Published by Tor
Brandon Sanderson needs little introduction, despite having his first novel published only five years ago in 2005. His high output (5 novels, three of which comprise a completed trilogy) plus being tapped to finish The Wheel of Time have made him a #1 New York Times best seller and brand name. The Way of Kings is quite possibly, the most highly promoted fantasy novel of the year. That’s quite a bit of preamble before even discussing the 1,000+ page book.
The book begins with a prologue set thousands of years prior to the main storyline of the novel, then jumps to the assassination of the King of Alethkar by an enigmatic and powerful figure in white under the direction of their enemies in the East – the Parshendi, which truly sets the tale in motion. The assassination scene works really well and was quite reminiscent of the action scenes in Sanderson’s Mistborn saga for high-octane charging both the action and dialogue in the scene. In short, Sanderson teases at the epic nature of the saga with the prologue and then a greater feel for the tension in the novel itself in the assassination.
From there, Sanderson’s tale focuses this epic tale on three primary characters – Shallan, a young woman apprenticed to a heretical scholar; Dalinar, an old revered soldier in the army of Alethi also known as the Blackthorn who is either going crazy or having prophetic visions; and Kaladin, a former soldier turned slave laborer who is a Bridgeman-one of an expendable crew of men who move bridges for the armies of Roshar to march over the chasms on the Shattered Plain. Through the eyes and actions of these three people, Sanderson reveals a world with incredible depth on the brink of a major paradigm shift.
Set on Roshar, a world with a harsh climate, Sanderson’s novel is a tale of war on a grand scale and the effects of that war on a personal level. For a novel that tops out over 1,000 pages, Sanderson’s tale does not falter in its narrative pull nor does his ability to evoke tension waiver. His narrative switches effortlessly between these three characters. Kaladin’s portion of the story is told with a particular flair for the epic, Sanderson switches between his current timeline as he goes from slave to leader of Bridge Four – a crew of bridgemen; and how Kaladin, whose skill and natural leadership abilities at war emerge over the course of the novel, went from being a doctor’s son set to follow in his father’s footsteps to a slave at the beginning of the novel. Though reminiscent of both the legendary Spartacus and Maximus from Gladiator, Sanderson’s skill at making familiar and resonant elements his own shines through greatly over the course of Kaladin’s journey as a character.
Shallan, the young artist and thief playing as a historian’s apprentice, follows a path that could be seen to run parallel to Kaladin’s. Very early in her portion of the story, Sanderson sets the tone for her character – smart, snarky, and deceptive. She journeys across the sea to Kharbranth so she can apprentice to the scholar and heretic Jasnah. Though Shallan is indeed brilliant, her motives for studying under Jasnah are more personal and treacherous than that of an inquisitive student.
Somewhat tying these two characters together is Dalinar the Blackthorn, whose brother is the king murdered early in the novel and is now the uncle to the sitting king. The visions of the past he experiences is affecting him a great deal – loss of his sons’s respect, loss of his own trust in himself, and most importantly as a general, loss of respect from those in his army. Dalinar, and his son Adolin, are on the front lines of the war between the Alethi and the Parshendi. Aiding them both is the magically endowed Shardplate armor and their equally endowed Shardblades. Since Dalinar and Kaladin are fighting the same war against the Parshendi, but from different companies, it is pretty clear their stories eventually converge. Though it takes nearly 800 pages of the 1,000 page novel for this to occur, and it is a logical converging of storylines, never once did Sanderson’s narrative feel overtly predictable and the journey to get to that point was engaging and enjoyable. The connection between Dalinar and Shallan is a blood connection – Shallan is being apprenticed under Dalinar’s niece Jasnah.
The three characters undergo journeys of discover that either parallel or contrast each other. At times, it seemed as if Dalinar was on the downgrade of his life’s journey. Kaladin is a man seeking redemption so he can reach the height of his life’s journey. Shallan seeks retribution for her family only to realize what she truly wants is not quite what she thought she wanted.
As intimated earlier in this review, the world itself is much of a character. The depth of the world’s history is a thing to behold, not in the way Sanderson simply lays out the facts, but in the way the characters reveal the history of the world. Or rather, how they reveal what they think they know of the world. Rent by powerful storms on one portion of the world, the rich are comforted in a scholarly setting in another, but both environs evoke a past obfuscated by the rage of years, storms, war, and lost historical records. Hints of demonic monsters in ash and red prophesized to destroy the world, chasmfiends – large insectoid monsters hunted for the shards and jewels in their bodies, men encased in what amounts to power armor, are just a few of the things that give this world a depth of character. I hesitate to go into more depth mainly because the joy of this novel is discovering and connecting with Sanderson’s powerful novel as it is laid out on the pages. There’s a mystery underlying much of what Sanderson reveals in The Way of Kings that only hints at what he has in store in the future 9 volumes of this projected 10-volume saga.
Due to several things in my personal life, I didn’t have as much free reading time as of late, including the time I was reading The Way of Kings, resulting in a longer time period than normal for me to complete my read of the novel. That said, Sanderson’s skill and pure narrative power did not lose me at all over the course of time it took me to read the book, or the great page count he took to tell the story. Though it is a long novel, aside from a few scenes here or there of characters whose impact and import will likely be felt in later novels of the saga, I can’t say that it felt like a long tale. It felt epic and powerful, and a story and world I was pleased to be immersed in during the entire reading experience of the novel.
The physical book is just as impressive as the story told between its covers. Those cover are adorned with a beautiful and instant classic Michael Whelan painting. Icons emblazon each chapter, ‘historical’ illustrations are provided at intervals, while some of Shallan’s illustrations are used to illustrate other pages. The endpapers utilize a powerful color palette with superbly rendered maps. In short, the physical book itself is just as stunning as the story Sanderson tells.
Sanderson’s proven with his past novels he is a voice to heard and recognized in the fantasy genre. With The Way of Kings, he stakes his claim as one of the preeminent purveyors of the fantasy genre – he will be spoken in the same breath as Tolkien, Leiber, Moorcock, Jordan (on his own merits and not just because he is completing The Wheel of Time), and George R.R. Martin. I have extremely high anticipation for future volumes in this series and despite this being the first of a multi-volume series, it ends with closure.
I give this book my highest recommendation and think The Way of Kings will be one of those landmark novels of Epic Fantasy against which future novels will always be measured.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford