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Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Hardcover: 1008 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 31, 2010
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0765326353
ISBN-13: 978-0765326355
Author Website: Brandon Sanderson
Series Website: StormBlessed.com
Read An Excerpt

Epic fantasy, good epic fantasy, is often about systems: systems of politics, or religion, of history, or of interpersonal relationships. These are the systems that can be found in most any novel. But when speaking of epic fantasy, there are two other systems that come into play, magic and warfare. Different authors approach these systems in different ways, and it is often these that the reader uses to differentiate them in one of the most trope-filled genres. But it is the master fantasist, the genius of systems, who can not only create these whole cloth, but make them interweave into the seamless whole that is worldbuilding. Brandon Sanderson is such a master.

His new novel The Way of Kings is a 1,008 page tome of fiction that only just scratches the surface of the world he has built. With this volume, readers stand on the threshold of a new A Song of Ice and Fire or Wheel of Time, a Belgariad/Mallorean or Midkemia, a series of astounding length and complexity.

The plot begins with an assassination. When the King of Alethkar is killed, his son takes the highprinces of Alethkar to war on the Shattered Plains against the Parshendi, a race of marbled humanoids who take credit for the assassination. The armies of the highprinces must fight the Parshendi on their home ground, a series of small plateaus that must be crossed by bridges in order for the armies to move from one the another. A lot of the novel is taken up with explaining how the warfare works, describing its violence and danger, and building backstory on one of the bridgemen, Kaladin.

The story primarily follows three individuals through this medieval secondary world. Each of them represents a different stratum of the society of Alethka, the kingdom which is the focus of the narrative. There is Dalinar, the uncle to a king and a renowned warleader and highprince who is beginning to have fearful visions of the past. There is Kaladin, a bridgeman, the lowest of the low in the army, who is slowly discovering powers within himself he didn’t even know existed. And there is Shallan, the female intelligentsia who, along with her mentor, is on the verge of discovering a secret long buried which could rock the world of Roshar.

Sanderson subtly interweaves these three characters with a strong supporting cast as well. Adolin is Dalinar’s son, whose character is developed quite extensively, perhaps as a precursor to great feats of heroism in later novels. Szeth is a Shin assassin, a Truthless, completely in thrall to the master who sends him to kill the upper echelons of society. And there is Princess Jasnah, the heretical mentor to Shallan whose search for the truth might just get them killed. Other interlude characters provide glimpses of a broader world outside Alethkar and the forces at play in them.

Dalinar (and to a small extent Adolin) provide the courtly perspective of the novel. From him, the reader is introduced to the political landscape. This is particularly important for this novel, as the primary theme is of a civilization, decimated long ago, slowly picking itself up and putting itself back together. Dalinar provides a transitional character, one who is moving from the old warlord style government to one with more knightly valor and chivalry, one more like that which was lost.

Kaladin the bridgeman is the serf/slave. A middle class man made into a slave, Kaladin is the front line perspective of the war, the perspective of the common man. His story is also the one that drives the primary plot of The Way of Kings as he attempts to find redemption for past failures. His is the one perspective in the novel that switches between present and past, and as the story unfolds, Kaladin’s past rapidly catches up to meet his present in a mounting of suspense.

Dalinar and Kaladin’s two plots eventually intertwine at the end of the novel, though Shallan still has yet to meet the other two by the end of the novel. And it is in their stories that the violence is most prevalent, it is here that the “action” (i.e. battle and fight scenes) of the story occurs.

Shallan’s tale is the one the reader encounters least. It is here that the history of the world is built, and it is through Shallan that the magical system is best understood. However, Shallan’s story is not without its own suspense, and her tale of seeing engimatic figures appearing in her art is as frightening as Kaladin’s is eventful.

The structure of the novel is of interest. Broken up into four parts, each separated by interludes which consist of three chapters each, the document is also interspersed with illustrations and maps that are designed to look as if they came from a journal. In many cases, they could be said to be the work of Shallan, who is a gifted artist in a world where art is highly esteemed, either as original works or copies from the books she is studying. The interjection of the illustrations and interludes breaks the story up nicely, making its massive pages more comfortable to read and not overly focused on any one character for too long. (For instance, after a brief period in the beginning of the novel which we meet Shallan and discover her motivations, we leave her for nearly 300 pages before we return to her character perspective again.) It also makes the timelines of all the disparate characters fit together snugly, just one of the small ways that Sanderson, a master of the world intergration, showcases his talent.

Sanderson is known for his clever and complicated magic systems. However, in the case of The Way of Kings, the magic system is not as carefully delinated as in his previous works. In this case, the magic system is an illusory sort of thing, bits and pieces being revealed from time to time, but not comprehensively understandable, at least not yet. It is not evident how the spren (a sort of sprite that appears at significant changes (great emotions like pain or elation, forces of nature like rot or wind) fit into the story. Nor is evident how the jewels surrounded by glass that collect power from the Highstorms and used for magical power and as money are able to do what they do. In all of the plot lines of the three main characters, the magic system is built slowly, piece by piece, sometimes with an event or revelation from one informing on the action of another in subtle ways. Don’t expect to understand the complexities of this world soon or even at all in this story. Sanderson is playing the long game, and this lengthy novel is just the first piece of the puzzle.

The world itself is complex too. Although humans exist in Roshar, they come in multitudinous races that are even more varied than simple things like skin or eye color. Though eye color is an important part of Alethkarian society, there are also races who are hairless, ones who have eyebrows that grow several feet in length, and a race of humanoids that may or may not be related to humans at all known as parshmen. When people with different races intermingle and produce progeny, that progeny may grow patches of hair of different colors. So a blond person may have patches of black hair or vice versa. These characters are human, but Sanderson uses these significant details to differentiate them from our own and truly make this a secondary world.

And that is just the people. Of all the animals, only the horse is Earth-like. The rest of the animals of the world are more like insects than mammals. Chitin shells predominate. In the evolution of this world, the bug is king. And then there are the plants. Because of the Highstorms, an unpredictable storm of hurricane force that also gives the gems their magical power, seasons are short, and plants are adapted to enclose themselves in shells whenever the storm comes. Seasons are only a few weeks in length (except in the place of the Shin), farming is a near constant activity and much of the world is just scoured rock. This makes for very different politics that a simple medieval based fantasy would have, and Sanderson really follows through on the repercussions for his systems that his world modification causes. Roshar and its construction becomes as fascinating a part of the novel as the characters, and the reader will have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

And with all this description of the novel, I have barely scraped the surface of its complexity. Sanderson is the master of world systems, everything in this novel is integrated, and the smallest detail reveals important aspects of the world. Sanderson’s foreshadowing is subtle, and each plotline, though mostly separate, through the course of this novel informs on the other in myriad ways.

Sanderson has built on his work on the shoulders of the greatest writers of epic fantasy – Martin, Jordan, Eddings, Feist and Brooks – but with The Way of Kings has set his sights on surpassing even them. Brandon Sanderson is modern epic fantasy’s Grand Master, comparable only to Tolkien in scope and richness of story, and I for one hope he has a long, long career.