Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson: A Review

If you've frequented this blog for any length of time, you already know that I am a big Brandon Sanderson fan. His Mistborn series sits near the top of my Favorite Fantasy Stories of All Time, in spite of the fact that he is not the most skilled of writers. I take that back - he's very skilled at not standing in the way of his stories. His style is very straight-forward, and he doesn't seem to try to wow his readers with polished prose, flowery presentation, clever turns of phrase... he just loads up both barrels and lets loose with a great ride. It is very effective and (to me) very enjoyable.

When The Way of Kings was released in late August 2010, I bought it immediately. The thought of a massive new series (to include a dozen books, I think?) being cranked out by Sanderson seemed a dream come true, not just because I've enjoyed everything of his that I've read before, but because his work ethic sees him releasing new books at a pace far more frequent than most of my other favorite authors. But a funny thing happened after buying the book... I waited. And waited. I loaned the book out, got it back and loaned it out again. I read and re-read the prologue, marveling at how well it set up an epic tale in so few pages. It seemed to forever sit there, begging me to read it. But I wouldn't pick it up. I could say it was the sheer overwhelming size of the thing, but I'd read books that big before it (Martin, Rothfuss) without issue. I don't know why I waited - and I still don't.

But the wait ended last week, when, with an odd mixture of dread and anticipation, I dove in.

To spare you having to wade through this post, I'll cut to the chase first. I ended up really enjoying this book, in spite of some obstacles.

I suppose if I had a chief complaint about fantasy books in general, it would be having to keep track of dozens of odd names, for characters and places and events in histories. Along this line, it was really hard to get my feet under me with this book. Ultimately, Sanderson kept the bulk of the tale alternating between two story lines, so by the time the book was half done, I was able to track the people well enough. The names of the countries and cities, on the other hand, I still am unclear on.

The story is fairly traditional, as far as fantasy goes. The world is threatened by an impending doom. A young man from a backwoods village (Kaladin) is swept up into world events and is forced to mature far faster than he should have. An aged noble warrior (Dalinar) struggles to keep control of his family, his lands and his sanity, in the face of incompetent peers, disgruntled heirs and divine visitations. A young, sheltered woman (Shallan) with a talent for art and research comes to a big city on an impossible mission to help save her family from destruction - and uncovers mysteries both personal and international that set her on a new, dangerous path. The heretical daughter of a slain king (Jasnah) seeks to find out why her father was killed, and discovers a plot that may bring about the end of the world. An extremely skilled assassin (Szeth) employs ancient arts to make him an unstoppable killing machine, all the while conflicted and guilty over the blood he must spill.

The story is sound, and the chapters involving Kaladin were especially captivating. There are supernatural elements, time travel elements, magical monsters, extreme weather, anthropological discoveries, theological discussions, historical puzzle-solving, elemental magics and more battlefield action than you can shake a spear at.

My main beef would be that the book felt bloated. There are odd chapters wedged in that introduce new characters/places, and then are not heard from again. There are occasional stretches of boring description, and scenes with dialog that doesn't seem to accomplish anything. Many characters began to blend into one another in my mind, since they were so similar, in speech and in personality. Many occasions of "Wait, who is this guy again?" Many occasions where I read exchanges between two characters, only to realize that I had them mixed up, and when I re-read the scenes, accurately assigning statements to the right characters, it made no difference, as far as my understanding what was happening.

However, there were far more scenes that were very memorable. The bridge runs on the Shattered Plains were all memorable. As was the fight with the chasmfiend that saw The Blackthorne come out of hiding (so to speak). Kaladin's transformation, followed by his transformation of Bridge Four, was definitely memorable. Dalinar's visions during the storms were fascinating. Watching Szeth the Truthless manipulate gravity was great fun.

So, ultimately, my opinion is mixed but favorable. There is plenty to love about The Way of Kings, but it isn't entirely smooth sailing. Perhaps you have no problem keeping track of many weirdly-named people. Perhaps you don't mind stretches of description and inconsequential dialog. Perhaps you're not a big fan of violent confrontation and exhibitions of extreme martial skill. Perhaps you enjoy a faster pace with your fantasy tales. In my case, the positives far outweighed the negatives, and I ended up greatly enjoying the book. I will likely buy the sequel as soon as it is released... and then wait half a year or more to crack it open and continue the tale.

Summary: 4/5 A quality ride, and a solid beginning to an epic fantasy series that I will hopefully spend the next decade or two enjoying. Nothing too original, but well done (for the most part) and enjoyable nonetheless.


David Wagner said...

Figures, I'd get the release date wrong... It was actually released in August of 2010. Shows you how well I keep track of time... Did I really wait a year and a half to read this book? Sheesh!

Cursed Armada said...

This book really intrigued me, especially with the cool illustrations throughout the book. I haven't read it yet but I did purchase the box set of the Mistborn novels. I figured if they chose this guy to finish The Wheel of Time then he must be decent. I'm looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about! Good review!

logankstewart said...

Ah, good. I have to say, I read this review with some trepidation, not knowing whether or not you'd like it. I need not have feared. Glad you enjoyed the tale. FYI, The Stormlight Archives will be 10 books long, to fit with the significance of that number in the worlds.

Also, I'll plug my blog here for a moment, if only to get your opinions, if you so desire. I did this is a Group Read last year, and while there's plenty of info and stuff in the Group Read posts, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the last set of questions. They're linked here.

Again, glad you enjoyed this!

David Wagner said...

CA: Definitely worth your time - it will require a lot of it, too! It's huge! Sanderson is a great author. He knows his stuff, and he's not afraid to tackle big (somewhat philosophical) issues.

Logan: Wasn't sure where I should post my answers, Logan, so I emailed them to you.

Abbie Josephsen said...

Glad you enjoyed it in the end :) Yes, it was hard to track with the names, and I was a little confused with the brief interludes of random people (like the fish guy) but the girl with the photo thing and no grass was interesting, becuase it kinda gave you an idea of what Szeth's people are like.
But the bridge runs, the transformation of the group, and the ultimate end were AWESOME!!!! if you plan on waiting a year and a half again for book two, let me read it in the interim :)

kristacole said...

I was a big fan of this book! Loved loved it! I really love books that jump around from character to character most of my favorite books do that so it wasn't very hard for me to to follow get dragged in and never come out. But there were definitely some slow times where I was ready to get back to the bridge crew, but over all I really enjoyed this one and am anxiously awaiting the next book :-) good review Dave glad you liked it!