Review: The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, Book One)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Published by: Gollancz
Brandon Sanderson seems to have taken from the late Robert Jordan (whose Wheel of Time sequence Sanderson recently completed) the mantle of ‘most ubiquitous’ fantasy author. Gollancz’s recent UK/Australia printing of his Mistborn sequence (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages) has paved the way for the massive first chapter of a new saga – The Way of Kings, apparently the first book of the Stormlight Archive.
This unwieldy, 1000-page epic is a masterpiece of the fantasy genre’s most treasured trope: worldbuilding. Filled with maps and sketches, The Way of Kings is as much almanac as novel, spending pages and pages building the environment the characters inhabit.
The world of Roshar is bleak and rocky, thrashed by tempestuous storms. Life is only possible in sheltered places, or with protective adaptation. Across this world, we follow several different plot threads. A noble-born girl seeks a mentor, and the salvation of her family. A young man who gave up studying to be a surgeon to protect his brother is sold into slavery at the whim of a corrupt lord. The son of another lord finds himself enmeshed in the politics of a near-endless war.
It is to Sanderson’s great credit that the multiple perspectives in this sprawling novel are so tightly controlled. The sheer weight of story never becomes overwhelming. However, due to the immensity of the world the author has created, Sanderson seems to find it necessary to submit the reader to an explanation of every element – whether that be graphically with the (handsomely rendered) maps and sketches mentioned above, or by shoehorning detail upon detail into the narrative.
To a certain extent, this is understandable – there are significant differences from the typical cod-medieval fantasy setting familiar to readers of Sanderson’s predecessors – Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and the aforementioned Robert Jordan. The social structure, for example, is essentially feudal but with quirks that set it apart from the usual King-Prince-Lord-Duke-Baron-etc hierarchy that squats in most epic fantasy like a plague rat. The magic system – powers derived from charged gemstones – is significantly different from the norm, too.
These differences don’t need the level of exposition given here. The fantasy clichés of orcs, trolls, elves and dwarfs, of all-powerful wizards and dragon-slaying heroes, have been in decline for years now; authors such as KJ Parker, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and Richard Morgan are only the more recent examples of fantasy novelists who step away from the Tolkien tropes. Placing so much emphasis on worldbuilding, explaining every detail to the audience, does this novel a disservice.
There are reasons that heroic and epic fantasy work – the hero’s quest, the battle against a dark menace and so on – are deeply resonant. These elements are particularly strong in Sanderson’s other work, with more than enough variation on the themes to carry through here. This is not to say that The Way of Kings should have been denuded of its setting – Sanderson has created a fascinating world that more than deserves his storytelling abilities.
In fact, The Way of Kings is a very good book. It is difficult not to invest in the struggles of these characters, to look forward to the next chapter in which we meet them. The cast is richly drawn, even if they don’t stray too far from fantasy archetypes. The action and the intricate political games taking place in and around the war on the Shattered Plains make for taut, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Way of Kings is the beginning of what will probably be a bestselling fantasy sequence, and one that will make a fine inclusion to a fantasy reader’s bookshelf.
- Review: The City & The City by China Miéville British alt-fantasy titan China Miéville returns with a provocative novel...