I’ve never read a Brandon Sanderson book I didn’t like. He’s insanely prolific, which sharply contrasts him with some of his colleagues, and is sturdy and reliable. And (I say this every time I read a book of his), I really just accept the fact that I’m going to like them and that everyone is right: these are good books. Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m always skeptical.
And The Way of Kings was no different. I bought this book….maybe five years ago, and I’ve tried reading it at least three or four times. Each time, I can’t get passed the first chapter. And it’s the same thing that does me in every time.
But first, it’s worth exploring the genre somewhat.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien peppers his invented world with names and places that seem familiar, or are at the very least comfortable: Bag End, the Shire, Buckleberry Ferry, Weathertop, Misty Mountains….The further afield the hobbits travel, the stranger the names become: Rivendell, Lorien, Emyn Muil, Mordor…. Tolkien knew that much of his world was alien to his readers, and he gradually introduced those elements to the story, waiting for the reader to get more comfortable with everything.
That isn’t something his many imitators have had the delicacy to replicate. George R.R. Martin, however, does the exact same thing. Jon Snow and Ned and Arya Stark are three of the first characters we’re introduced to. Winterfell is the first setting, and King’s Landing is the center of this world. He brings in the Targaryens and the foreign lands across the sea from Westeros in later books, and most of the names we spend significant time with are simply variant spellings of names many of us are familiar with.
It’s a really subtle, brilliant technique that helps draw the reader into the world and get them comfortable before dropping them into the unfamiliar.
Brandon Sanderson doesn’t do that. The first character we meet is named “Kalak”, and he’s fighting monstrous beasts on a war-ravaged plain sparsely populated by strange vegetation. It’s jarring and confusing. We then jump forward 4,500 years and meet Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, and the book takes place in Alethkar, on the Shattered Plains, where armies vie for gemstones infused with stormlight, and are led by light eyed soldiers fighting with shard blades.
If you haven’t read these books – none of this means anything to you, and might as well be meaningless letters. Well, that’s basically what I took in at first.
Which is why it sat on my shelf for five years, taunting me with it’s uncracked spine.
Beyond this point, spoilers abound. But I’ve tried to keep the review of each book relatively spoiler-free. So don’t read, for instance, Words of Radiance if you don’t want to have The Way of Kings spoiled.
The Way of Kings (5 stars)
As I’ve already stated, this book drops you into the middle of an alien world, and you’re left playing catch-up. Luckily for you, you’re in the hands of Brandon Sanderson – a master of the genre. Yes, there are a lot of invented language here, and it can be a bit intimidating – but if anyone can keep you from drowning, it’s him.
This book takes place on Roshar, and this world is less like our own than Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire (which itself could be pretty alien). The defining characteristic here is that the world is routinely ravaged by magnificent storms – more powerful than hurricanes. They begin in the east, and travel westwards across the continent. So the lands in the west are mostly spared from the worst of these storms, and they are most like the world in which we are familiar. These lands of horses, and chickens, and strawberries. The lands of the east, however, are characterized by loose soils, and animals evolved to weather the harsh weather. So there are lots of crustacean-like creatures, and even the plants have developed tough exteriors or the ability to withdraw upon themselves. Throughout the land there are luminous, ethereal beings called “spren”. They are associated with every facet of life, here. If someone is wounded, they have to worry about “rot spren” being attracted to the wound. If they are afraid, “fear spren” crop up. There are “fire spren”, and “glory spren”, and “wind spren”, and on and on.
The main kingdom, which is the focus of this book, is Alethkar. It’s ruled by King Elhokar, and he oversees numerous high princes, of whom Dalinar Kholin is the most prominent (and a central figure in the book). Another central figure is an enslaved man named Kaladin.
Years ago, I read another highly regarded fantasy series called Malazan Book of the Fallen, written by Steven Erickson. Like The Stormlight Archive, it was also a military fantasy, but far more oblique, and the books are long. The first book in the series (Gardens of the Moon) is the shortest, and it tops 800 pages. The audiobooks for all ten in the series runs almost 400 hours. That’s 16+ days. When I say Sanderson drops you into the middle of this world and expects you to keep up, I’m not being entirely fair. Sanderson’s writing is fairly light, and (despite the length of these books), he isn’t self-indulgent. The plot is always moving forward, and things are pretty easy to follow (even if they aren’t always clear in the moment). Malazan, on the other hand, makes little effort to walk you through the world. You’re literally forced to pay attention and learn the world, or you’re quickly going to flounder and get left behind.
With that said, I liked the first book (and want to read it again, so that I can review it here). The second book (The Deadhouse Gates) is more straight forward, but involves entirely different characters, takes place in a different part of the world, and is absolutely brutal. One of the main plot lines involves watching an army slowly dying from a long retreat through enemy territory. I don’t really remember those books – but I do remember being so traumatized by the heartlessness of the second book that I didn’t even read the third.
