#CBR5 Maneuver #2 – The Way of Kings
Profile: Epic Fantasy
Summary: From the Back Cover, “I long for the days before the Last Desolation. Before the Heralds abandoned us and the Knights Radiant turned against us. When there was still magic in Roshar and honor in the hearts of men.
In the end, not war but victory proved the greater test. Did our foes see that the harder they fought, the fiercer our resistance? Fire and hammer forge a sword; time and neglect rust it away. So we won the world, yet lost it.
Now there are four whom we watch: the surgeon, forced to forsake healing and fight in the most brutal war of our time; the assassin, who weeps as he kills; the liar, who wears her scholar’s mantle over a thief’s heart; and the prince, whose eyes opens to the ancient past as his thirst for battle wanes.
One of them may redeem us. One of them will destroy us.”
After Action Report:
I read The Way of Kings back in 2011 and never got around to posting a review. I had gotten a lot of reading done on trains in the middle of June of that year and totally overshot my ability to review things. I was going to write a review post it as a Lost Battle, but when I started I found I couldn’t answer many of the questions that I use to seed these reviews. So I re-read the damn thing.
The Way of Kings is a pretty good book. It’s a bit long and takes ages to get to the point. It does, however, follow in the best traditions of epic fantasy, capturing your imagination and attention. The worldbuilding is top-notch and the protagonists are strong and well developed. The book makes you crave more, even as it stretches out what could have been a brisk prologue story into a mammoth novel.
The story takes place on the world of Roshar, a land buffeted by regular, severe weather systems called highstorms. The majority of Roshar is adapted to these heavy inundations and resembles an enormous intertidal zone. Humans here eke out a living from the rain-scoured rocks. At some point in the distant past, human civilization underwent a series of collapses that left nearly every nation technologically backward and socially aggressive. Kingdoms war with each other for the fabulously powerful Shards, relics from the distant past that can determine the course of history.
The story itself opens with the assassination of the king of Alethkar, a powerful and very hostile nation. Their retaliation against the Parshendi, who orchestrated the assassination, sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Four major protagonists drive the story. Kaladin, a surgeon-turned-soldier-turned-slave, and Dalinar, a highprince of Alethkar and brother of the dead king, act as PoV characters for the majority of the chapters. Shallan, an apprentice scholar, and Szeth, the assassin, each have chapters removed from the main action, but still central to the plot. A small assortment of seemingly random characters round out the PoV cast, each getting only one or two chapters to themselves.
The main action of the story is the ongoing war between the Alethi and the Parshendi. Both Kaladin and Dalinar are actively involved in the campaign and the majority of their chapters focus either on combat or intrigue within the Alethi forces. Shallan’s story is one of historical research, as she and her patron, Jasnah, seek to unravel some of Roshar’s more confusing past. The focus of their research is the Voidbringers, a recurring threat to the safety of the whole world. Finally, Szeth continues to kill off major players in world politics, creating havoc as he goes.
If the above plot summary seems a little disjointed, and overly full of commas and unrecognizable words, it is probably because of the scope of the book. The Way of Kings barely scratches the surface of its larger series, The Stormlight Archive. Sanderson has embarked on an epic fantasy similar in scope to the works of Robert Jordan or Steven Erikson but with a much stronger focus on world building. Not that the Wheel of Time or the Malazan Book of the Fallen were poorly constructed. Sanderson just operates on a different level. He pays more attention to the details of the world, from the simple biology of the flora and fauna of a world constantly under assault from hurricanes, to the intricacies and interactions several different and deeply complex magic systems.
While there is certainly enjoyment to be had in exploring Sanderson’s expansive world, there are some drawbacks to his style of writing that become even more pronounced in the epic fantasy format. His obsession with hidden or lost pasts is a critical aspect of the plot in The Way of Kings, but the big reveals of the first book, the identity of the Voidbringers and the true nature of the Knights Radiant, are telegraphed so thoroughly that the reader can’t help but figure it out. With the wind taken out of their sails, the concluding chapters feel extraneous and give the entire story the feel of a prologue; an enormous, detailed and expositional prologue. What we gain in character background and world exploration is lost in a growing desire for Sanderson to get to the point.
And speaking of character background, was it really necessary to spin out Kaladin’s entire life story in separate flashback chapters? Yes, I understand that the loss of his brother deeply scarred his psyche and that drove him to accomplish nearly all of the great things he did, both as a soldier and as a bridgeman, but I understood that after his introduction piece in, and I am not kidding here, chapter one. Some aspects of his backstory were very interesting: his training as a surgeon, the conflict between the local lord and his father, and the battle that got him enslaved were all points that needed to be hit. In some ways, the use of the detached flashbacks actually hurt the flow of the novel, and the same information could have been conveyed in campfire sessions with the rest of the bridgemen.
In spite of these pacing and length issues, The Way of Kings still delivers all the ‘little’ things we want from epic fantasy books: enormous and well written conflicts of armies, heroes and supernatural forces; strong, human characters with flaws and strengths; that uniquely macro viewpoint that lets the actions of a few shape the fates of the masses. There’s also a tremendous amount of detail for those obsessives among us. I really recommend reading this one twice, or at the very least, going over the chapter epigrams again after you finish.
Because it is very much a prologue to the greater Stormlight Archive series, it is hard to give it a simple yes/no recommendation. There is much more unknown about the books than is known and Sanderson’s work on finishing the Wheel of Time has delayed book two by a ridiculous amount. But if you enjoy epic fantasy, and aren’t afraid of complexity, there’s a lot to recommend The Way of Kings.