Monday, March 14, 2011

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is indulgent. Book One of a planned ten book series called The Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings can be considered little else. Indulgent in scope, ambition and word count. This sense of scale carries through to every element of The Way of Kings and for the most part succeeds.

This indulgence even manifests in the physical aspect of the book. First, its a giant tome, eclipsing one thousand pages. Beyond that though is the obvious money lavished on the production of the book. The front cover is embossed with a sword glyph, what I assume will become the calling card of the series. Within you will find two distinct color maps on the front and rear covers. In the traditional spots for world maps, you will find yet a third distinct map.

Stunningly, you will also find full page black and white artwork spread throughout the book at divisions in the narrative. Each of these pieces of artwork are designed to look like pages from a narrative character’s notebook. Lastly, the heading of each chapter is adorned with one of the ubiquitous glyphs. I find all of this incredibly simply because of the additional cost involved. This is a statement by Tor of their faith in Brandon Sanderson and an investment as this is only the first book in a planned series of ten. The effort gone into this hardcover I would normally expect to see only in a special edition book, not a mass market hardcover.

Moving on to the narrative you mustimmediately take into account the fact that this is the first of ten books. Even the titles of the series, The Stormlight Archives, and opening book’s titles, The Way of Kings, are preponderous; evoking a sense of enormity. You much hold this fact in you head because you are going to be bombarded with information. Right from the beginning, the book is an enormous info dump. Brandon has gone through great lengths to build a living breathing world...and world that is utterly alien.

I must give credit to Brandon in developing a world that is so alien and one that breaks with the standard medieval Europe fare. For one, I do not think the average reader could have dealt with the amount of exposition occurring in this book if the world itself wasn’t so vibrant and new. The best short description I can provide is to think of the world as a giant coral reef, above ground. The world is routinely battered by gigantic storms that scour the earth. To protect itself, most fauna has chitinous shells and the flora retracts into stony growths ; i.e. coral. To that end, you can feel the joy leaping off the pages as Mr. Sanderson shares this imaginative new universe with his readers.

The culture of the world is the only thing that slips into more familiar modes; being a largely medieval culture. Since this a world developed by Brandon Sanderson, there is an complex, rational and clearly defined magic system. With such a structured basis, magic functions in nearly the same capacity as science. Brandon also goes a bit further than most fantasy writers and integrates the magic system into the economy and power structure of the standing culture.

Perhaps the only element of the cultural world building I disliked was the trite handling of gender roles. I can only guess at the rationale but essentially women are literate and the men illiterate. As a result, women are the merchants, scientists, artists, etc. Men exist only to perform manual labor and kill each other. I found this ploy at progressive gender roles to be rather obvious and banal. But, I could simply be reading to much into the world building.

The only thing not over the top and indulgent were the number of main characters. There are at present three main points of view: Kaladin, Shallan and Dalinar. Joining them are a number of minor characters that also have their own point of view. So, the cast, for now at least, is fairly restrained but this could easily grow as the series evolves.

Structurally, each chapter is devoted to one of the main characters point of view and every couple chapters there is a shift to another point of view. At major narrative breaks, Brandon introduces interstitial segments as Interludes where the meta-plot is slowly doled out. In these interstitial moments the fourth main character, according the dust jacket, is found and goes by the name of Szeth.

As I alluded to earlier, The Way of Kings is essentially one giant introduction. Each of the main characters is introduced, their motives described and personalities defined. They are slowly linked to each other as the story unwinds, foreshadowing the greater plot. There are numerous ominous and obvious hints spread through out the book of the coming calamity. By the end of the book you have a rough idea that the shit is about to hit the fan and how each of the main characters is special and has a unique part to play...and not much else.

The Way of Kings strengths reflects Brandon’s strengths as a world builder and story teller. The world is wonderful and original and feels like a character all by itself. Setting the world into motion is the story, which by the hints found in The Way of Kings is going to intricate and fascinating. Both of these elements, story and world building, are the keystone by which the rest of the book hangs.

What I did not like again reflects on Brandon’s skill, this time what I view as his weakness; character development and dialog. Given that the book is over one thousand pages, the characters themselves seem to develop little if at all. Kaladin is the most developed character. Much care is given to his past history and how he came to be a slave but even then there is not much depth.

Kaladin advances little beyond having an enormous sense of honor and self-sacrifice. It was his sense of honor that led him to his current miserable station in life. His sense of self-sacrifice won’t let him give up while there are those that need his help, such as his fellow slaves. But that is it. Kaladin is a black and white character. I find this lack of a grey area to be a weakness in Brandon’s character development. Every character’s point of view always seems to view the world in terms of right and wrong.

Exacerbating this issue is that all of the main characters have this same predicament; being their sense of honor and self sacrifice. Especially bothersome is Dalinar. Bothersome because you could easily see Dalinar and Kaladin being the same character. There is very little to differentiate the two in the narrative and they feel interchangeable. Perhaps they will diverge at a later point in the story but for now, they seem redundant.

Even Shallan is not immune to this issue but she at least has a little bit more to differentiate her character. Brandon is successful at capturing a sense of youth and naivety in Shallan and these are the primary qualities that separate her from the older and more pragmatic Kaladin and Dalinar. Otherwise, she shares the same sense of honor and self sacrifice. What doesn’t help this issue is that the minor character who shares scenes with Shallan, Jasnah, is basically a female version of Dalinar/Kaladin. That in itself is sort of ironic as in the narrative she is Dalinar’s sister. But, Jasnah’s character water’s down the unique elements of Shallan. These shared character traits serves to homogenize all three main characters points of view.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The Way of Kings. The world building and story are first rate but Brandon was given enormous leeway. The amount of exposition allowed into the novel is amazing and I can imagine few other authors given that luxury. Unfortunately the character building was not up to the same level of excellence but not enough to seriously hinder the book. Fortunately, given that there are yet nine books to go, the character issues can be mended as the series evolves. The Way of Kings is an indulgent book as it seems that Tor has given Brandon free reign. But, I have faith that Brandon will not abuse this freedom and instead in The Stormlight Archives, deliver a defining fantasy epic; something we can all indulge in for years to come.

McMillan: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Image Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0765326355

2 comments:

  1. This is a book that may take a reader that is not of the generation that wants instant gratification. If the reader is willing to spend some time in Sanderson's indulgence they may find a world that has more substance than the run of the mill fantasy novel. There are books out there geared to teenagers that may be more attractive. I loved The Way of Kings and cannot wait for the sequel. CL

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  2. Very true. The world itself to me is a silent character. I loved that obvious care went into not only crafting the world but crafting something new.

    I think Sanderson walks a fine line though with the amount of up front description that is going on. But with something so fresh, its hard to complain.

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