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Book review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

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An assassin in white murders the King of Alethkar, an act commissioned by the enigmatic Parshendi tribesmen of the east. In response the Alethi armies meet those of the Parshendi in battle on the Shattered Plains, a vast landscape of plateaus separated by dark chasms. Progress is slow and gruelling, and Dalinar, the murdered king's brother, adopts a siege strategy to wear down the enemy through attrition.


Meanwhile, Kaladin, a former soldier disgraced and sold into slavery, arrives on the Shattered Plains as a bridgeman, a role designed to help carry and place the immense mobile bridges which carry the Alethi army into battle. Mistreated by his masters, Kaladin begins to burn with the need for freedom and vengeance, and finds like-minded men amongst his fellows.


In distant Kharbranth a woman named Shallan seeks a missing princess, hoping to become her protege and study under the most famous heretic on all of Roshar. But Shallan's quest disguises another, less honourable cause.


These three stories become entwined with the ancient legends of the Knights Radiant and the Voidbringers they fought against. The world of Roshar and the wider cosmere beyond lie in danger from an ancient force, and the key to understanding the nature of that threat lies with a man who can walk amongst the worlds...


There's no faulting the ambition of this novel. The publisher and the author have set out their stall quite clearly: they want the ten-volume Stormlight Archive series to be the next dominant epic fantasy series, replacing the soon-to-finish Wheel of Time sequence. The publishing marketing spiel has cranked up to support this effort, drawing comparisons with Tolkien and Frank Herbert which are more than slightly hyperbolic. Yet The Way of Kings manages to weather these pronouncements to stand on its own merits as one of the best epic fantasy releases of this year.


The Way of Kings is Brandon Sanderson's finest novel to date, showing a remarkable and satisfying maturing and evolution of his craft. Sanderson is a student of epic fantasy who's made it his business to test the limits of the subgenre and take a mass audience with him, and The Way of Kings raises this skill to new heights. Roshar isn't another generic fantasyland, but a dangerous and alien world wracked by devastating tempests which the normal business of humanity takes place in the lulls between the storms. In his previous books Sanderson has used his worlds as effective background locations, but in The Way of Kings the world itself comes to life satisfyingly, becoming a vivid location which the reader ends up wanting to know more about.


Characterisation is an area where Sanderson takes a significant step forward in quality. His characters in The Way of Kings are considerably more flawed and more real than those in Mistborn or Elantris, but he also avoids turning them into grim, grey ciphers. These characters are given motivations and rationales for what they do which make sense, and then evolve satisfyingly over the course of the book. It has to be said that of the three major protagonists Shallan is the one who is not developed very satisfyingly in this way until the very end of the book, when her last three or four chapters transform the reader's understanding of her character and motives in a very impressive manner.


Sanderson has a strong reputation as the creator of impressive magic systems, so it's rather surprising that The Way of Kings pulls back on the magical side of things. There's an excellent opening sequence depicting the assassination which is slightly reminiscent of Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in X2 and is as impressive, but otherwise actual feats of magic are somewhat few and far between in the book (although there is a fair amount of use of magical artifacts such as fabrials and Shardblades), although with plenty of hints that these will form a bigger part of the story in subsequent volumes.


Another surprise is that Sanderson makes a bold move in this volume by putting some of the common mythology of his universe into the centre of the plot: Hoid, the Shards of Adonalsium, the Shadesmar and other elements which have been hinted at in Elantris, Warbreaker and the Mistborn series are here brought into somewhat sharper relief (although foreknowledge of those earlier novels is not required) and followers of this shared-universe element of Sanderson's work will have plenty more to chew on as a result of this book.


On the downside, Sanderson does adopt an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach with the book, and uses some side-plots purely to establish elements which will have no resolution until much later, and as a result there are a few side-stories which simply have no apparent reason for being in this novel (most notably the scenes set on the Purelake). In addition, to achieve greater resonance and carry out more impressive worldbuilding, Sanderson has had to sacrifice the thunderous pace that made the first Mistborn novel very enjoyable, the result being a book which is a good 150-200 pages longer than it strictly needs to be with some repetition of ideas and some action sequences (the chasm battles, whilst very impressive and atmospheric, do start blurring together after a while).


The Way of Kings (****½) has some minor issues, but overall is a deeper, darker and more satisfying novel than anything Sanderson has produced to date. The book will be published on 31 August 2010 in the USA and on 30 December in the UK.

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The Stormlight Archive Book 2: Words of Radiance




The world of Roshar is under threat. A mysterious assassin is slaughtering the rulers of the nations. In the east, the armies of Alethkar and the Parshendi are clashing on the Shattered Plains. Signs are appearing that the evil voidbringers are returning to bring about the Desolation, the destruction of the civilised world. But there are also signs that the Knights Radiant, humans empowered with amazing abilities, are returning to stop them.

Words of Radiance is the much-delayed second volume in The Stormlight Archive series (expected to last for ten volumes) and the sequel to 2010's The Way of Kings. Brandon Sanderson's work on this novel was delayed by his commitment to completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence. With that accomplished, Sanderson is now free to focus on his own mega-epic and bring out future novels in a more timely fashion; the third Stormlight novel (working title: Unhallowed Stones) will likely follow before the end of 2015.

