With Apple and Amazon currently offering free copies of The Way of Kings, the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s ambitious “Stormlight Archive”, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this sprawling fantasy.
Sanderson is no stranger to phonebook fantasy – he was tapped by Robert Jordan‘s widow to finish the “Wheel of Time” series, and his own “Mistborn” series carries some heft as well. But the “Stormlight Archive” is his In Search of Lost Time, the grand work he will be remembered for.
So if you love getting lost in a fantastic world, this is the epic for you— 1000 pages of world-building, well-developed characters, riddles and mysteries, not to mention an intricate magic system.
The story revolves around four central characters — Kaladin, a slave with magical powers connected to a mysterious spirit named Syl; Shallan, a young scholar trying to save her family from crippling debt; Dalinar, general in the Alethi army and the brother of slain King Gavilar of Alethkar; and Szeth, the mysterious “assassin in white” who killed the Gavilar and plunged the kingdom into war with the alien Parshendi.
There is a lot of material for the reader to absorb. Sanderson jumps POV between these characters in the main chapters, as well as several other seemingly unconnected characters – represented in short interludes. Kaladin is the main focus of The Way of Kings, alternating between his present timeline as a slave in the Alethi army, and his past — giving up his life as a surgeon to protect his younger brother as a soldier in the war.
Much of The Way of Kings is introduction to the world. After an explosive beginning, Sanderson eases the reader into the land of Roshar, a hardy planet where magical storms buffet the land and the armies of Alethi and the Parshendi battle for wealthy resources on a battlefield of featureless plateaus.
Dalinar’s mystical visions reveal the history of Roshar’s mythic protectors the Knights Radiant, while Shallan’s studies present allow Sanderson to detail the geologic and botanical features of Roshar. It’s an effective way to immerse the reader in the land without resorting to info dumps.
There are plenty of mysteries within The Way of Kings as well. Sanderson sets the series in his grand-unified “Cosmere” universe, where all of his other novels take place on different planets. Characters crossover from his other works, providing Easter eggs for longtime fans to find. Interludes introduce seemingly unconnected characters, while epigrams at the beginning of each chapter hint at greater conspiracies and demand rereads to unlock their clues, often leaving more questions.
But ultimately what makes The Way of Kings so satisfying is Sanderson’s character development. Kaladin’s depression and hopelessness is palpable, every time he attempts to be the leader his men think he is, disaster inevitably strikes. Despite those around him recognizing his unique leadership qualities, he refuses to see it in himself, wallowing in despair, almost to the point of giving up everything.
Kaladin’s moodiness can sometimes be frustrating to the reader. Often you want to reach into the book and shake him, but that shows how easily it is to get invested in Sanderson’s well-crafted characters.
That said, the story is a little slow going, at least until the final act. After the initial flourish of Szeth’s assassination of Gavilar, the pace slows considerably. But the character development more than makes up for the lack of whirlwind duels or epic battles. And the last act packs enough action to make up for the previous 800 pages or so.
There is no real conclusion at the end, however. Sanderson is in for the long haul with “The Stormlight Archive” – ten novels divided into two discrete quintets. The second installment, Words of Radiance, came out earlier this year, adding more characters, more POVs and more mysteries.
Don’t think this is a retread of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, however. While it shares the multiple POVs and lacks the “fellowship of heroes” quest mechanics that dominated high fantasy until the ’90s, Sanderson’s novel is almost anti-Grimdark. There’s plenty of blood and carnage, and quite a bit of moral ambiguity behind the Alethi war effort, but even in Kaladin’s darkest moments, the story never loses hope. The heroes may go through hell, but Ned Stark wouldn’t lose his head in Sanderson’s world.
No matter how bleak the situation becomes, there will be good at the end.
Again, the eBook of The Way of Kings is available for free, to US customers only*, through Amazon and iTunes. So you aren’t out anything to delve into Roshar. Although odds are you will become hooked, and spend 20 years waiting for the entire epic to unfold.
And then end up buying the hardcover editions so can get the stunning artwork as well…