The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Reviewed by Niall Alexander
01 September 2010
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 . . .
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.