The first of a two part pentology, The Way of Kings is slow burn high fantasy that mixes standard tropes with a deeper mystery to create something fun and compelling enough to justify the investment.
Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.
Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar's niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan's motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.
The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.
I was a bit reticent to begin The Stormlight Archive, if only due to the massive investment I knew it would entail. Sanderson is a prolific writer, and the volumes in the Stormlight Archive are… substantial. And there’s going to be ten of them. Oh, and he’s only just finishing book four now. So, as with The Expanse, I knew I’d find myself waiting.
However, given I absolutely loved the first Mistborn trilogy, I knew I would probably enjoy Sanderson’s writing and world building, and it’s been a while since I’ve been hooked by a large scale, high-fantasy series (and before you ask, no, I haven’t started A Song of Ice and Fire… someday!), so I decided to take the plunge.
The Way of Kings is a long, slow burner that, I think, is better thought of as a set of four interwoven novellas–Kaladin and the Bridgemen, Adolin and Dalinar, Jasnah and Shallan, and Szeth–set against the backdrop of a grand mystery of the past and a prophesied cataclysm to come. This structure means the book requires a bit of patience from the reader, as rather than taking us through a single character journey Sanderson must set up and execute multiple plots simultaneously. However, I found the overall setup sufficiently interesting, and the final third compelling enough, that I’m definitely going to be continuing on to book two.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit this first installment isn’t without it’s flaws. A lot of the standard fantasy tropes are here–a coming grand battle of good versus evil; unifying a decadent society for the war to come; rediscovering mysteries of the past to help secure victory; a hero laid low discovering his hidden strength–which means it can feel a bit like Sanderson’s plot is an arrangement of fantasy novel Scrabble tiles. The echos of Mistborn are hard to miss as well, as in both cases, we’re presented with a world that’s dealing with ongoing cataclysm (in Mistborn its ashfall, and here we have the highstorms) resulting from an event from a long lost past. Even A Song of Ice and Fire has its influences, as the Alethi are presented to us as a society that’s lost its way, with a leadership that’s become corrupt, lazy, and selfish.
The world of Roshar, itself, is a fascinating one. For those not familiar with his style, I would argue that Sanderson’s writing can sometimes verge on science fiction. In science fiction, it’s often the case that the author comes up with some core set of ideas, and then the setting and plot are a result of working through the logical consequences of those ideas. For example, in Dune, the core idea is the spice–a rare, addictive substance that’s necessary for space travel–and the rest of the plot flows from its existence. In Ringworld, the core idea is the existence of the Ringworld itself, and the various consequences of its design.
Sanderson takes that same approach and applies it to fantasy writing. For example, he’s well known for his laws for magic systems, which focus on using magic in fiction such that its use is logical and consequences follow from its rules. Sanderson takes the same approach when establishing his settings, in that he sets up a set of initial conditions in the world–for example, on Roshar we have the highstorms–and the design of the setting then follows from the consequences of those conditions. The result is a world that feels deep, logical, and consistent.
Now, in The Way of Kings, the world building isn’t without its flaws, as at times I found it so overt as to be distracting. Sanderson is clearly trying to create a setting that’s almost entirely disconnected from our own, and in doing so, often invents new names for things that it’s not clear need to be named. As a result, the book can feel overloaded with unnecessary jargon. But it is certainly intriguing!
Finally, the characterization is good when set against the standards of the overall genre (which can be pretty low), though these characters can definitely feel a little cartoonish at times. That said, it’s nice to read a piece of fiction where I genuinely like each of the main characters. The Game of Thrones has now set a standard where a story isn’t “deep” unless every character is near-fatally flawed, and it’s become rather exhausting to me. The Way of Kings thankfully doesn’t follow that pattern, making it much more enjoyable as pure escapism.
So, given the flaws, why the four stars?
Well, first, I genuinely connected with these characters. I really like Kaladin and Jasnah and Dalinar and Shallan and the various surrounding cast. The climax with the bridgemen was incredibly satisfying. The fact that Dalinar lived up to his values in the end was exactly what I was hoping for. Jasnah and Shallan, individually, are strong, intelligent women and I enjoyed the development of their relationship as they learned to look beyond their initial assumptions about one another.
And then there’s the larger backdrop of the hidden past of Roshar and the grand conflict at the center of the story which leaves me incredibly intrigued.
So, despite the flaws and the slower pace, for me the investment pays off as the book definitely rushes to a satisfying conclusion while setting up a tantalizing mystery that has got me hooked. I was up far too late finishing this book, and I’m afraid there could be more sleep deprivation in my future.