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REVIEW | The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (Tor)

The Way of Kings is the first in a multi-volume Fantasy Epic from New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson, now known best as the author chosen to finish out one of the most beloved series known to modern Fantasy, namely The Wheel of Time. However intimidating it must have been for Sanderson to take over WoT, he knowing only committed himself to two or three volumes, but with The Way of Kings he has already stated it will be at least ten volumes. Is this the first case of an author ever realizing from the start how long it may take to tell a story properly? If so Sanderson is in a class all of his own making.

Sanderson has given his fans exactly what they wanted: a book filled with a new magic system, a wondrous and violent world, and characters you'll grow to cherish like old friends. I managed to finish The Way of Kings over a few long days staying up well past midnight more than one night because it was that captivating. Sanderson clearly has been thinking about this world and its races for some time and his love of them shines through to the reader.

The Way of Kings is sprawling in every way that is good and epic to its utmost. The world-building is immense to say the least, but Sanderson smartly decides to focus on the characters while still slipping in facts about the world, history, and the cultures. At a few points the narrative turns into an info dump, but that feels like what is needed to flesh things out a bit more as the desire for more knowledge of this world and its deep mythology infects you.

War between the Alethi and Parshendi has been on-going after the Parshhendi killed the Alethi King Galivar. The two sides have been fighting daily to a stalemate for many years on the Shattered Plains, which is one of the most fractious battlefields found in Fantasy. The very land has been split like a puzzle with deep chasms separating one plateau from the next. In order to move troops from one plateau to the next movable bridges are needed. The swiftest bridges are carried by slaves known as bridgemen.

The Way of Kings is about the truth and how it becomes legend, which changes and gets reinterpreted with time. Heroes become heretics, the lawless become laws givers, and once great places become shattered. The world is known as Roshar, which suffers highstorms that are so violent and frequent that the very ground is eroded away and life on the planet has evolved to survive. Think land creatures that have shells and plants that close up. The flora and fauna were at first very difficult to picture, but some art strewn through the book helps visualization. These highstorms also somehow distribute energy known as Stormlight that is involved in the magic of the land, which I found to be a great concept.

The story is told from 4 main character points of view, well, really 3 and the son of another from time-to-time. There are also a couple sections known as "interludes" told from characters not involved in the main action. The inclusion of these sections puzzles me a little, but Sanderson is likely laying the groundwork for the introduction of characters in future volumes to tell the story from more points of view as the telling grows and action varies from region to region.

The two most prevalent characters are Kaladin and Dalinar. Kaladin is a fearsome warrior whose luck ran out after he pushed it a few too many times. His story splits between present day and flashbacks all the way to his childhood leading up to his fall from grace and eventual slave life as a bridgeman in the Shattered Plains. The divergent storylines never appear unnecessary, but Kaladin's back-story does go on too much. Sanderson hammers home just how much Kaladin suffers and what brought him to his bridgeman status, but does so to a degree I found a bit repetitive. Two or three flashbacks could have been eliminated and still had the same effect. Also, one flashback that was built over the course of half the book, which seemed to shape Kaladin so much from his early warrior years felt underwhelming when finally revealed. Kaladin's present story were the sections I most look forward to as his abilities shine even when covered in dirt and we get to see a broken man become whole again.

Dalinar a High Price of Alethkar is Uncle to the current King of the realm after his brother Gavliar was murdered. Much of what Dalinar does is driven by his need to do what is right, which is not always seen as what is best for him politically. Because of this he comes off a bit flat, but his action sequences were some of the most edge grabbing parts. Dalinar's scenes of prophetic/ecstatic visions don't make much sense at first, but when the last two comes they are humdingers. Dalinar is a Shardbearer like his son Adolin(another point of view at times). Both wear Shardplate and have a Shard blade, which are incredibly durable and enhance the wearer's strength and stamina and therefore make them the most formidable warriors around. (And yes all the capitalization do get tiresome after awhile.) The Shards are a relic from a time now gone into myth and are coveted by all. At first it seemed like the Shards were very rare, but as more pop-up their lustre is somewhat dimmed yet when they get involved in a melee things pick-up. There are promises of even great power and magic coming back into the land.

Shallan is the third main view and her storyline while the most sedate in comparison to the battle laden Kaladin and Dalnar was also the most intriguing and played out very much like a spy thriller. Her story takes place away from the Shattered Plains, but does involve some overall intrgue that will propel the series forward. She is trying to save her family by becoming an apprentice to Jasnah the sister to the King, but she clearly had a lot happen to her in the past most of which is only alluded to. Shallan grows so much in the pages that she became the character I wish I could speed ahead in the series in order to find out what is in store for her in the next volume as she will be in the thick of the march soon enough.

