The Way of Kings
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Oh, The Way of Kings…
Brandon Sanderson’s novel is everything that we look for in epic fantasy: vast and detailed landscapes, an assortment of noble and flashy characters, intense warfare, a complex magic system, and an open and endless world driven by the hand of fate.
Better yet, it’s only the first book in ten planned volumes in The Stormlight Archive.
It’s natural that Sanderson – who was sought out by Robert Jordan to complete the epic Wheel of Time series upon his death – would create his own epic saga. I’m overwhelmingly glad that he did.
While it has everything that I could have hoped for, it also reminds me of the epithet: you get what you wish for. The Way of Kings is enormous. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of landscapes, flashbacks, battles, skirmishes, bickering, food, brawls, assassination, romance…no complaint, just a mild warning.
You can find the full plot on the wiki. Here, I’ll give a much shorter version.
The Heralds are demi-gods that left the world years ago. They were caught in a neverending cycle of life and death – tasked with preventing the Voidbringers from destroying the world.
The current story picks up thousands of years later, long after the Heralds had left the earth and the Knights Radiant – a group of men and women who could assume special powers – had withered away. Like most epic fantasies, it follows a slew of characters.
The first – and most brief – is Szeth. He is bound by an “oathstone” to do the bidding of whichever master holds it. He has powers that let him move incredibly fast – perfect abilities for an assassin. He is tasked to assassinate figures in high places.
Kaladin is a slave in the Alethi army that’s waging a war on the Shattered Plains – a desert-like plain “shattered” by deep canyons that are dried up. He is a nihilist at first. He’s forced to carry bridges that allow the army to cross the canyons. Although it may seem safer than being a soldier, we soon learn that the bridgemen are forced to run out in front of the army’s front-line to set the bridge. They are targeted by the enemy’s archers and most do not survive.
Across the canyons are the Parshendi – another race that naturally grow armor on top of their skin. They are related to the Parshmen – docile servants who are spread out across the nations of the world – but we don’t know how.
Kaladin miraculously survives every run on the plains as most of his fellow bridgemen die. He changes his perspective from being hopeless to caring about those around him. He forms a group of men who train together and become known as Bridge Four.
Kaladin is constantly pushing the borders of what he is allowed to do, but finally goes too far. He ruins a battle for his army by trying to protect his men, and is punished by being left outside, chained-up, during a Highstorm – a brutal storm of wind and lightning that nobody expects to survive without shelter.
Within the same war-camp as Kaladin, but at the absolute opposite end of the social hierarchy, is Highprince Dalinar Kholin. He is the brother of the murdered Alethi king and is known as the Blackthorn for his strength in battle.
Dalinar has been reading The Way of Kings, an old book about the Codes – a set moral principles for rulers to lead their nations. He has become obsessed with the book and stops participating in battles. This goes against the Alethi tradition of winning honor and respect through battle. Dalinar’s son, Adolin, doesn’t like the change he sees in his father. It doesn’t help that the other Highprinces criticize him behind his back.
Shallan is across the ocean, far from the Shattered Plains, attempting to steal a Soulcaster – a device that allows its user to transform objects – from Jasnah Kholin (Dalinar’s niece and the dead king’s daughter).
Shallan pretends to be a scholar seeking to study under Jasnah. She hopes to gain her trust to steal the Soulcaster in order to bring it back to her family that is buried in debt. Shallan soon discovers that she likes being Jasnah’s pupil, and stuggles with what she must do.
Shardplates are a type of armor passed down from the Knights Radiant. Wearing the armor, a soldier recieves superhuman strength and speed. The armor is nearly impossible to break, expect by Shardblades.
Shardblades are swords passed down from the Knights Radiant. They become “bound” to the owner over time. They vanish into thin air whenever the Shardbearer desires. The bearer can summon the blade again at will – having to wait ten heartbeats before it appears in his or her hands.
Shardplates and blades are rare. Nobody knows how to manufacture them anymore, so they can only be won through battles or duels. The Alethi highprinces are often at war with one another merely for winning shards.
Shards are infused with Stormlight, a magic-like substance that can be captured during storms (storm light). Curiously enough, money is also infused with stormlight, and people will generally not except spheres that have lost it. It is therefore a valuable substance in more ways than one.
Shards are only owned by lighteyes – the highest social caste. Below the lighteyes are the darkeyes – the vast majority of the population. At the bottom of the caste system are the Parshendi – the docile servants that are somehow related to the warlike Parshmen.
Within each caste, there are hierarchies. Darkeyes can be either “middle class” or slaves, but they are almost never in positions of authority. Lighteyes can be kings, queens, officers, or middle-class. Even though they may not be as wealthy as some darkeyes, they still maintain social authority.
Kaladin is a darkeyes. His father was a surgeon. He has struggled his whole life under the oppression of lighteyes. Highprince Dalinar, on the other hand, is a lighteyes. Sanderson focuses extensively on this issue. It’s clear that he is concerned with injustices in society, it just sometimes comes off as hollow.
There is also a division between the sexes. Men wage war, but aren’t allowed to read or write. Women read, write, and perform the arts and sciences. Women wear a sleeve over one of their hands, which they are not allowed to reveal in public. This is an odd dynamic and made me uncomfortable while reading – surely Sanderson’s goal.
The Way of Kings is a solid epic fantasy and sets the stage for a thrilling saga. Although the amount of detail can be frustrating and even boring at times – Kaladin’s character evolves at a snail’s pace, for example – in its entirety, it’s gripping both because of the action and the detailed character progressions that Sanderson painstakingly creates.
For being such a huge novel, I expected a larger world. But what is there is done with precision; Sanderson chooses to focus on key characters while simply alluding to a larger world to come. Each element of the story has a background and relevance that plays directly into the current series of events.
I am looking forward to Words of Radiance, the next installment of the series. If Sanderson writes as well as he did in The Way of Kings, I will definitely be along for the entire ride.