First of all let me start by saying that I am already a fan of Brandon Sanderson. He finished of the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan passed away, and I feel that the books he wrote for the series were some of the strongest. The only ones I may have liked more would have been the first few. Recently though I joined a book club of sorts with some good friends and the first book we read was The Way of Kings, which is the first book in the Stormlight Archive series. I will try to make this review pretty much spoiler free. Though I will be discussing some of the struggles some of the characters have, I will try to do so in a broad sense without giving away any details.
I Love Brandon Sanderson’s style. He has a way of describing things that speaks directly to my imagination. I find his details specific enough to paint the mental picture that he wants, and yet he isn’t as tedious as some fantasy writers *cough*Tolkien*cough* tend to be at times. The dialogue between characters is sharp and none of it feels too preachy or drawn out for filler. My only complaint is that the pacing starts out a little slow and, with the exception of a few very exciting chapters, doesn’t really pick up much steam until the last dozen chapters or so. I suppose this is to be expected seeing as how this is the first book in a series that is, supposedly, going to have upwards of a dozen books or more, but it does make it hard to get through some chapters when it feels like the plot is stagnating. I think this is something that plagues these massive fantasy series. I suspect when working on these huge projects, authors feel little need to rush to get through anything. All in all though, the Way of Kings is very easy to read and I found it intensely engaging.
Roshar, the world that Brandon Sanderson has built for the Stormlight Archive, is nothing short of amazing. It is a world constantly rocked by massive semi-regular storms, known as High Storms. These storms are incredibly destructive forces of nature that have forced the people, creatures, and plants of Roshar to adapt in order to survive, especially in the eastern regions of the continent where the storms are more powerful and also where much of the Way of Kings takes place. Much of Roshar’s culture and lore also stems from these storms. Many of the characters use “Stormfather” as a way of saying “Oh my God” or “Storm you” as a way of saying, well, “F**k you”. The storms affect the economy of Roshar as well, with much of the currency being made of glass spheres holding gems “infused” with stormlight by leaving them outside during a highstorm. A sphere that has no stormlight infused into the gem inside is worth considerably less then one that does.
Some of my favorite passages were when the varied flora and fauna of Roshar were on display. It is as if the highstorms act as a kind of tide that has evolved similar species to those found in our intertidal zones and coral reefs.The grasses and plants retreat into stalks or holes when disturbed, much like anemones, or grow hearty bark making them resemble coral. Many of the animals a crustacean in nature, with large hermit crab-like “Chulls” replacing horses, cows, and oxen as the most common pack animals. Smaller species resemble crabs or insects for the most part, or even “skyeels” that float in the air as if swimming.
Possibly the most interesting feature of Roshar, and the most mysterious to both the reader and the characters within the pages, are the ubiquitous “spren”. These wisp-like beings seem to be drawn to various emotions and elements as they are found in high concentration. Painspren and Rotspen are often found on battlefields near dying soldiers. Windspren and firespren are drawn to tempest and flame. Gloryspren and creationspren surround those who win victories or create masterpieces. Anticipationspren appear at times of anxiety. The seem to permeate every aspect of life on Roshar, yet rarely do they influence anything. Most of the characters simple accept them as part of life. I believe there is some connection between the spren and abilities found in several of the characters, but it is not directly stated.
Sanderson’s approach to introducing and following the main characters is interesting, but sometimes felt slightly disjointed. Often times I found myself thinking that the Way of Kings could have actually been separated into two or three individual books. The plot follows four or five real main characters, several of which have little to no interaction with any of the others. Lets look at each of these character in turn.
Szeth is the first recurring character we meet, though calling him a main character might be a bit of a stretch. He was, however, one of my favorites. He is a man gifted with the ability to use stormlight, the magic of Roshar, in some very interesting ways. These abilities make him a very effecting assassin, a fact he despises since he is compelled to kill against his will. Szeth’s chapters were among some of the most exciting with him often pitted against men wearing magical Shardplate armor and wielding Vorpal-like Shardblades as he attempts to carry out his assassinations. I found his struggle with his guilt because of the lives he has taken an almost heartbreaking tragedy.
Shallan is the only female main character and as such many of her chapters include more intrigue, conversation, and philosophy then her male counterparts’. She is a “lighteyes”, or noble, sent from her family’s manor to become the student of one of Roshar’s most renowned scholars. However, her true mission has more sinister motives, as she plans to steal a powerful magical artifact from the scholar to help save her family from their debtors. My interest in Shallan’s tale started strong, but waned as her plot unfolded. Her chapters were the most exposition heavy, often touching on weighty topics such as philosophy and morality. I did enjoy seeing how these conversations often illuminated her very actions and caused her to struggle with her motivations. I had a hard time finding where Shallan and her story fit in with the rest of the characters, but by the last few chapters she felt slightly more connected to the overall impending conflict.
Dalinar and Adolin
The father-son duo of Dalinar and Adolin are commanders in a war between their people, the Alethi, and the savage Parshendi who have taken credit for killing the Alethi king. Dalinar, the brother of the murdered king, is main focus of their narrative but it does occasionally switch to Adolin for a different perspective on battles and the various scheming between other lighteyes. Dalinar is plagued by visions that come with each high storm. The visions show him various periods before recorded history as a mysterious figure urges him to unite his kingdom. These visions influence much of Dalinar’s motivations and actions as he struggles to uphold a code of honor believed to belong to the rulers of the ancient past. I found myself uninterested in Dalinar and Adolin early on, but my interested steadily increased as further light was shed on the visions and the struggle they had been through with the war they were a part of, particularly in dealing with their fellow Alethi princes. Dalinar’s struggle with his honor and wondering if he was going insane made his plot very compelling by the end.
Kaladin appears to be the most prominent main character to appear in the Way of Kings. We are given more back story and character development with him then any other character. He is a young man trained as a surgeon by his father, but forced to fight as a soldier, and eventually sold as a slave to one of the warlords involved in the war with the Parshendi. Kaladin is forced to serve on a bridge crew in the army, which is seen by many as a death sentence. The men on these bridge crews are forced to charge, undefended, against the enemy forces, taking heavy casualties in an attempt to places bridges for the rest of the army to cross. This forces Kaladin to face his own mortality, as well as the mortality of the men around him. It is interesting that often it is the latter that he struggles with more than the former. I found Kaladin to be the most compelling of all the characters in the Way of Kings. The surgeon and the soldier constantly battle within him as he tries to make the best of his incredible ability to both end and preserve life. He is forced into a hopeless situation, stares destruction in the face, and chooses to not only retain hope but to cultivate it in the men around him. He also appears to have the most potential to influence the overall plot as he plays an integral role in the crescendo battle towards the end of the book.
The Way of Kings is a fantastic start to what could become my new favorite fantasy series. It stumbles at times and is slow to get up to gear, but it is filled with compelling characters, interesting lore, and great storytelling, all painted on the backdrop of an incredibly imaginative world. I cannot wait to see where Brandon Sanderson take this in future installments of the Stormlight Archive.