Anyway, I bring all of this up to say that there were parts of The Way of Kings that reminded me of the brutality in The Deadhouse Gates, but Sanderson always pulled me out of it. As soon as things started to seem too brutal, he would insert this little beacon of hope into the story – and he wouldn’t remove it. It wasn’t done as way of making us think things are going to work out until – big reveal – the rug is pulled out from underneath us, making everything terrible again. No, the humanity of these characters is never lost. They keep fighting, because there is still good in the world, even if it means they have to create that good to make it real for other people.
That Sanderson can juggle all the weirdness of this world with the masterful storytelling, and be so damned prolific while never losing the inherent need for humanity in all of this is breathtaking in it’s perfection.
And it kind of makes me not want to read anything else. The Stormlight Archive is meant to be a 10 book series – and he just published the fourth book. Which means I’m inevitably going to be stuck waiting for the rest of the books. As much as I’m looking forward to the three novels I haven’t read (and two novellas), I’m dreading the wait for the books that haven’t yet been written.
Words of Radiance (5 stars)
The book was mostly divided into three main points of view: Kaladin (a wrongfully enslaved soldier), Dalinar (Highprince and uncle to the king), and Shallan (daughter to a minor lord). We track these characters (with flashbacks to Kaladin, the central figure in this book) as their story lines connect. Kaladin grew up thinking he was going to become a surgeon like his father, only to end up joining the army to protect his brother. Tragically, he was unable to, and ends up a slave after saving the life of his lord, a man named Amaram. He eventually finds himself on the Shattered Plains, where the Alethi have been waging a six years long war against the Parshendi, who killed the former king of Alethkar.
Dalinar is one of the ten Highprinces conducting this war for King Elhokar, his nephew. Dalinar has been having visions from the Almighty, and he’s been behaving…oddly, by Alethi standards. He’s tired of war, and isn’t engaging in the mindless contest for gems like he once was. He’s also very critical of the other lords, and wants them to hold to old honor codes. He’s still powerful, being the uncle of the king, and the war camp’s greatest warrior, but the other Highprinces scorn him. Through his visions, the Almighty orders Dalinar to “unite them”. Dalinar takes this to be referring to the Highprinces.
Shallan is the daughter of a recently killed lord in Jah Keved. Along with her surviving brothers, she is trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy: which means keeping her father’s debt collectors appeased until they can find a means of increasing the family’s wealth. Her father had a Soulcaster, which allowed him to create valuable ore, but it is now broken. She devises a plan to steal a Soulcaster from Jasnah Kholin, sister to the king, so she leaves her home to become Jasnah’s ward, succeeding in spite of herself.
That’s a basic outline for each character. The Way of Kings culminates in Dalinar being abandoned on the Shattered Plains by his rival Sadeas, surrounded by the Parshendi. Kaladin, leading his bridgemen in an act of defiance against Sadeas, break off from their retreat, and rescue Dalinar from certain death. In doing so, he makes the first step towards embracing the power of the Knights Radiant that is building within him. It’s an incredibly cinematic scene, and made any thought of reading a book other than Words of Radiance vanish from my mind.
This is where Words of Radiance picks up, except this book is centered more around Shallan than it is Kaladin. The flashback chapters are hers, for instance.
I don’t know that I love the character of Shallan. I do love Kaladin, and identify most with him (which makes sense, given that he’s the central figure in the first book). I find Dalinar to be a little frustrating – in a Ned Stark kind of way. He’s a lot more flawed, though. I’ve always felt like Ned Stark was a kind of commentary on the idealized nobility of characters like Aragorn, but I don’t get that same feeling from Dalinar. He’s a man who has done terrible things, and there is mystery to him – but he is striving to be honest and true to his ideals, even if things don’t always work out for him.
Shallan has seen less of the world than the other main characters in these books, and her inexperience and immaturity is often betrayed by her success. I don’t know. She doesn’t really work, for me. She’s very quippy, and utterly lacking in self-confidence, but she can also flip a switch and become someone else whenever it suits her. Her journey doesn’t feel fully earned, to me. It’s more like things work out for her because it’s convenient for the plot.
With that said, there’s a lot of fun in this book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Even Shallan – I found her scenes with Kaladin to be both energetic and lively. I looked forward to them, and suspect that there may be more to them in the future (though I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, given the current plot).
Edgedancer (4 stars)
As I’ve said, these books are told from multiple points of view – but not in the same way as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Each book in this series is heavy. Like, 1,000 pages heavy. And it’s broken up into multiple parts; so each part is kind of like a trilogy in and of itself. The chapters in each part alternate between the main three characters (Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan). In between these parts, there are “interlude” chapters, which are from the perspective of minor characters in other parts of the world. Szeth is one such character: he’s the assassin who killed Dalinar’s brother, the previous King of Alethkar, and father of Elhokar.
