- Genre: Epic Fantasy
- Series: The Stormlight Achive 1
- Pages: 1252 (paperback)
Just look at this book! The paperback is so fat that the author’s name and the title are written horizontally on the spine! I’m feeling quite some trepidation, since I have never read any Sanderson novel and here I am, jumping right into the deep end of the pool like a shivering kid. I always dismissed Sanderson as the most generic epic fantasy writer, even though I didn’t know his work, but I will give it a shot. And I have to admit that the orange-and-teal cover looks very generic, even though the artwork is nice.
Well… here I go. *jumps*
After the first few chapters it is clear that The Stormlight Archive will be a series in which magic and fantasy are much more on the foreground as for example in A Song of Ice and Fire. The world Sanderson creates is suffused with magic, to the point that little sprites (spren) appear everywhere as floating little spirits. There are giant crustaceans as pack animals and sorcery is full of streams of energy. The world itself, the weather, biology and geology, are unusual too and receive lots of attention in Sanderson’s creative efforts. The world Roshar and particularly the Shattered Plains is a quite unique and fascinating setting.
A very good decision made is that he restricts his massive story to only a handful of point-of-view characters, and he chose some interesting people to follow. That’s another way of Sanderson’s in making a story go easy on you, and quickly makes you invested. They all receive good introductions and Sanderson is very adept at drawing us into his characters’ struggles and making us feel who they are and what moves them. The characters are very well developed and it is easy to root for them.
Kaladin is a young fighter who once was a soldier and wants to be one again, but right now he is a slave and ends up in a whole lot of unfortunate situations. Kaladin is a confident, ballsy guy whom you would like to cheer on. His story develops quite slowly, insisting on showing us every step in his development. Shallan is a young woman of a troubled house, making a last desperate effort to prevent her family from falling into poverty. Shallan is a woman with a personality I can identify with very closely, although her witty talk was unrealistic. Dalinar is an ageing general who receives visions that may have great import. He is an older, thoughtful guy whom you just feel has a very important role to play. He is so unsure at the moment, but following him will be very interesting. It is my understanding that The Way of Kings focuses mostly on Kaladin, and subsequent novels will focus on Shallan and Dalinar.
Sanderson’s style is very readable in the sense that you won’t have to work to understand the text, but, like George R.R. Martin’s, neither is it exceptional. His writing is very measured and balanced. His text is just easy reading and he has a very good sense for how much exposition is needed to introduce characters and how to restrain descriptions so that the story keeps flowing forward. At first, at least. Action scenes are highlights, as he expertly orchestrates the rise of tension, and the pages are devoured quickly. Although his writing does not stand out compared to some virtuoso writers, Sanderson is impressively solid. An allrounder.
The tight focus on just a handful of main characters makes The Way of Kings much more emotionally involving to me than other mega-series like Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is a clear strength of Sanderson’s writing, although the Malazan series created a far deeper sense of time, history and godlike entities. Sanderson’s approach to world-building differs from Erikson’s, focusing much more on the biology and geography. There are interesting versions of classes and privilege in this book, such as a class system based on eye color and the idea that it is considered unmanly to be able to read.
I am going to be a bit negative now. I know that Brandon Sanderson is an incredibly popular writer, but I’ve got to mention that this novel has flaws as well.
I am not impressed with the names he conjures. Kaladin, Dalinar, Adolin, these sound like they come from a World-of-Warcraft name generator and picked only because they sound dynamic. And seriously, how am I supposed to pronounce a name like Tvlakv? That’s just alphabet soup. Palindromes also don’t impress. Sanderson also loves to connect words to make them a thing, like stormlight, highstorms, highprince, stormfather, brightlord, shardblades, lighteyes, everstorm. (The story has a lot of storms.) While Sanderson is an expert world-builder, he uses these “established techniques” that were fresh a few decades ago but start to feel like a requirement for epic fantasy today.
After 800 pages, I was begging the text: please, make something happen. Tolkien went from Bilbo’s birthday to Helm’s Deep in so many pages. The novel steadily plods on for hundreds of pages without there being a clear direction to the story. The individual scenes are all riveting while from a larger perspective there are no stakes yet. We do not know what is important, nor is there a clear adversary. After 300 pages, all the characters are neatly introduced and it feels time for the story to take it up a notch, but that doesn’t happen. We have essentially a 900-page introduction without much plot.
Not all the storylines worked for me. Shallan’s “relationship” with a certain priest bored me. He was borderline creepy. If I were Shallan and he would approach me with another jam sandwich, I would roll my eyes hard. Their witty banter felt forced. Jasnah does not talk like a real professor, because real professors are still human (most of them at least). She was insufferable. I could also have done without all the flashbacks to Kaladin’s youth. It didn’t seem all that important to understanding who he was and it halted the story in its tracks.
Overall, The Way of Kings is still a fine novel. I am impressed with this world. I feel invested in these characters and I am looking forward to book two: Words of Radiance. However, this novel did feel bloated and the writing was not all that special. I doubt if this series is going to redefine the genre. Nevertheless, the world Sanderson creates here is fascinating and I am interested in learning more about it.