To begin this critique on the proper proverbial page (no pun intended), I feel the need to disclose the fact that I have been only mildly enthused with Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy works prior to having read this one. Having read the Mistborn trilogy after much acclaim, I was left feeling that Sanderson’s intentions and ability to tell a decently woven tale outshone the actual writing itself. Lumping him in with Patrick Rothfus, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and such, it was fairly easy to dismiss Sanderson as simply the upper echelon of the “new breed” of fantasy authors: Ambitious, a bit too modernized, and sorely lacking the near poetic voice that made JRR Tolkien, Robert Jordan and George RR Martin so enduring.
That said I had been undeniably curious about The Way of Kings since its initial release in hardcover if, for nothing else, the fact that it was incomparably ambitious, even for epic fantasy. Over 400,000 words for a debut piece slated to be the start of a 10-book series… The sheer immensity of the series had my curiosity, abundant glowing reviews notwithstanding. I waited for the paperback and just now completed the massive tome. My only regret is not having immersing myself in this masterwork sooner.
The story itself is a fairly complex character driven piece that really defies accurate comparison save only perhaps to some of Sanderson’s own past works. The reader basically follows the exploits of war torn land through the perspective of a surgeon-turned slave, a thieving young woman, a guilt-laden assassin, and the honorable uncle of a young king.
As has been witnessed in other Sanderson works, perhaps the author’s greatest strength above all others is to tie together the threads of a seemingly disconnected cast with alarming grace and precision. Somehow Sanderson manages the arduous task of telling his story, a story certainly worth the effort by the way, across multiple perspectives without troubling the reader by means of repeating or contradicting himself. Truly this fact alone almost makes the novel worth reading but alas the prose itself has proven worthy to even this hardened skeptic.
For starters Sanderson should be credited for approaching an industry as cliché and overdone as epic fantasy with what I can only describe as “fan-boy” ambition. Just like with Mistborn, one really gets the feeling he doesn’t limit himself based on what “should be done” or more importantly what has been done before. Instead he integrates terminology and science from a wide variety of human history. His magic systems and weaponry often seem to have more in common with science fiction than they do high fantasy. Blades that appear from hilts like lightsabers, magic wielders able to manipulate their mass and surrounding gravity, charms capable of altering the properties of physical elements, these are just a few of the many concepts Sanderson introduces here.
Then there is the world itself: If the technology within hints of science fiction, then very planet serving as the setting of the piece comes straight from the hallowed halls of scifi geekdom. Here we are given a world consisting largely of cracked and splintered rock where violent storms frequently wreak unimaginable havoc. We are told of multiple moons in orbit, each casting a various hue of light on the land. We are given a whole host of crustacean-like inhabitants, sentient cultures, and political backbones from which to draw.
To some purists, this tinkering with the fantasy formula will be off-putting. I recall an interview with Tolkien some time ago whereby the author said that his integration of men, horses, and the like to Middle Earth was the anchor on which to retain relatability; that without fellow humans of our own historical understanding, the whole tale was simply too fantastical. In a way Sanderson does tread some dangerous territory in The Way of Kings. Granted he integrates such staples as a bit of medieval political institutions, concepts of slavery, brutality, superstition in a largely technologically undeveloped civilization; the otherworldliness he incorporates sometimes works against him.
As grand as my opinion of this work has proven, there are a few caveats worth mentioning. The first of which is that Sanderson’s style, for better or worse, is very present here from beginning to end. For those unaware of what this means, I have come to conclude that he writes in a very lackluster style largely absent from the fantasy genre. Wordy descriptions, obsession with minor details such as geographic positioning or the fabric of the wears of each and every character will not be found here. Additionally abundant secondary characters, bouncing story threads, and made-up languages are also shelved. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! The downside is that occasionally Sanderson’s presentation can come off as almost too lax; too straightforward. Again returning to my comparison of a writing style almost reminiscent of fan fiction, Sanderson’s wording and grammatical structure seem to sacrifice beauty or rhythm in favor of getting a point across.
Finally, and in keeping with the Sanderson brand of fantasy, expect a large number of classifications that can only be described as Sandersonisms: “Shardbearers, Voidbringers, Surgebinders, Stormblessed” and so on. Readers familiar with his works will know exactly what I mean but make no mistake, no prior knowledge of anything Sanderson has written prior is required for this one.
In all, The Way of Kings is truly a very unique piece of literature in a genre absolutely rife with recycled trite. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s for everyone, but most fans of epic fantasy will find something quite spectacular within its pages. At the very least, Sanderson’s ability to pull together a bunch of wide-sweeping plot threads, complete with jumps around a timeline within, so brilliantly and seemingly effortless makes considering giving this book a go by itself. I’m certainly glad to have been premature in my having lumped him in with the latest batch of fantasy hype.
What did you think of this review?