Another interlude character is Lift, a girl of (about) ten. Three years prior to this, she asked a Goddess to stop her from growing older, and she believes that wish was granted (though it doesn’t appear to have been). Now, she’s used to apparent Knights Radiant powers (which she gets from food rather than Stormlight) to save the life of a boy who’s suddenly become the Azish Emperor. But her new access to power doesn’t interest her, so she leaves Azir for the city of Yeddaw, where a killer she knows only as “Darkness” is killing Knights Radiants before their powers can manifest.
The story in Edgedancer is okay. I mean, I got through it pretty quickly (not that it’s super long, being a novella), but I don’t read these books for Lift. She’s a precocious pre-pubescent girl. I don’t generally find books about kids to be super interesting.
Which isn’t to say this story isn’t enjoyable (it is), or that it doesn’t have any relevance (it does). But it doesn’t involve any of the other characters in the series, and I kept wondering what was happening to them….which makes this book a lot like the interlude chapters of the main books. I read them, and can’t wait for them to end so I can get back to the main story.
Oathbringer (4.5 stars)
One thing I don’t think I’m a huge fan of in these books is that each installment changes who the centerpiece of the story is. Kaladin was the main character in The Way of Kings, while Shallan took center stage in Words of Radiance. This go ’round, Dalinar occupies the most space.
That Kaladin was our introduction into this world means he’s my favorite character. I mean, that may not strictly be the only reason – but I’ve found it to be generally true that the character I identify with most is the one I’m first introduced to. That’s probably true for most people, right? That’s why most books start with the perspective of the main character, I guess. It’s not that I don’t like Dalinar or Shallan, but I’ve found myself (throughout previous installments) less interested in their arcs than Kaladin’s.
But Brandon Sanderson likes to play with convention. He deconstructs the fantasy monomyth of the hero’s journey in his Mistborn series, and I guess he’s kind of doing something similar in this series. It’s not that Kaladin isn’t important – he is – it’s that Sanderson wants to do more with this story than show how a poor young man with a noble heritage can rise up and discover his greatness. We’ve seen that story a million times.
So it’s a minor complaint – but it’s persistent.
Anyway, Words of Radiance sort of felt like the end of the story. Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar and Renarin all took up the mantle of Knights Radiant, and Adolin murders Sadeas in cold blood (thus removing someone I had assumed was going to be a key rival). There’s still a great deal of story to be told, but it just felt like we’ve reached an ending.
And then Jasnah is revealed to still be alive. It wasn’t a massive surprise to me, but it took so long to be revealed, that I was starting to think that she may actually be dead for real.
Going into Oathbringer, I think I was starting to have fatigue. There was nothing markedly wrong with this book, but there were stretches where I wasn’t at all interested in Shallan, and even parts of Dalinar’s story that left me a little bored. On top of that, Kaladin seems pretty static, here. Which isn’t to say nothing happens in this book – because a great deal does, but I wasn’t as drawn in as I had been. My mind keeps wandering to other books I want to read, and I keep waiting for the next hammer blow to befall these characters.
The end felt a little more scatter-shot than normal, with the narrative jumping around a lot between characters. The Parshendi have been very successful thus far: Alethkar has fallen, and humanity feels hemmed in for the most part. Taravangian, sometime-genius king of Kharbranth, has given himself over to Odium and sold out the rest of humanity. Teft is now a radiant, and Kaladin decided not too say the words of the fourth ideal. Adolin has confessed to murdering Sadeas, and he also married Shallan (hopefully putting a rest to the “will they, won’t they?” between her and Kaladin). Szeth has become Dalinar’s primary bodyguard, breaking from the rest of the Skybreakers. The Parshendi Venli, sister of Eshonai, has bonded a spren. Dalinar has become….close to a god? I don’t know. He was able to drive Odium away from Thaylen City, helping to turn back the assault on the Oathgate. The biggest reveal in this book, of course, is that humans were the Voidbringers all along – not the Parshendi.
**End of spoilers**
It’s hard to critique Brandon Sanderson. He knows what he’s doing, and is absolutely tireless. He has over 30 planned books in the Cosmere, and this series alone is slated for ten books (of which four have been written, plus two novellas). I can’t imagine how he’s going to fill that much story. With Oathbringer, he seems to have assembled all the pieces. Now it’s just a matter of bringing them together and defeating Odium (the big baddie). I don’t know how that’s going to take seven more books – but Brandon Sanderson is a pro. I’ve never been disappointed in him before, so I trust him to get us there.
I’ve got Dawnkeeper in line to read, and I just got Rythym of War for Christmas, so I’ll be reading those next year. For now, I’m going to take a break from The Stormlight Archive. I don’t think Oathkeeper was an inferior novel at all compared to the previous installments – but I was getting a little exhausted, so my 4.5 rating is more for my experience than it is for the novel, itself.