Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by over-powering visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.
Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.
The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.
Speak again the ancient oaths:
Life before death.
Strength before weakness.
Journey before Destination.
and return to men the Shards they once bore.
The Knights Radiant must stand again.
The Way of Kings is the first installment in Brandon Sanderson’s incredibly popular series, The Stormlight Archive. As usual, I am a little late to the game, as this book was released 10 years ago; but, with book 4 in the series (Rhythm of War) releasing to the public this month, I thought it was a good time to jump on the bandwagon. And what a bandwagon it is!
I mentioned to some folks yesterday that I always come into popular series like this skeptical, looking for flaws. That is not my normal take on reviewing, but with a series as hyped as this one that is how I keep things balanced and honest – prevent myself from becoming a fanboy before even reading it. The gentleman doth protest too much, me thinks. But my resistance proved futile as the book grabbed me from the first scene and refused to let me see the light of day until it had completely taken over my thoughts. I honesty could not put it down. And when I had to put it down I could not stop thinking about it and planning for the next time I could pick it back up. I think my wife was beginning to wonder who the other woman was. Turns out it was a fantasy story… but aren’t they always? Anyway, let us come back to that later.
I think it is really important to address the character set early on in this review, because this book can be very character-driven at times (though, not all the time). There are many main-ish characters to keep track of in this book, with the two main-main protagonists being Kaladin and Shallan. I would actually say, as far as page time, Kaladin is front and center. He is an incredibly interesting character, a man of honor and integrity who is constantly fighting the good fight to accomplish what he thinks is right in the world. This book is full of him forcing his moralism on the people around him, and the reader, as well (and I love it because it aligns with his personality). The problem with moralism? It can often be subjective, porous, and full of gray area. It shifts with the winds, as well, and that is where Kaladin often finds himself: on the wrong side of Highstorm (both literally and figuratively), trying to figure out which way is up.
Interestingly enough, Shallan’s story (while different in form) is not all that dissimilar. Of course, she is no soldier, but that does not mean she does not find herself in precarious situations all the time. The difference is Shallan does not start in the same place as Kaladin: while Kaladin is attempting to work himself from the ground up, Shallan started as a noble(ish) and is attempting to retain that status for herself and her family. Her original intentions are not necessarily as righteous as Kaladin’s (depends on your perspective – I will accept alternate arguments), but she soon finds herself having to reposition her beliefs and sense of right and wrong. That is one of my favorite aspects of this book: nothing is cut-and-dried, black-and-white. Every character, action, and event is filled to the brim with nuance and moral ambiguity that I found myself changing my mind constantly, as well.
There are so many other great characters, here, also. The Kholins, who are a ruling party, as well as all the Highprinces. This setup makes for a ton of political intrigue, alliance-making and -breaking, backstabbing, and secret agreements. The list of characters is a mile long, every one of them extremely well-developed and not a one of them wasted space. Sanderson has presented a buffet of characters in this series, and I am not sure how the author is able to make them all so interesting. But it is definitely something at which the author has succeeded.
Of course, you cannot talk Sanderson without talking world-building (I know this being the Sanderson scholar that I am, having now read one of his books *Winky Face*). The history and detail (both explicit and implicit) that are present in every scene is one of the aspects of this book that makes it so engrossing. Each conversation and event is filled with hundreds of years of background narrative, from wars to ancestral lines to old frienships and rivals. This book is oozing tension from every page. The physical details, too, really make me feel as though I am present in the story: the feeling of the rock mantle of the Shattered Plains beneath my feet, the sounds of the whipping winds during a highstorm, the smell of Gaz’ breath as he barks out orders to the bridgemen. I was there, I swear it; which explains why my shoulders are so sore.
I bring up the bridgemen because I am itching to talk about the plot. I do not want to be spoilery, so I will keep it narrow (even though this book is quite old now… I am not sure what is the statue of limitations). Here is what I want to say about the plot: if someone had told me the exact plot of this book, I would have rolled my eyes and passed on it. It is not that it is not a good storyline it is just that I would not have believed one could write 1,000+ pages on it and keep it interesting. But not only did Sanderson do just that, the author left me begging for more of it. This is a tribute to the phenomenal writing; honestly, Sanderson could write a phone book and I would get in line to read it.
One interesting piece of the story is the spren. I find them both fascinating and a little confusing. In The Way of Kings, I picture them as the Higgs Boson of this world: they are kind of omnipresent and affect everything they touch just by being in the background. As I am into book 2, I see there is much more to them than that. I am still not 100% sure of the full function of the spren, so I am looking forward to learning more about them.
Speaking of 1,000+-page books, I am totally cool with that book size. As I said, the writing is so good that it could have been 5,000 pages and I would have continued reading. If I could ask a boon of the author (it was a highly entertaining duel, was it not?) it would be to shorten some of the chapter lengths. Some are 30+ pages, and that takes away the “just one more chapter” momentum that I gain throughout the story. And I always just want to read one more chapter. I will say, I am almost finished with book 2 (Words of Radiance), and there are less lengthy chapters there. I am grateful for that.
I could probably say more about this book if I wanted, but then the review would be really long and people might start calling me the Brandon Sanderson of book reviewers (would that be a bad thing, though?). It is such a phenomenal read, and the second book in the series is just as good (review to come). Sanderson has made a fanboy of me, already, off merit and not reputation. If you have not dipped a toe into the vast ocean that is Brandon Sanderson’s portfolio, I recommend doing it. The Way of Kings is a great place to start. Come on… the water is fine (no chasmfiends down here, either).