intertwining narratives, the second a collection of Shallan’s meanderings and the often-tedious filler with which Sanderson has fattened the pig before us. If he’d published the first and burned the second, we would be looking at one superb, not to mention rather slimmer volume. Would have, could have, should have . . .

And yet.

Curiously, given its problems, The Way of Kings is far from a disaster. In fact, in the face of its excessive length, its relatively underwhelming substance and an abundance of issues with character, pacing and predetermination, it might come as something of a surprise that The Way of Kings is still a good week’s worth of very memorable reading. The action scenes are among the best I’ve read in recent years, far-reaching yet focused, lean and energetic. The climactic battle atop the Tower is positively breathtaking in its scope, and Sanderson handles it deftly. His prose, meanwhile, is never less than workmanlike, and often a great deal more: Danilar’s share of the narrative is uniformly more considered than either Kaladin or Shallan’s. whose angst-ridden internal monologues feel perfunctory beside their elder’s more restrained and decisive perspective. (There’s wisdom in Yoda’s split infinitives after all: Dalinar does, while all Kaladin and Shallan can do is try.) Sanderson plays a few tidy structural tricks, too. Never mind that the implications of the prelude and prologue only become clear towards the finale—among The Way of Kings‘ greatest payoffs is the way the epigraphs preceding each chapter feed into the narrative at large. Shame on me: I haven’t read Elantris (2005), Mistborn (2006-2008), or Warbreaker (2009), but I’ve certainly perused a few chapters of each—the better to make far-reaching proclamations in this review—and, ahem, I tend to suspect Brandon Sanderson has never been better.

Ultimately, however, what elevates The Way of Kings above Sanderson’s back-catalogue, and indeed above a clutch of other derivative fantasies with designs on The Wheel of Time‘s readership, is Roshar, a world on the verge of an age of discovery—and what discoveries they are. Even the most grizzled fantasy readers will find Roshar a backdrop beyond compare. Culturally diverse and structurally sound, from the radiance of the City of Bells with its skyeels and songlings to the weather-cracked barrens of the Shattered Plains, the roots of this terrific world are dug deep, and as Sanderson goes about systematically exposing them, so too does he shed light on the complex systems underpinning the magic one imagines Roshar would not turn without.

There are, firstly, fabrials for Soulcasting, which is to say the art of transforming one essence into another. Few have the knowhow to divine wine from water, say, or render crystals from rocks, but those that do require charged gemstones in order to energize their alchemy. As Roshar’s currency du jour, gemstones are, in a simple yet surprisingly memorable flourish, in common usage, but they also serve as essential power sources for fabrials and a variety of other artifacts, not least three hundred-some legendary sets of plate and blade which confer upon their bearers unsurpassable strength. No-one’s powering their armor with spare pennies, mind you: gemstones have to be infused with Stormlight before they’re of any use.

It can come as no great shakes that Stormlight is the tie that binds in book one of The Stormlight Archive. Everything, you sense, hinges on this mysterious force: the magic system, the characters, the setting, the very narrative. Stormlight is both the knot at each end of the myriad threads Sanderson pursues in The Way of Kings and the reader’s foremost means of unraveling the significance embodied in each whorl. It’s what makes Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan special, in so far as they are. Stormlight informs every aspect of this original fantasy landscape, and for its enriching influence, Roshar sings as a setting.

And we have merely glimpsed it. Roshar, you can be sure, has much more to offer. This is only the first movement of The Stormlight Archive, after all. This is only the beginning. For good, as in that sense, or for ill, in that a narrative of this magnitude demands a proportionate amount of worldbuilding, which proves wearisome without the context of what is to follow; busywork whatever the world’s eventual worthiness. Yet the wheels, they are a-turning now. Sanderson has given us a wonder for a world despite the overbearing way he metes out the detritus of details which make it so, and when at last it comes, The Way of Kings‘ conclusion is truly satisfying. Emblematic, one can only hope, of the larger narrative poised to kick into high gear as of book two. Given time, The Stormlight Archive could very well develop into something capable of bearing the high watermark of fantasy’s hall of fame. Thus, though I find myself hesitant to recommend The Way of Kings in its own right, as a beginning . . . it does the trick.

Niall Alexander ( writes about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes from a dank and none too mysterious hidey-hole somewhere in the central belt of Scotland, where no-one can hear his screams. Neither coincidentally nor particularly imaginatively, he blogs his days away at The Speculative Scotsman.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.
6 comments on “The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson”

Ah. Another 10 volume… thing. I’m sure a lot of people like these mammoth projects, the ones with perfect memory for all that went before as the volume count mounts, or those that wait, not so patiently, for the final book to be published – a decade or more from now – so they can start reading, full of hope they like the 10 thousand pages they have purchased.
Not me, thanks. If it can’t be told in 1 or at most 3 books why should I buy and read it? It would be difficult to convince me that this or any fantasy story can’t be told in less length, if the author and publisher would show some restraint and more attention to plotting. Too bad. Sanderson is skilled, but now he has Jordon Syndrome. Pity, that.