At more than 1,000 pages The Way of Kings does come off as slightly bloated, but keep in mind there are around 30 pages full of art as Tor spared no expense in bringing us a book that nearly rivals a Subterranean Press edition. Plus, The Way of Kings has a surprisingly complete narrative as both the characters and storyline move forward. There were some expected coming together of characters in the end, but they were all ones I had been hoping for. The aspect of the spirit-like spren seem mostly window dressing that didn't add much to the story at this point except for one very odd one. There were too many types of spren that kept popping up in nearly every chapter to the point they lost their allure for me. Deathspren, windspren, painspren, rotspren, joyspren, etc. Maybe they'll turn out to be more in later volumes. But all flaws are minor quibbles and hardly detracted from the enjoyment factor.

Is it Dune as the back cover of the galley suggests? Well, no. And that's an unfair comparison to make. Was Dune as revered when it first came out? Or The Wheel of Time? No. They earned their place after years, if not decades, of growing fandom and buildings of their worlds. But Sanderson has laid the groundwork for a series that has the propensity to be up there with the other giants if he can develop what he has begun into something just as memorable. The Way of Kings contains characters who you'll miss when their section ends and a setting that begs to be explored. The Stormlight Archive series could quite possibly be up there with Jordan, Eddings, and dare I say Tolkien when all is said and done. This is without a doubt the most epic Fantasy novel of the year and should not be missed by any fans of the genre.

I've only scratched the surface with this review as there is plenty of political backstabbing, great battles, secret organizations, details on the magic system, and intrigue happening as well. As a whole we only get an inkling of what this series has in store for us, but it is more than enough to leave me satisfied.  Sanderson is at the top of his game and on to something with this world known as Roshar, which however inhospitable is a place I hope to return to over many, many years to grow alongside the characters. I give The Way of Kings 9 out of 10 hats. Also, be sure to re-read the prologue about a third of the way through. It will make much more sense and help things click into place a bit better. The follow-up to The Way of Kings will most likely not be out until at least 2012 as Sanderson has pledged to finish the last WoT book before beginning work, which I can't fault him for wanting to do. Why haven't we just figured out how to clone this guy yet?

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Jeremy Shane said...

gah, can't read all of this review yet. Just picked this up the other day (made sure it was a 1st printing since you mentioned it was already to it's 3rd) and I'm only 100 pages in so far. Liking the characters so far, which is usually what gets me into a story.

mike shaffer said...

Great review! I too hope this series becomes as beloved and cherished as "Dune" and "WOT" has.

Knowing Brandon and how much he's worked on all his recent projects, I'm sure he'd welcome the idea of being cloned! It took a bit for me to get into the world, but now I can't WAIT to see where this series goes!

Andrew Leonard said...

Just started today.

Good review, Hatter!

Mad Hatter Review said...

Thanks for the kind words. Seems like everyone is enjoying The Way of Kings so far. This is one of my longest reviews to date and I feel like it could have been half as long again, but I had to cut myself off.

Jeremy Shane said...

Finally finished this. Been sick and taking nyquil doesn't mix with late night reading. But last couple days I've been totally into it and finished it tonight.

Loved this book. I like all kinds of fantasy, but it's nice to have that one giant fantasy series coming out year after year that is epic. And this is definitely feeling epic. The Wheel of Time felt like this when I first read it (though I felt it got stale after about seven or eight books) and A Song of Fire and Ice as well.

Characters were excellent. I got into Kaladin right away, but eventually I came to love every character and look forward to getting back to them.

The world was cool. I don't think you have to have a truly alien fantasy world, but in something this epic, a series this long, it's good to see. And he does so well building it that it doesn't seem alien at all by the end.

The magic was also well done. Fit the world well and makes sense.

Loved the plot, from the smaller ones within the novel to the threads of the larger one being revealed. Has me looking forward to the next book for sure. Can't wait to get back to this world and it's characters.

Anonymous said...

any news of a paperback edition yet?

Mad Hatter Review said...

No official date has been announced yet. Given Tor's usually schedule with Brandon's work we'll probably see it next Summer or early Fall.

yanic said...

nice review im current a half and a quarter through the book , and im loving it loved how he created a totally original world from scratch my favorite character is kaladin z(love his name as it rhymes with paladin) i agree that poor kaladin suffers a bit too much i hope as i continue that it changes and things brighten up as hes really going through some harsh things right now

Anonymous said...

According to the Amazon page, the paperback edition is due out on May 24, 2011.

Thanks for the review...I'm hoping to pick this up sometime this weekend.