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.
I’ll preface this review with the statement that I almost didn’t write a review for this book; I thought that it might be best to leave it at experience only, and forgo trying to put how I felt about it into words. But here we are. The Way of Kings is a goliath … and only the first in an already massive series. I was eager to enjoy it but scared I only felt that way because of the surrounding hype of the series – I’d never even read a Brandon Sanderson book before. I’ve had Elantris on my shelf for a few years. Again, worried about the hype. What I will say about the hype is that it is real. It is true. The Way of Kings is a phenomenal feat of a more modern fantasy that still has the feeling of series like the Wheel of Time. With slow building excitement, by the end, I felt every word, line, paragraph and chapter with a tightened chest, a rush of adrenaline or deep, heartfelt despair. I haven’t been moved to such a flood of emotion since I read the Red Rising Saga (my favourite series.) And while I know they are incomparable in the way they are written, the story, characters and genre, in the experience that they took me through, they were the same. I love this book – even after having only just read it and I can’t wait to see where the rest of the series goes.
To briefly outline the plot, as I always try, the Alethi are at war on the Shattered Plains with the Parshendi – a race of red, black and white marbled peoples – for the assassination of their king. The war has been waged long and hard for 6 years, tiring Danilar the Blackthorn of it. A war fuelled by a pact of vengeance, that the highprinces would see upon the primitive peoples. The highprinces have never been so segmented, their allegiance almost as shattered and brittle as the plains they war on – all to be the first prince to claim the gemheart from pupating chasmfiends, a prize of wealth and glory for that is what the War of Vengeance has turned to. Now, this super-condenses the plot into a few sentences that probably don’t quite capture the marvel of it and certainly don’t do Sanderson’s brilliant mind justice. Reading through the chapters of WoK is like riding a wave from its origin, slowly building power, smaller waves breaking off from it until it mounts into a giant that crashes into the shores. The journey is long, but it’s worth it – there’s a masterful sprinkling of information throughout some one-thousand pages. There are skirmishes, large-scale battles, duels – both desperate and proper; there’s talk of old-magic and evidence of its return; scholarly trips into old texts; battles with giant beasts; mystical Blades that come at their master’s call; fully-fleshed out and side-plots enough to tangle you in knots only for Sanderson’s excellent, clear writing to pull you from it.
There’s a vast plethora of characters from the above mentioned Dalinar, an old warrior and brother to the assassinated king, who wanted vengeance but now dreams of something more, helped on by visions of something he can’t quite make out every time a high storm hits. Meanwhile, a once lauded warrior, Kaladin, is enslaved with no escape, only in that of the strange wind spren that has started speaking to him; a scholar, Shallan, hoping to be Jasnah Kholin’s (the King’s sister) ward. But Jasnah is a heretic who refutes Vorinism and the Almighty and she never takes a ward. Though, Shallan must do it for her family will fall into ruin if she does not; Adolin, Dalinar’s shardbearing son who sees his purpose in the duel but is unable to act on it due to his father’s codes, and Szeth linked to the entire conflict by one night. The Assassin in White. Character voice is something that Sanderson is undisputedly the master at – there’s no shortage of them in the first instalment, each one of them a voice unto themselves. Each one a product of a live lived before, shaped by trials that have come to pass ready for those that are to come. Not once did a character feel out of place – unless on purpose – and each one comes with a history. It is displayed in Shallan’s hesitation to quip, or use the quick-wittedness that she’s so expert at; the hiding of her freehand and her love of painting and devotion to the feminine arts. The book’s she’s read and the memories that she locks away all form the strong, unbending woman she is. Kalandin’s pessimism and downright inability to act or change his circumstances are rebuffed in a history of failings, of not being able to help those people he wanted to. So, why should he bother now? Each character a work of art, it’s safe to say that it was hard to pick my favourite out of this bunch.
Though, in the end, I did pick a favourite: Dalinar the Blackthorn. The reason I love this character so much is because he reminded me of other favourite characters, of those noble warriors in earlier high fantasy. But that isn’t to say that he’s not a fresh look at the character and the reason he stands out as such is because there’s certainly not a lot of them in WoK. He’s a man of the Codes, a way a true warrior should act, but he no longer trusts his own judgement; every time a high storm hits, he’s whisked away into visions he can barely make sense of and transformed into a babbling mess. He’s my favourite character because he strives to change the world around him, no longer happy falling into the routine of slaughter that his people have come to inflict on the Shattered Planes. And for no more than a prize, the very idea of why the war started lost to fame and glory for oneself. Dalinar is trusting, where he shouldn’t be, a fool to his own ideals. He’s also strong, an expert swordsman and brilliant warleader – along with Gallant, his trusty Rhyshadium – a horse giant in species that can take the weight of a full Shardbearer, just one of the many cool things Sanderson has come up with. Despite everything, he tries to forge a different way of doing things, an admirable character among many in the book one of the Stormlight Archive.
I don’t feel like I’ve touched the surface here. This is probably more a collection of fanboying paragraphs rather than a coherent review, but it was certainly an overwhelming book to review. And I’ve certainly tried to keep it brief where secrets, spoilers and other things are concerned. That’s purely because I believe you should experience The Way of Kings from a fresh, unspoiled POV. So you can learn to love it as I did. To say this has been one of my favourites of 2020 would be an understatement. Looking back, I’m a fool to have let it sit on my shelf for so long. If you don’t do anything else this year and you love fantasy at its most epic, start the Stormlight Archive for the ultimate escape.