The following is a guest post from Benny Wallace.
Eight years ago this door stopper of a book was released. This review is, in a sense, eight years late. Nonetheless, at this point in time, Brandon Sanderson is no longer just whispered about in the fantasy genre. From finishing Robert Jordans epic The Wheel of Time, to the Mistborn trilogies, we are now three books into his proposed ten, of the Stormlight Archive. I want to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, mostly due to brevity, though I will have to give you some information on the world and the turnings of it.
The Way of Kings prelude is set 4500 years before the rest of the story even begins. The Prologue of the story, To Kill, is the assassination of the King of Alethkar, by a monk like man who does not wish to kill, on the very night a peace treaty is signed with the strange race known as the Parshendi. In these two opening segments we are introduced to the magic of the world. Swords more valuable than entire kingdoms that can cut through anything, stone, flesh, and bone, leaving behind bodies with burnt out eyes. Magic that changes how gravity works, manipulating how quickly anyone, or thing, can move in any direction. The destruction and terror when those things combined are in an enemy’s hands.
Roshar is a world strikingly different to our own. Hurricane like storms, Highstorms, hundreds of miles wide, with stormwalls of water hundreds of feet into the air, rage against the landscape so viciously that architecture was built specifically in line with which way the torrents of wind and rock and land would crash against towns and cities. These storms are the wildest expression of nature's power, reminding the inhabitants of Roshar of their petty insignificance. Plant life recedes into the ground, and some poor criminals are left out in Highstorms to be judged by the Almighty. Odds of surviving the winds which hurl boulders the size of houses hundreds of feet, the cracking and jagged lightning, and whipping rains are extremely low. Highstorms are difficult to predict, but typically come every few days, while the seasons of Roshar are random - changing every few weeks. Massive constant storms and sporadic season change forces only the hardest of creatures to evolve for survival on Roshar. Crustacean like Chulls, with thick carapace shells, are one of the more popular domesticated animals often used for pulling carts and heavy objects, more so than horses, which are used more in combat.
Sanderson writes these novels with a handful of point of view characters, and one main character per book who gets flashback chapters to fill in and flesh out the motivations of the character in the now. In The Way of Kings, we are first introduced to Kaladin Stormblessed, a young and brash warrior, surgeon, and leader. His squad is lucky, well trained, and eager to fight in the war against the Parshendi. The very next chapter, eight months later, we find Kaladin is also a handful of other things. For reasons unknown to the reader, he has been branded a dangerous slave, and is almost ready to end his life. Sitting behind the bars of a slave traders wagon, being sold off to his now sixth slave owner. For the past eight months Kaladin has suffered relentless beatings, and has made several escape attempts. No small part of the bleak despair Kaladin has is that he is the only person who survived those escape attempts, only to be captured and enslaved again every time. A voice on the wind was the only thing that could reach out to him in his most desperate moments. Sylphrena, a ‘windspren’ who took a particular liking to Kaladin.
Spren are nearly everywhere on Roshar, and as far as I can tell, nearly everything has a Spren. There are windspren, firespren, angerspren, decayspren, deathspren, heatspren, gloryspren, luck, logic, music, pain, and storms. All have spren. Spren are often invisible, and only appear around the development that they are named for. They have a very large role to play in Stormlight Archive, and Sly quickly became one of my favorite characters in the story.
Kaladin’s journey eventually brings him to the front lines of the war he has wanted to be a part of for years.
The Shattered plains
A land of slot canyons and plateaus horizon to horizon upon which war is waged. Armies use large, mobile bridges to move quickly from plateau to plateau, and men to carry those bridges. Crewed by slaves, thieves, and deserters, Kaladin is sold off as a bridgeman and assigned to Bridge Four, a death sentence, in Kaladin's mind. Bridge Four is regarded as the worst bridge crew to be a member of, notably because of the insanely high mortality rate amongst its members. Some of the most horrific things happen to Kaladin and those around him. It seems he can’t go through life without seeing anyone who gets close to him die painfully. There are moments of bleak despair, hardship so painful that I had to put the book down for a while to really let his journey sink in. Moments of leadership and survival, strength, and kinship that gave me hope and had me throwing punches in the air out of excitement and triumph. There were scenes in this book that had me sweating and holding my breath until it became painful. A good painful, the kind of painful I long for in every book since. I was on the edge of my seat everywhere I went with this book. Bridge Four might be one of the greatest arcs and triumphs of writing today. The flashbacks of his life, the good, the bad, the depressing the correlation of his story in the moment. Rarely have I ever been both so wrapped up in the moment and in awe at the writing.
