Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I just finished The Way of Kings about 10 minutes ago. Oh. My. God.

While I haven't reviewed them for this blog, I love love love Sanderson's previous works: Warbreaker (which you can get in ebook/pdf form for free here) Elantris, and The Mistborn trilogy. He has also written two Wheel of Time books, finishing the series for Robert Jordan.

I'm going to be fairly bold here and say that I believe The Stormlight Archive may prove to be his best work yet. I hesitate to say that it absolutely is, because I personally feel that the ending of a story is part of what makes a book great. However, naturally, this book's final pages are not the end of a story, but the beginning. This one isn't quite finished yet. From the book flap:

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.

Whenever I read Sanderson's books, my main thought is always "How the hell does he come up with this stuff?" Not in a bad way, in a very good way. I will admit that part of the magic in this book reminded me of Mistborn. One character can change the direction in which things respond to gravity. For example, he can "lash" himself to the ceiling and walk on the ceiling. Up becomes down to him. Then there's Stormlight, which seems to come from Highstorms, powerful and deadly storms that remind me of a hurricane on steroids. The winds can pick up boulders and rip a man to shreds. This Stormlight is present in their money, called spheres, and is also contained within tools called "fabrials" which can do various things, like providing heat or taking away pain.

I enjoyed the fact that the reader is just sort of "dropped" into the world, which is also fairly characteristic of Sanderson, but I found to be more noticeable in this book. We figure things out slowly, after being immersed in the culture, language, and events. It makes the reader a little confused at first...some of the words make little sense, and I found myself flipping for the expected index of characters/terms/what-have-you in the back (I'll go ahead and tell you there isn't one). I do feel, though, that it makes the book more suspenseful, because you're on pins and needles to find out what the heck is going on.

The characters are varied and numerous. Some characters only get a couple pages, other stories get a good chunk of the book. I would say the three main points of view are from Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan, as indicated on the book flap. For those of you who know who Hoid is, he plays much more of a role in this book than he did in any of the others. I appreciate Sanderson's skill with writing characters. It is very easy to tell who is good and who is bad, for the most part though. I don't particularly mind that, and in fact generally I enjoy it, but some folks believe that makes characters one-dimensional.

We are given a glimpse into something that may be evil for the greater good, however. There is also some discussion about morality, and whether something can be right without being moral. I imagine that this may be an overarching theme for these books.

I can see why The Way of Kings took a decade to write. The world is exquisitely described, planned out, and detailed. This is another area where I keep thinking "How the hell does he do it?" In addition to the descriptions in the book, maps are also included. There are drawings, sketches sometimes, at the beginning of every chapter as well. It would behoove the reader to pay attention to these, because they certainly add to the story and help illuminate some concepts.

The structure of the book is fairly typical of epic fantasy. There are 1005 pages, and 75 chapters divided into 5 parts. There is a prelude to the entire series at the beginning, followed by a prologue to The Way of Kings, and an epilogue at the end. Intermittently, there are "interludes," which contain stories from far off lands that are somehow connected to the events in the main story.

What makes this book special is the illustrations, which I already mentioned, and the text at the beginning of each chapter. Most, if not all, contain a quote taken from someone who is dying and seems to prophesy as their life ends. I find these to be inordinately creepy and intriguing at the same time. There is also an Ars Arcanum in the back, which talks about different kinds of fabrials and other bits of magical information. I would recommend waiting to read this until you finish the book, personally. It could contain some minor spoilers, and in the past I have found it is more fun to wait to read the Ars Arcanum, present in pretty much all Sanderson's books, until the end.

I really enjoyed The Way Of Kings. It was well written, and there was no "filler" as you would expect with a book that is over 1000 pages long. I had estimated that it would take me about 10-14 days to read this book, at the rate I usually read. It took me about 6. I really enjoy the way Sanderson writes. There's no pretension or meaningless description, but you are still absolutely immersed in the world he creates. I found myself thinking about "rotspren" as I was peeling peaches with some soft, overripe spots on them.

That's how you know an author has done his job well. At the beginning, you find yourself thinking "Well this is sort of strange..." and by the end it all makes perfect sense, and you wonder why the real world doesn't work that way.

Overall, I really don't have a single complaint, except that there's no publication date for the second one. :)

Bottom Line
Overall Rating: 5 / 5
Buy or Try? Buy
More? 1 of 10 forthcoming in the Stormlight Archive

Plot: 5 / 5 
Setting: 5 / 5 
Characters: 4.5 / 5 (bad guys are bad, good guys are good)
Pace: Fast
Descriptiveness: Prose
Fantasy factor: High fantasy link
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