Monday, July 18, 2011

The Way of Kings

I left for Israel just a week too soon.  Right now, someplace, thousands of people are reading "A Dance With Dragons", the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  They're finally finding out what happened to Dany, Jon, Bran, and Tyrion.  Maybe they'll know who Jon Snow's real mother is*, maybe they'll see Queen Cersei's death, maybe they'll see the Dragon finally return to Westeros.  I am so jealous right now.  As a matter of fact, if you already have a copy of "Dance With Dragons", I will find you and murder you in your sleep.  That's a promise.  Nobody, not even George R. R. Martin's editor, should read that book before me.  Well, since I'm vacation for roughly three weeks, I did wisely bring along a fantasy book of equally insane size and mass:  "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson.

"The Way of Kings" is Book One of what Sanderson thinks will be a ten-part epic fantasy series called "The Stormlight Archive".   For those of the fantasy community (I guess that's what you'd call them) you'll know Brandon Sanderson's name as one of the new stars of the genre.  He wrote the well-received "Mystborn" series, and is currently finishing "The Wheel of Time" because its original author is too busy being dead to pick up a pen.  I have read none of this, only a little novel called "Warbreaker" that I only got because there was a hot chick eating a rainbow on the cover.  It was decent enough, had a lovely color-based magic system, but sadly the story was overly focused on a mystery plot that really was never all that interesting to begin with.  "The Way of Kings" promises something far grander, something on the R. R. Martin scale.  With ten whole books, Sanderson has basically proclaimed his magnum opus, a story that will take at least decades to complete.

And really, if you're going to do something that big, you might want to try for a better first installment than this one.

 As per a giant ten book fantasy series, the setting of "Way of Kings" is something that will take a bit of time to explain.  It takes place in Roshar, a world beset by awful storms called highstorms, each with enough power to kill you instantly.  Because of the storms, there is little soil, so most food and shelter has to be created through what is basically "Fullmetal Alchemist" alchemy.  Along with this set of magic, there is also a power to use a special form of light and manipulate gravity with it.  And there are magic swords and armor made of something called Shards.  But along with this, there are a race of what can only be called aliens called Parshendi that are at war with one kingdom.  Then there's a cycle of destruction, and a bunch of fairies and giant monsters who can be harvested to make magic.  Women are the only ones allowed to read and for some reason they have to cover their left hands.  And I'm pretty sure there are plenty of other features to the world that I haven't mentioned either.  Its complicated, to say the least, but since this book is 1200 pages long, you get it all eventually.

The main plotline involves a great war between one kingdom, the Alethi, and the Parshendi in a place called The Shattered Plains.  Because this area is simply a maze of canyons filled with monsters, the war is a slow quagmire.  The Alethi lords have taken to making the game a sport, throwing away thousands of lives to win meaningless victories.  Defenseless men are forced to carry heavy bridges under enemy fire as cruel diversions.  Meanwhile, an assassin in white is taking down every king on Roshar.  Oh, and did I mention that the book probably takes place right before an event predicted to be "the True Desolation".  That probably won't be fun.

"The Way of Kings" has a unique problem in that one of its main characters is so good that the rest of the book pales in comparison.  Ice and Fire has great POVs everywhere:  Tyrion, Dany, Jon, the list goes on.  It wasn't until "Feast for Crows" when Martin decided to start wasting my time with dozens of new characters that I started to feel that any particular chapter or character was slowing down the book's momentum.  This is the feeling I get very strongly with "Way of Kings".  Kaladin Stormblessed, the main hero, has such a fantastic role and such a fantastic job that everything else in the book cannot compare.  All I want to do when I finish one of his chapters is to skip the next few chapters until I see Kaladin again.  That's not to say that the book's other characters are boring or uninteresting, but they definitely aren't Kaladin.  This is not helped by the fact that the POV characters do not directly interact until the last one hundred pages.

There are three main characters to the story.  There's Kaladin, a nineteen-year-old who has seen enough misery and death than most see in their entire lives.  Once a brilliant captain in the military with the title of "Stormblessed", he has been betrayed repeatedly by the nobility and is reduced to a slave carrying bridges.  As a natural leader however, he is the one hope of his fellow bridgemen to escape their bondage and survive the war.  Kaladin is also followed by a fairy companion named Syl, who is beginning to awaken her mind just as he awakens his true powers.  After Kaladin we have Shallan, a daughter of a minor noble family out to become an apprentice to Jansah, the sister of the king and a famous scholar.  Shallan is sarcastic and witty, mostly because Brandon Sanderson can't help himself but try to be funny in his novels - so far to no real success.  But with Shallan, things are not as they seem.  Finally there is Dalinar Kholin, a great veteran warrior beset by visions from God and given the task of united the Alethi lords.  Dalinar, unfortunately, is hated by his fellow nobles and has to deal with a scheming rival and an immature paranoid king.  He happens to be reading a book called "The Way of Kings" but despite the metafictional potential there, its not the same as the book Dalinar stars in.