While Kaladin’s chapters and flashbacks give him the focal point of The Way of Kings, the other main characters are just as exciting and add much of the details in the world we are reading. Sanderson is one of the most expert world builders today, and in a separate magic system of his own, he builds this world effortlessly through the eyes of each of his characters in such a unique and profound way. From the depths of depression and outright hatred, to artistry and beauty.
Shallan Davar is a sharp a young woman, and an exceptionally talented artist who is drawing all pictures in the book which give such a great detail and help the world building immensely. This isn’t something I have ever seen before in a fantasy novel, and it’s done so well that I hope it catches on for authors in the future. Her cruel father is dead, and she is traveling far from home across the ocean with eager hopes to continue her education and learning as a ward under Jasnah Kholin, one of the most intelligent, dangerous, and well connected, being the daughter-of-the-assassinated-king, heretics, in the Kingdom.
Shallan is a liar. She is full of wit, and intellect, and deceit. While her pursuit of knowledge is rooted in truth, there are darker and much more personal motives behind what Shallan is after. She learns fast, and quickly realizes that she has her hand in the pot of an altogether different jar than she ever anticipated. Her studies with Jasnah reveal a lot of what is going on in the world, much of what has happened in the past, and much of what is being ignored by people who shouldn’t be ignoring things in the present. Her chapters have a lot of humor in them which grew on me more and more as the thousand plus page book goes on, and though I had a hard time connecting with her personal ‘whys’ in The Way of Kings, I enjoyed her journey immensely. She quickly became one of my favorite characters ever written, in volume two of the Stormlight Archive... But that is for a different review.
Dalinar Kholin, brother to the assassinated King, uncle to the reigning King, father to Adolin and Renarin. General of the Kholin army. In his youth, he was feared as a terrifying and ferocious warrior, the Blackthorn, helping his brother unite Alethkar as one. Since his brother’s death, Dalinar is plagued by guilt and only knows to follow the strict Alethi Codes to stay true to himself and those around him. He is unrentling of his men and sons to follow suit and follow the same codes, even as the Generals of the other armies openly mock them for doing so.
Dalinar has begun seeing visions during Highstorms, believing them to be from the Almighty himself, he eventually seeks help in writing them down to try and figure out what is happening inside his head. Throughout the book, in the visions, he is told to unite the Alethi through peace, instead of conquest, which he and his brother had done in the past.
The War has grown long on the Shattered Plains, and after five years the fighting and vengeance pact hasn’t changed. Many of the Armies no longer fight for the purpose of eliminating the Parshendi but instead fight for control of Gemhearts, from the massive crustacean beasts known as chasmfiends. Worth a fortune, these stones are used for magical abilities called Soulcasting, which offers near limitless opportunities, such as food, grain, housing, energy, light, and more.
Dalinar has grown tired of the clashes of words between Alethi generals fighting for the right to these Gemstones and tries to work together, against the wishes of his sons and those around him. He believes he must unite Alethkar. Convincing the King, his nephew, who sees shadows in the corners of his vision and is in constant fear of ending up like his father, is something that is more fit for a politician, not a warrior of fame and legend.
The Knights Radiant abandoned the world. They were ten orders. They were broken men and women. Traitors, all of them.
They will return.
Life before death - The Radiant seeks to defend life, always. He never kills unnecessarily, and never risks his own life for frivolous reasons. Living is harder than dying. The Radiant's duty is to live free.
Strength before weakness - All men are weak at some time in their lives. The Radiant protects those who are weak, and uses his strength for others. Strength does not make one capable of rule; it makes one capable of service.
Journey before destination - There are always several ways to achieve a goal. Failure is preferable to winning through unjust means. Protecting ten innocents is not worth killing one. In the end, all men die. How you lived will be far more important to the Almighty than what you accomplished.
The Way of Kings is one of the greatest epic fantasy books ever written. I can tell you that the follow up, Words of Radiance, is even better. Don’t let the size of these books intimidate you, the world is rich and wonderful and the characters are telling some of the most incredible stories you will read in our lifetimes. Which is really what this is all about, never before in my life have I read characters so very real, in a fantasy setting. Brandon Sanderson is writing tragedies, comedies, victories, and defeats with the most human stories imaginable. These characters doing fantastic things are so extremely relatable that you will find yourself in deep introspection about what you believe is possible in your world. As these books go on you will see that these characters all have deep problems, and some have very real mental illness. That illness doesn’t hang them up or get them stuck but instead helps them find out what they need to succeed not in spite of their ongoing issues but because of them. I can’t wait for you to join me on this journey, to find out the plots and subplots, the world-hoppers and stories you’ll wake up thinking about.
This book is a 4.5 / 5 stars, and the journey is just beginning.