Ten novels is a lot to face, a fantasy typhoon all of its own.
I couldn’t get past the prelude with its dying thundercats, er thunderclasts, and Dustbusters without realizing that this wasn’t likely the series for me. I soldiered on all the same through the prologue and chapters 1-13. This seems a great deal to offer free online, my hat off to both Tor and Sanderson, but then again, represents a drop in the proverbial bucket if you’re planning on churning out something like 10,000 pages worth of verbiage-padded story and world-building.
Speaking of which, I found Sanderson’s style to be a bit wooden; full of workmanship prose but which rarely dazzled. This of course is only based on what I saw in the sample chapters; but with ten books planned, he’d got a lot of ground to cover and space to grow. Perhaps his world (and his writing) will evolve into something more interesting as it is revealed in the many volumes to come.
Aside from my dislike of the silly “swearing” and the odd early juxtaposition of clearly Earth-evolved humans living on a distinctly non-Earth like world -a minor quibble which could easily be explained away later if for example, the humans were not native to the Highstorm wracked planet of Rothgar or Roshambo or whatever it was called- the concepts of the Shardblades, Shardplate, and Stormlight (lightsabers and powered exoskeletons really – which will do for some, but not, alas for me) left me cold. It felt somewhat at odds as well to picture these as vaguely Western European feudal armaments meets Final Fantasy (which seems supported by both the illustrations for the cover and the descriptions in the prose) – rather than something more alien or dessert-ish.
Finally, I noticed that even in this relatively small chunk, the author suffers from the dreaded Excessive Use of Capital Letters disease, with Shard-this and Shard-that, Voidbringers, Ancient Blades, Doom Turkeys (OK- that last couple are my own addition, but you get the gist). And of course, more silly names than you can throw a Shardchamberpot at. Szeth? Can’t we just call him Seth without having to tie your tongue in a knot around the z which still ends up sounding just like “seth” if you say it?
I also didn’t get a strong distinctive feel for the several different cultures which appear early on – but he’s got literally thousands of pages in which to develop these. So what’s the rush, I suppose?
However, these quibbles aside, I’m sure this will be a delightful series for fans of his work. And as mentioned above, you certainly can’t say Sanderson is anything but ambitious with such a sprawling epic in his sights.
Good luck to him and Tor both!

This review pretty much sums up how I felt about the novel – good and bad – except that for me is was the Dalinar/Adolin chapters which dragged, and the Shallan ones that I looked forward to. It suffers from most of the same things that bothered me about Mistborn, though to a lesser degree. While I normally like long novels, these seem to drag in spots, containing some narrative that is merely for narrative’s sake.
Still, I will read the rest of it, barring something radical, since it’s the only new novel I’ve read in a while that didn’t turn me off by the second chapter. In that, I consider The Way of Kings to be a success.

Joe Doe

Finished reading this book, unbelievable how over hyped this thing is, the story comes to a grinding halt after page 47 and doesn’t pickup until about 643 pages late. What a tedious read and the ending is definitely not worth the time investment. Boring as hell and will tax even the most experienced readers. I just couldn’t sink my teeth in what actual story it had, and the characters didn’t make me care enough about them.

Michael T.

Man, for all the hate this book is being given, it’s hard to believe some of you read the book. With petty humor such as “Rothgar or Roshambo or whatever it was called-” and quarrels such as “Boring as hell and will tax even the most experienced readers”, I can’t understand you people.
If you argue the book is taxing, please explain to me why you read it? If you all offer such extensive knowledge of Jordan-syndrome and the maladies of authors, why have you read those and not had the fortitude to read The Way of Kings, a widely accepted titan of a read?
I know that most people I know who have read this book and the Wheel of Time series agree that Jordan taxed readers much heavier. Both authors go for a wide proportion told in heavy detail, all the details coming together to make an intricate plot which will engage you. No argument should be spoken that this was a chore to read. If you have the fundamentals of anybody who reads works of literature longer than Goodnight Moon, this story will captivate you.
On a sidenote, I cannot wait until the next book.

Robin R.

I absolutely adored this book. I’m not crazy about the way Brandon Sanderson puts words together, but he does well enough so I can read his books and be blown away by his incredible imagination and his creation of worlds that bind me to his books so I can’t wait for more. The Mistborn Trilogy is so great that I’ve actually reread it a couple of times while waiting for his next books. And honestly, I’m picky. I love Tolkien and Dickens and books that are excellently written. I can’t wait to read book 2 (which just came in the mail today, hurray!).

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