I think I need to talk about Kaladin more, because he's just that cool.  Kaladin is superior to the average "boy meets adventure" type of protagonist because unlike that boy, Kaladin is a figure with ambition.  Though he has largely abandoned his goal of becoming a great Shardbearer lord, Kaladin still works to save people in a world that stands against him at every direction.  You feel the injustices done to him, and personally want to take revenge on the people who have wronged him.  And that group is something like a small village worth of characters.  If there are heights to rise to, I want Kaladin to make it, and I want to be there for the journey.

In between the major story sections, there are several odd Intermissions where we meet random people across Roshar living their lives.  Sometimes these characters will be connected to the story, like Shallan's big brothers.  Most of the time though its random nothing that seems to only exist for worldbuilding.  "Way of Kings" mostly takes place in a tiny section of the world map, so I guess Sanderson thought this was the only way to see more of the world.  Well... aside from the dozens of better ways he could have done that.

Here is the real problem with "The Way of Kings":  very little happens during this book.  There is a good 800 page section where I don't think Kaladin, Dalinar, or Shallan move in any particular way forward.  Yes, its a slow process moving towards the conclusion of their character arc, but you'd think with a 1200 page book more things would occur.  I get the sense that Sanderson was just trying to find some traction while his wheels spun aimlessly for most of this novel, because the story not only is very long, but also very repetitive.  Kaladin must question if he's cursed by God once a chapter.  Dalinar doesn't actually have any movement at all until the last hundred pages.  Even by the end of the book the situation on the ground hasn't really changed in any way.  "A Game of Thrones", a book with far more characters managed to do a lot more plotwise with an equal amount of space.

I would go ahead and just not recommend this book... but Kaladin is in it.  Personally I have my doubts if Sanderson can make this new franchise of his actually pay off, but I'll have to keep on reading just to find out where Kaladin's story leads.  The other characters are okay, but if The Stormlight Archive is ever going to be a great story, it needs to pick up the pace.  We're done explaining the universe, its time the plot actually happens.  But then again, if you're on a massively long vacation, "The Way of Kings" is an excellent book that should eat up most of your time.

Then all you got is the long six days remaining with nothing at all to read.  (Sigh).

* I'm pretty much 100% certain that Jon Snow's mom is Lyanna Stark and his dad is Rhaegar Targaryen.  Thus he is Ice and Fire, Stark and Targaryen.  Don't tell me if I'm right though.


  1. Obviously you're well versed in fantasy books, have you ever read Dune?

  2. Sanderson said that the first few books will focus on one of the main characters: so this one's Kaladin (who is awesome, I quite agree, and I really want to do some fanart of him...), and then Shallan and Dalinar will get their turn. I quite like Dalinar, almost as much as I do Kaladin, but Shallan gets on my nerves.

    The series is promising so far, but I'm not sure how it will turn out. Sanderson was going "worldbuilding worldbuilding worldbuilding" throughout it, which is fine with me as he's fantastic at it, but I don't think I could stomach 9 more books in that vein. I've faith in him after reading his (much faster compared to Jordan's) work with WoT.

  3. @Anon: Of course. And not really that well versed, I only really started recently. They're like non-playable Final Fantasy games with better plots.

    @Yuany: I don't really like Shallan all that much either. Well, I didn't until she revealed her secret to the demons. My real annoyance is that none of the characters who obviously aren't the main villains, like Sadeas, have been dealt with yet. Kaladin didn't even get to kill that bitchy Lighteyes woman who became his boss when Gaz disappeared. Hopefully next book will see some movement out of the Shattered Plains.

  4. I'm just over 300 pages in to A Dance With Dragons (which I got signed by Mr. Martin when he was in New York last week, dude is super cool). It's well worth all the dullness that A Feast For Crows put you through. In my opinion, it's as good as A Storm of Swords, which is my favorite book in the series. I urge you to read at least the first two prequel novellas first, though, if you haven't done so already.

    I came close to buying The Way of Kings a couple of weeks ago, but I've grown so weary of these gigantic fantasy series. Most of them are subpar at best and horrible at worst (The Sword of Truth and Wheel of Time series are especially hit-or-miss books). After Dance I'll probably go back and read some shorter books I've been meaning to get to for a while. I really want to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep.