So I deleted my original review of this book on Goodreads (but not on CBR) because I’ve never been happy with it. I never felt like it fully conveyed what I was trying to say. Heck, I’m not sure I even knew what it was that I wanted to say! I remember thinking this book was so dense and a little impenetrable, and now upon my first re-read, I’ve got none of that. This time around, I sunk right into this world like it was chocolate pudding.
But I *do* know exactly what I want to say this time around, 100% for sure. In my opinion, Brandon Sanderson is the best pure epic fantasy writer currently plying his trade, and Stormlight Archive is his best work. He spent years building up a foundation of goodwill and honing his worldbuilding and character skills through writing the original Mistborn trilogy and finishing The Wheel of Time for Robert Jordan, as well as novellas like The Emperor’s Soul and other smaller projects. All that goodwill and experience finally allowed him to tell a story he’d been imagining for more than a decade, and to take the risks with it that an otherwise greener author with no pre-existing fans willing to trust him would have been allowed.
Basically, he set out to epic fantasy the most epic fantasy that ever epic fantasied, and at least so far, he is succeeding.
Incredibly detailed, immersive worldbuilding is the bread and butter of epic fantasy. Roshar has distinct history, cultures, geography, religions, races, and weather. It has class struggles and power struggles and gender imbalances. It has an unbelievably cool magic system(s?) that Sanderson is doling details out for piece by tantalizing piece. The highstorms that give us the titular Stormlight shape everything about his made-up world, and it’s so well thought and painstakingly portrayed that even as a first time reader, Roshar popped instantly into life in my mind.
But as I’ve learned from reading the aforementioned Wheel of Time (currently about to start book eight . . . sigh), painstaking worldbuilding on its own means nothing if you don’t have the story structure and pacing to put into that world. Sanderson is meticulous when it comes to structure. He lays out arcs within arcs, and each part of each book has a specific role to play in moving the story forward. There is absolutely no pointless dilly-dallying. Every bit of each 1,000 page plus book that he writes is necessary in some form, either for the overall arc of the ten-book series, or for character development, or setting the table for something awesome down the road. A ten-book series of this scope could very, very easily become an unwieldy mess, but he makes it look so freaking easy.
But all of that epicness and scope and meticulous structure would all be for nothing if it wasn’t filled with compelling, fully-rounded characters who change and grow and make things happen. The characters are why you care about all that other stuff, and I mean really care in more than an academic fashion. It’s one thing to be intrigued in an oh-isn’t-that-interesting sort of way, oh-I-wonder-where-that’s-going, and quite another to be so emotionally invested in a character that you feel a literal, physical reaction when they are betrayed, or when they are happy, or when they discover something awesome.
The focus in The Way of Kings isn’t the story behind the story (that’s still coming). It’s on the characters. It’s on Dalinar Kholin, the noble uncle of a king, who is trapped in a war where men increasingly treat battles like games, and throw men’s lives away for wealth and prestige, and whose desire for his people to be better is causing those same people to think him mad. It’s on the newly orphaned Shallan Davar, who has set out to steal something precious from one of the most feared and respected scholars in Roshar in order to save her family from ruin. And it’s on the downtrodden slave Kaladin, who has been betrayed again and again, and who has sunk as low as it is possible for a human being to sink, and who is on the verge of giving up entirely.
There are of course so, so many talented fantasy (and epic fantasy) authors working right now. We are practically living in a golden age of it. It feels almost ridiculous to claim that Sanderson is the best. And I love most of them! There’s Martin, of course, but he’s more and more being weighed down by his own story, and both structural/story problems, and personal reasons (my God, can you imagine the mental pressure???) have contributed to his productivity being almost nil, and the last two books in ASOIAF being (in my opinion) weaker than the first three. And there’s Rothfuss, of course, who does marvelous things with words and who writes about the power of music like no other author I’ve read, and whose protagonist is incredibly flawed. The poor guy, he’s almost got it as bad as Martin in terms of fan pressure, and he just admitted the other day that he’s been struggling with pretty bad depression that has significantly impacted his writing ability. But in terms of the actual work, he’s only published the two books, so there just isn’t as much of his writing to go by. Not that I’m equating productivity with quality. That’s absurd. But Sanderson has been producing quality books at a steady rate for ten years now, and there’s so much of it (and I’ve read it all), I just feel like I know *exactly* who he is as a writer, and what I can expect from him. He’s solid. Maybe not the flashiest or prettiest of prose writers, but honestly, I don’t care about that, as long as his words allow me to sink into the story.
In fact, honestly, sometimes I prefer plainer prose *because* it so easily sinks into the background. Beautiful words are nice, but so often you get authors who are trying for beautiful and profound, and only end up with purple. But there’s also the fact that both Martin and Rothfuss are experimenting with the epic fantasy form in ways that act to subvert it, turn it on its head. They aren’t writing *traditional* epic fantasy, not like Sanderson is. Sanderson is writing in the tradition of Jordan and Goodkind and Brooks, and absolutely kicking all those guys’ asses all over the dang place. His writing isn’t plagued with pointless conversations and time-wasting storylines, and horrible pacing. It isn’t jam-packed full of sexist, belligerent characters who don’t behave like human beings. It isn’t a novel-length polemic disguising itself as fantasy fiction. It’s a freaking great story, is what it is, and I love it so much.
I’m so excited to revisit Words of Radiance, and for Oathbringer in (looks at calendar) FOURTEEN DAYS NOW. I fully anticipate that Sanderson will deliver a book that gives me exactly what I need, even if it isn’t what I’m expecting, which will continue to give me intimate, emotional moments placed in an epic landscape full of story possibility and awesomeness.