Like much of Sanderson's work, the novel balances traditional epic fantasy tropes with highly original and interesting worldbuilding, logically well-thought-out magic systems and hints of a much grander plan lying behind everything. Whilst only the second book of The Stormlight Archive, this is also the eighth novel set in his Cosmere universe (following on from Elantris, Warbreaker, the four Mistborn novels and of course The Way of Kings). Whilst previously the Cosmere links were fairly subtle and mostly of interest for Easter Egg hunters, in this series they are much more overt. Hoid (aka Wit), who only appeared in minor cameos in the other books, plays a much more important role here.

Words of Radiance is also big. At over 400,000 words, it's the longest epic fantasy novel published since George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, approaching 1,100 pages in hardcover (so yes, the UK paperback will be split for publication next year). It's an immense novel, not because an enormous amount happens but because Sanderson lets events unfold at a fairly relaxed pace. We only have four major POV characters (Shallan, Kaladin, Dalinar and Adolin) and a whole host of minor ones in remote parts of the world that we flit between. The minor POV chapters are highlights, with Sanderson crafting each one almost into a separate short story set in the midst of a grander tale. The story about the trader who has to make a bargain with a bunch of people who live on the back of a vast creature dwelling in the sea is effective, as is the story of a young burglar who turns out to be more than she appears. Whilst these stories are enjoyable, they also feel a little random sprinkled throughout the longer book, especially since their consequences may not be explored in full until the second half of the series.

The main narrative, unfortunately, is much slower. After we spent most of the first, 1,000-page volume on the Shattered Plains we then proceed to spend most of the second, even longer, volume in the same place. The first book had the advantage of introducing the location and its weird alien landscape, but by at least a quarter of the way through Words of Radiance the setting has lost a lot of is lustre. Fortunately, the end of the novel suggests that we have left behind the Plains and won't see them again, which is well past time. The interludes show that Roshar is a fascinating, well-designed and evocative location and getting to see more of it in future volumes rather than just one broken landscape will be a relief.

Whilst the story is slow to unfold, it does at least move things forward significantly. More Knights Radiant appear, we learn more about the world, its history and its cultures and there are some surprising and shocking deaths (although at least one of them turns out to be a disappointing fake-out). Readers of the other Cosmere books will also have a head start in working out what's going on, which is good for them but possibly a little unfair for more casual readers. Up until now - even arguably including The Way of Kings - the Cosmere stuff has been optional background only, with it not being necessary to read every book in the setting to enjoy the next one. Words of Radiance is the first time I felt like being familiar with the Cosmere was necessary to fully appreciate what the author was doing. This is made clear in no uncertain terms when the novel ends with an event which will won't make much sense unless you've also read Warbreaker.

On the character side of things, Sanderson is definitely improving novel to novel. Shallan, the least-developed character in the previous novel, takes centre stage here and becomes a much more rounded and interesting figure. Her forced humour and defensiveness, which was previously just annoying, is fleshed out a lot here as we get to know the reasons for it. Given it's not something he's known for, Sanderson successfully turns Shallan's story into an effective and unexpected tragedy. Adolin also graduates from 'heroic buffoon' to a slightly darker, more complex character (though not until quite late in the novel). Kaladin's unrelenting emoness continues unabated (despite his transformation into a fantasy version of Neo from The Matrix), but he's a much less dominant character this time around and he does lighten up as the book goes on, which is a relief. More problematic is the dialogue, which often feels clunky and sometimes incongruous. Roshar isn't Earth or even particularly reminiscent of any of our own time periods, but the use of modern language and terms ('awesomeness', 'upgrade') may be distracting for some readers.

Sanderson's signature magic systems are present and correct, though it's possible he's gone overboard in the Stormlight books. There are something like thirty magic systems on Roshar (even if they are variants on similar themes) and the relationships between Surgebinding, Lashing, Truthspeaking, the Old Magic and so forth are not very clearly defined. It also doesn't help that some of the magic systems of the other Cosmere worlds are also alluded to (one character is even a Misting from Scadrial, the setting of the Mistborn novels, though he barely appears). Whilst previously Sanderson has outline his magic systems with clarity, here it feels like he's been taking some lessons from Steven Erikson and just decided to drop the reader into a confusing maze which they have to work their own way out of.

Words of Radiance (****) is a good book beset by minor problems: dialogue issues, a languid pace and often irrelevant-feeling (though often individually fun) side-chapters. At the same time it features much-improved characters, superior worldbuilding and some impressive action set-pieces. I don't think Stormlight is ever going to be as era-defining an epic fantasy as The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Book of the Fallen are, with Sanderson sometimes definitely 'trying too hard' to match those stories for scale and scope and missing their strengths with character and plot, but it's still a readable and fun series. One thing I think Sanderson definitely needs to do with future volumes is make them smaller, trim the fat and give a more focused story each time. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Thanks for the review Wert!


Quick question, you mention that the main narrative is a bit slow to unfold. Given how much trouble the middle-late portion of long series has given to authors such as GRRM and RJ in relation to pace...do you think it could potentially be problematic that things seem to be moving slowly this early in Stormlight?

Edited by Suttree

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Possibly, though I'm a bit more confident on that front since Sanderson confirmed it's more two five-book series bolted onto one another, not one continuously-building mega-narrative. And Sanderson's 'architect approach' does give him much more control over the narrative than say GRRM or Jordan, who had to hack their way through the undergrowth at times. I actually think Sanderson could slim down the books considerably if he chose. They're this big because of his deliberate choices, not because of writer issues. So I don't think the pacing will be problematic in the long run.

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