The Way of Kings Review. The Start of a Groundbreaking New Epic?
With the release of Oathbringer, book three of the Stormlight Archive scheduled in November, I thought I’d reread the series’ first two books. Here is my review of the first book, The Way of Kings.
When talking about the best fantasy series of all time, people often say Lord of the Rings, or Wheel of time, or recently, a Song of Ice and Fire. And now, a new contender for the title arises, the Stormlight Archive is a (planned) ten-book series by the author who also finished Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s untimely death, Brandon Sanderson.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is the first book of his Stormlight Archive series. It follows four main characters, Kaladin Stormblessed, a soldier-turned-slave, Dalinar Kholin, an old-school war general, Shallan Davar, a young scholar with cunning plans, and Adolin Kholin, son of Dalinar, a master duelist and a respectable nobleman. The story is set in a planet called Roshar, still in the same universe as Sanderson’s other adult fantasy books. The plot is set thousands of years after the Knight Radiants (the protector of the human race) betrayed the humans and left their weapons and armors (Shardblade and Shardplate respectively) for the taking, now, the humans’ politics and warfare are defined by those very weapons and armors.
While this book’s setting and creatures are (literally) otherworldly, it touches on a lot of very human themes, like racism, slavery, trauma and depression. One thing I found interesting is that unlike in our real world, the racism in Roshar is not based on skin color, but rather it is based on the color of people’s eyes, the elites are called the lighteyes, while the ones oppressed, the common people, are the darkeyes. This is a very major part of the story. While there are four main PoV characters, the main one for this book is Kaladin, who is (at the beginning of the story) a darkeyed slave. Also, part of his story arc is to convince himself that not all darkeyes are good, and not all lighteyes are bad.
Unlike most reviews, let’s talk about the bad things first. The writing in this book is not exactly fancy, unlike authors like Guy Gavriel Kay or Patrick Rothfuss, Sanderson’s prose is concise and accessible. Some might say it’s boring, but that’s just a matter of taste. And then, the hardcover copy of this book is 1007 pages long, with a book that long, there’s a very small chance that the story is always fast paced and never slow, and The Way of Kings is no exception. At the beginning, the plot is rather slow and sometimes it felt like there’s a bit too much exposition in the writing, which significantly slows the pacing of the story. Also, there’s some parts of the worldbuilding that I have to nitpick, for example, in a world where men are hungry and obsessed for power, why didn’t they learn to read/write? But other than those, I found nothing else to complain.
Now to the good things, first of all, the characters. While he is not known for his engaging characters, in this, Sanderson somehow managed to convey a very epic and grand scale of the story while mainly only following four characters. Out of the four, my personal favorite is Kaladin, his inner struggle and flashback chapters were really interesting and provided a lot of insight of the man he really is and how he became that man. His background as a surgeon and soldier proved to be very important as he tried to provoke an uprising among his fellow slaves.
Adolin and Dalinar are on the Shattered Plains fighting the seemingly-endless war against the Parshendi, who had sent an assassin to kill their king a few years prior. Their House, the Kholins, especially Dalinar, is the only one who still uphold the ancient Codes in War in a society that sees this war as a competition. This caused them to become a sort of outcast among the other houses that are waging war in the Shattered Plains. My favorite things about their chapters is that often times it’s filled with insightful discussion about what it is and what it means to become a leader. Other times, when they’re not discussing such things, their chapters are filled with badass fight scenes against monstrous creatures and Parshendi. And since both Adolin and Dalinar have Shardplates and Shardblades, it makes the fight scenes more exciting.
Shallan Davar is a minor lighteye from the far away country of Jah Keved, in the beginning of the story, she is on her way to a small kingdom named Kharbranth, where the king’s sister, Jasnah Kholin resides. Shallan is a quick-witted young woman who is striving to become Jasnah’s ward. But unbeknownst to Jasnah, Shallan has an ulterior motive and she’s very desperate to get what she wants. While Shallan is not a bad character at all (her character development from a shy and timid young woman to a witty scholar was interesting to read), her “quick-wit” sometimes annoy me so much that I wanted to just skim her chapters. At times, it was so bad that it felt like the quips you’d find on a Marvel movie, but much more frequent.
Now let’s get to the things this book did great. First, the worldbuilding, and I want to focus on the magic system. Like his other series, especially Mistborn, Sanderson’s magic system in this book is an intricate magic system which follows his “Laws of Magic”. And for some people who like more vague magic system like in Lord of the Rings or a Song in Fire and Ice, they may very well dislike this rigid and limited magic system. However, I personally like it, because with magic systems that has limitations and are internally consistent logically, you can set up foreshadowing with ease and the payoff are usually satisfying, knowing that it all make sense. (The debate of these two types of magic systems are akin to the debate of hard science fiction or soft science fiction, but that’s for another post.) Right at the start, in the Prologue, we are introduced to one form of magic, Lashings, which is basically the ability to control the gravity of an object, sounds cool? It is. Later in the book, we found out that there are other types of magic out there, and the possibility of great fight scenes with these various magical abilities are endless.
Another thing about his worldbuilding is how unique it is, sure, it may not be as deep as Malazan’s hundreds of years worth of lore, but do keep in mind that this is only the first book of the series. There are still a lot of gaps between the times of the Knight Radiants and the present of our protagonists. But what it lacks in depth it compensates in vastness. Using the various interludes, Sanderson explores the areas which are not (yet) involved in the main storyline, but maybe involved in the future books.
Also, if you’ve read Sanderson’s other Cosmere books, you may or may not notice some characters from his other books lurking in the background of the chapters. So far, I’ve found three. One is pretty much a regular and has always been in all of the Cosmere books, while the other two are from Sanderon’s other book series.
Overall, The Way of Kings is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, for a time, it was the best, but then I read the sequel, Words of Radiance, and it changed. While the slow pacing is undoubtedly a weak point of the book, the positives definitely overshadows it. It’s a book worth reading, especially if you’re looking for a high fantasy series with great worldbuilding and magic systems.