Aug 30, 2010

Yeti Review: The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

In A Few Words: The Way of Kings delivers on the hype, introducing a new fantasy series that echoes Wheel of Time in scope and complexity and has the potential to surpass it in writing quality and readability.

Pros: You will not get a better bang for your buck than the 1,000 pages of The Way of Kings; Highly readable fast-paced prose atypical in a fantasy doorstop; Sanderson takes standard tropes and make them his own, creating a cast of characters both recognizable and original; Subtle clues that will inspire discussion and rereading 

Cons: Very much an introductory volume, leaving a lot of questions unasked or unanswered; Kaladin flashbacks end up being somewhat prolonged and anticlimactic; Book 2 not due until 2012 at the earliest.

The Review: The most anticipated fantasy tome of 2010 is undoubtedly Brandon Sanderson’s Towers of Midnight. The best epic fantasy title of 2010 is also penned by Sanderson but that book does not belong to the classic saga started by the late Robert Jordan nearly two decades ago. Instead, that honor belongs to The Way of Kings, the first volume of The Stormlight Archives, in which Sanderson introduces us to Roshar, a world ravaged by torrential rain and torn apart by war, and the small cast of characters destined to stand against its storms.

At a high level the cast is generic - Dallinar, the noble noble playing a game of thrones – Adolin, the questioning son, loyal but unsure – Kaladin, the Gladiator-esque once-hero-now-slave trying to regain the honor and respect he once held – Shallan, a con-woman who becomes enamored with the person she pretends to be – Szeth, the unstoppable assassin who wants nothing more than to stop killing – but Sanderson uses his intimate familiarity with the genre to great effect, creating characters that are recognizable to fans but also distinct and memorable.

The forty odd words given to the characters above cannot do justice to the hundreds and hundreds of pages of complexity Sanderson uses to make the cast his own. If Sanderson’s cast is lacking is anything it is the scene-stealing antagonist that fans can love to hate. The closest character Sanderson provides is Szeth, more of an anti-hero than antagonist, whose vertigo inducing assassinations are some of the most spectacular scenes in the book. Either way, Szeth is destined to gather a loyal following as one of the genre’s favorite fighters.

This deficiency is not a problem per se but it is indicative of a frustrating aspect of The Way of Kings - there is no clear overarching plot to measure progress against. As such, it is difficult to fully judge The Way of Kings without knowing more about the series as a whole. Sanderson’s latest is very much a series debut, spending a wealth of words developing the complex world of Roshar and the people who inhabit it but only hinting at the overall plot of the planned ten book series. Despite the massive page count of the book, the vast majority of the action focuses on these five characters, four of which are tightly focused on the politics of Alethkar and its war with the Parshendi nomads following their assassination of the Alethkari king (and Dalinar's brother).

This leaves the fifth and shortest of the “major” POVs to lay a bloody foundation to The Stormlight Archives along with a small number of one-off “interludes” that appear to be only tangentially connected to the major perspectives. Even when taken together, these few pages barely scratch the surface of the larger tapestry on which The Way of Kings is woven. Likewise, Sanderson only provides brief glimpses into Roshar’s magic system. Somehow combined the incredibly curious Spren, Stormlight and Shardplate, the teases suggest that Sanderson has yet another of his trademark systems in store even if he is not ready to fully divulge its secrets.

Even though The Way of Kings provides disappointingly few overt clues at the overall direction of the series as a whole, that disappointment itself speaks to the quality of the story Sanderson has begun to craft rather than a flaw in his creation. Even with the 1,000+ pages of action and intrigue he supplies, the world of Roshar still begs for further exploration. Some doorstop fantasy novels claim to be epic in scope but the only thing epic about them is the nature of the editing fail they represent. When you struggle to get through page after page of tedium the end is a welcome blessing not a curse. This is not the case here.

Sanderson belongs to the less-is-more faction of worldbuilders and it shows in the relentless pace of The Way of Kings. The book moves swiftly, jumping from perspective to perspective and constructing Roshar through active exploration rather than passive infodumping. The only slow threads in the book are some of those which detail Kaladin’s backstory before becoming a slave. They feel somewhat prolonged and when Sanderson finally reaches the pivotal moment of his life, the revelation borders on the anticlimactic. Considering the aforementioned page count, much of his backstory could have been compressed and the extra pages could be removed or, even better, repurposed to explore more of Sanderson’s brilliant new world.

The last act is particularly demonstrative of the success of this introductory volume. As the fates of Dalinar and Kaladin align on the Shattered Plains, the story begins to move at such a pace and scope that it’s impossible to put down. At the same time, it’s hard to want to finish too quickly, considering that it will be years before the second volume hits shelves. Even when I did reach the dreaded conclusion, I found myself returning to reread some of the more initially ambiguous sections. While I faulted the book earlier for lacking overt direction, upon revisiting the most cryptic sections there is a seemingly endless supply of subtle clues to discover and discuss. Sanderson accomplishes the incredible, making a dauntingly long book read quickly and leaving the reader still wanting more.

In the end, it’s impossible to deny Sanderson’s talent for storytelling. Sanderson’s prose is impressive, possessing an almost cinematic quality. While most of the thousand or so pages read effortlessly, there are several scenes which transcend good storytelling and become utterly entrancing. Whether it’s Lord Dalinar resplendent in his Shardplate (an incredible creation in its own right), Kaladin in the midst of battle, or Szeth’s capacity for gravity defying carnage, his words leap off the page and into your imagination. The storytelling is further enhanced by the beautiful illustrations dispersed throughout the book, depicting some of the more abstract portions of his storm-influenced world on the rare occasion when Sanderson’s descriptive prowess is insufficient.

Based on the introductory volume alone, it’s hard not to agree with the bold claim that The Stormlight Archives has the potential to be for the newest generation of fantasy readers what The Wheel of Time was to the last. The subtle hints at the larger scope of The Stormlight Archives are sure to attract a rabid fan base that could easily rival Jordan’s, especially with the carry over that Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books are sure to generate. But I don’t want to make any guarantees based on only ten percent of the overall story.

At this point, the best praise I can provide to The Stormlight Archives is that I devoured the thousand pages of complex worldbuilding and imaginative storytelling contained in The Way of Kings and at the end I was still hungry for a thousand more. The most disappointing aspect of Sanderson’s new series is undoubtedly the fact that the second volume will not be out until 2012 at the earliest. I’ll be waiting.


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