Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Way Of Kings (The Stormlight Archive Vol. 1) - Brandon Sanderson - Review
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.
Brandon Sanderson is one of those names in the fantasy arena that we heard a fair bit of buzz about just after he released his debut novel ELANTRIS. Then more buzz as he released his first trilogy MISTBORN to a whack of good reviews and kudos. Though it can be argued that the mainstream audience of casual fantasy readers didn’t have a clue who the man was prior to him being chosen to pen the remaining three books in the popular WHEEL OF TIME series. Chosen by Robert Jordan himself (and his widow Harriet) to finish the series that Jordan knew he wouldn’t finish due to his terminal illness, Sanderson had gotten some pretty high praise just by being that choice. I only ever got five books into the WOT series, so I can’t weigh in on Sanderson’s addition to the series with the 13th volume, THE GATHERING STORM, released last year to fairly decent reviews. I believe Chris read it, so he could weigh in.
At any rate the man has been given a daunting job to do, finishing a series that has polarized fantasy fans and casual readers alike for nearly twenty years. I have enjoyed his writing since I first picked up a hardcover ELANTRIS in 2005 and took a chance on a new author, and I was blown away by the cleverness he showed (with ELANTRIS) and the promise as a worldbuilder and magic systems (with MISTBORN). Somewhere after he accepted the WOT gig from TOR, they commissioned him to begin his own epic high fantasy series (One that’s been gestating in his head for like ten years), and he actually found time to write the first one, THE WAY OF KINGS.
The first book in a proposed ten book series called THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE is a monstrous 1001 pages hardcover. To call this a doorstopper is being generous. It is a behemoth, and is filled with maps and drawings the calibre of which I’ve not seen in any other book. In short, the book is bloody gorgeous inside and out (the cover art is done by the splendid Michael Whelan, who Sanderson says always did the best art in the 80’s covers). I knew I wanted to read this book, and when I came upon it in the bookstore I snapped it up immediately and started in on it the next day.
Oh my gods this is a stunning book. It was odd to me to be so entirely involved in a book this large from the get-go and not stopping. I read it every last chance I got. I recall the first time I read Steven Erikson’s Malazan series and how I was pretty enthralled by their scope and story...but most of the books had portions that slowed a bit for me, or were tougher to get through. That, surprisingly, didn’t happen with THE WAY OF KINGS. I was tucking my nose inside it everyday and by the midway point I found that I preferred to sit down and read a few chapters than do anything else. It became one of those volumes where it’s 3AM and you keep saying to yourself “Okay, one more chapter” and then something happens and you have to keep going. Thus losing precious sleep, but I wasn't complaining.
The characters are well fleshed out, and you care about each of them in their own way. What’s reall remarkable, however, is that Sanderson seamlessly integrates the plots of POV characters Kaladin, Dalinar and Adolin whose story is the war side of Roshar and the fighting of a vengeance pact on the shattered plains (which are...exactly what they sound like and let me tell you battles have NEVER been done so interestingly and brilliantly) attempting to revenge for something that happens in the prologue, and the POV plotlines of Shallan and Jasnah which follows a much different historical mystery study of Roshar and the great thing is that all these storylines are each compelling on their own, but as they sit as disparate parts of the world Sanderson creates they are also unified by relations, and even as a whole to what is transpiring. It’s like seeing all the pieces on a chess board arranged, and though you can’t tell who is going to win, it is unendingly interesting to watch the players make expert moves that you can tell are leading to something very big.
I think we are in for a significant treat with the rest of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. Roshar is incredibly realized and vivid, with its highstorms and adaptable plantlife, its various kingdoms and human lives, not to mention the huge historical backstory that is thousands of years old, but never feels like too much to handle. Sanderson has a deft hand at giving us that which we require to push forward but it never feels like he overwhelms us. He knows exactly how human beings interact and how things like love, honour, and betrayal can build from nothing to a crescendo. How the human spirit is at once a gloomy thing as well as a splendid thing. I won’t say too much about specific plot points, but sufficed to say that the last 400 pages or so of this book the pace went from fast to bloody lightning burning through my hands. The ending was a triumph that I can even explain properly in words, and left me completely salivating for the next in the series. I was sad there wasn’t any more to read, and decided that I read it too fast. I found myself wishing I could be at the beginning all over again.
This is Sanderson’s most accomplished work to date, and has all the trappings of catapulting him into the stratosphere of new fantasy authors. I actually went out on a limb when I finished it and called it the BEST BOOK I’VE EVER READ. Weeks later, as I sit writing this review, that is still true. Hands down the best.
I stand in awe of this man’s skill.
If I get you to read one book in 2010, please let it be this one. I can’t recommend it highly enough.