The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

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Link: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive)

Summary: An enslaved soldier fights for freedom for himself and his friends.  An assassinated king’s brother works to unite his kingdom while trying to understand mysterious visions.  An artist sets out to steal a powerful magical object from a secretive but powerful scholar.  All the while, a dark evil is looming and growing in this popular 1200-page high fantasy, just the first installment of a series called The Stormlight Archives.

Thoughts: Whew.  Long book.  And I am slow reader, so that took me a good amount of time.  But I very much enjoyed it.  Sanderson’s writing is very clear and concise, so it’s an easy read, even if a long one.  It was always clear what was going on.  The pacing was rather slow for me; characters spent a great deal of time in their heads, and there were quite a few conversations that, while they helped to establish characters and their world, didn’t really seem to move the story along, at least not as quickly as they could have.  There were also some storylines and side-POVs that didn’t seem to contribute much at all.

A few critiques: In the story, our hero, Kaladin, is enslaved and decides to try to give hope to his enslaved comrades.  Most of them have resigned themselves to not caring about life, awaiting their inevitable meaningless deaths.  But by the end of the book, Kaladin has inspired them all!  Yay!  Not only that, but they all look to him as their faithful leader!  Yay!  Something always kind of feels false and manufactured to me when a large group of people are not only converted, but so willingly treat someone else like a commander to be obeyed, respected, and still treated as an equal.  It just seems too easy, too convenient.

Most of the humor didn’t work for me.  One of my particular pet peeves is when a character says something witty and “all the other characters laughed.”  Groan.  I prefer the sort of straight man comedy, where one character jokes and the other character fails to see the humor.  It’s not really what the character says that’s funny, it’s the contrast in attitude between the characters.  For example, look at the humor in Star Wars.  Look at the contrasting attitudes of the droids; one is a  worry-wort, while the other is confident.  Look at the contrasting attitudes of Han Solo and Luke; one is cynical, the other is not.  Look at just about every comedy duo.

In The Way of Kings, there’s a character named Shallan who prides herself on being witty.  From page 65 (Mass market paperback edition):

That had established in her what  her nurses had referred to as an “insolent streak.”  And the sailors were even more appreciative of a witty comment than her brothers had been.

“Well,” Shallan said … “I was just thinking this: You say that my beauty coaxed the winds to deliver us to Kharbranth with haste.  But wouldn’t that imply that on other trips, my lack of beauty was to blame for us arriving late?”

“Well . . . er . . .”

“So in reality,” Shallan said, “you’re telling me I’m beautiful precisely one-sixth of the time.”

“Nonsense!  Young miss, you’re like a morning sunrise you are!”

“Like a sunrise?  By that you mean entirely too crimson”—she pulled at her long red hair—“and prone to making men grouchy when they see me?”

He laughed, and several of the sailors nearby joined in.

I’m not sure exactly what Sanderson was going for, but, to me, this certainly isn’t witty.  Still, the scene could be funny if, instead of laughing, the sailors don’t get it or don’t think she’s funny.  That way, even if I don’t think her words are all that clever, I’d still be laughing at the situation.  And I wouldn’t say anything about Shallan thinking of herself as witty; I would let her dialog speak for itself.

One final critique: In the world of The Way of the Kings, women read and write, while men don’t.  While this may be an interesting worldbuilding twist, it makes no sense to me.  Reading and writing are very powerful communication tools; I have trouble relating to any male character who cannot recognize that and wouldn’t want that power for himself.  If anything, it would be the other way around, with men reading and writing and women being forbidden from the task.  Or with higher nobles and royalty learning how to read and write while forbidding the lower classes from doing so.  Not that that would be good, but it would certainly be more realistic.  Men want power, knowledge is power, therefore men will want access to knowledge.

Some praise: What I enjoyed most about the novel was the spiritual theme.  As a character says on page 1037:

“Life before death,” Teft said, wagging a finger at Kaladin.  “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.

“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.”

Teft picked up spheres, putting them in his pouch.  He held the last one for a second, then tucked it away too.  “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.”

Very religious, and certainly Christian.  The book never gets preachy and never tries to knock you over the head with these themes.  I think the above quote is as direct as it gets in terms of dialog.  The danger in being too direct with such themes is that they can easily come across as fake, like a beautifully-wrapped Christmas present with nothing inside.  They are better communicated through story itself.  And Sanderson masterfully fits these themes into the characters’ decisions and the overall plot of the book.  So when characters make big decisions at the end of the novel, they feel dramatically powerful.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel.