So, Brandon Sanderson. The Next Big Thing in epic fantasy. He's finishing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and simultaneously kicking off his very own new ten (that's ten (10)) book series.
And dang, he has some fans. 5-star reviews outnumber all others put together, by a significant margin:
Goodreads: Average: 4.61. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.6. Mode: 5 stars.
This is a big-ass book, folks. An old-school doorstopper.
If you find the following summary is tl;dr, then don't bother reading the review, or the book.
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.
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.
I don't actually read a lot of epic fantasy nowadays. Too much Eddings, Brooks, and Donaldson in the 80s left me with a dread of Extruded Fantasy Product, so I've avoided Feist, Hobb, Jordan, Martin, & co.
But I did read Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. My initial reaction was positive but mixed, but after a few months (and reading some decidedly inferior fantasy), my opinion has shifted more towards the positive. I still have some problems with the ending of The Hero of Ages, but overall, Sanderson does write engaging characters and original worlds, so I decided he was worth another try.
So, I picked up The Way of Kings. (It's heavy.)
Over a thousand pages later... damn you, Brandon Sanderson. You hooked me. If I ever become like those whiny Jordan and Martin fans perpetually crying about whether their beloved series will ever be finished, just beat me to death with volume one. (Have I mentioned that it's big?)
The Way of Kings is in many respects a traditional epic high fantasy. It even starts out with one of those "Thousands of years ago..." prologues that would usually make me start backing away. Then we dive into the assassination of a king (involving lots of awesome magical kung fu) that kicks off a war that occupies two of the main storylines for the rest of the book.
We've got legends and prophecies, gods and demons who once walked the Earth (okay, Roshar), magic that is powerful but unfathomable, ancient artifacts, kings and armies, scholars, priesthoods, an author who loves his maps and histories and Capitalized Fantasy Words (Heralds, Knights Radiant, Voidbringers, Stormlight, Highstorms, etc.), and everything else you expect in an epic fantasy tale of Good vs. Evil.
What saves it from being EFP is that Sanderson is a good writer (not a great one -- I'm not willing to call him great, yet) with a real talent for worldbuilding. Aside from certain surface thematic similarities, there ain't a hint of Tolkien in this book. Roshar has no plant or animal life resembling anything on Earth. The main civilization is more European in feel than anything else, but it's still a pretty alien society. There aren't any "wizards" per se. And the one non-human sapient race we know of (so far) may or may not actually be human.
Also, Sanderson writes likable, three-dimensional characters. They're flawed, but the heroes are mostly heroic. And he doesn't casually rape, maim, or kill them. Some people like grimdark fantasy; I'm not such a fan of it.
He does, however, have too many characters. The Way of Kings has three main POV characters, but about a dozen minor ones. Some appear only in brief "interlude" chapters which seem to be nothing but extra worldbuilding/exposition -- are they going to reappear in future volumes? I don't know, but I doubt I'll remember them if they do.
The main POV characters are Kaladin, an enslaved military conscript, Dalinar, a king and one of the most powerful men on Roshar, and Shallan, a young minor noblewoman-turned-scholar. Their stories, initially, are entirely separate, so the book is more like three different storylines (plus half a dozen other minor ones) which only begin to weave together at the very end.
Kaladin is a "darkeyes" commoner. (Among the dominant civilization of Roshar, the Alethi, it's not skin color but eye color that determines your caste.) He starts out as a doctor's son, joins the army to save his brother, and experiences one tragedy and betrayal after another until he winds up as cannon fodder on the front lines of the war on the Shattered Plains. Here, he becomes a hero by organizing his fellow conscripts, initially a hopeless band of criminals, cutthroats, and slaves who have no hope and nothing to live for, into a disciplined fighting force. Kaladin is subject to fits of despair, but he's bolstered by a "spren" who seems to be following him around and gradually evolving herself, even as Kaladin realizes that he has hidden gifts. (Roshar is filled with "spren" of various types, who are like living spirits drawn to various natural phenomena and emotions; there are windspren, firespren, painspren, rotspren, fearspren, gloryspren, and rumored deathspren, among others.) Kaladin is the angsty character in this book, but he's also the underdog you want to cheer for.
Dalinar was my least favorite of the three. Not that he's not likable, but he's a king who was born into his high station in life. I'm mostly with Kaladin, who hates "lighteyes" because, like most nobles in every culture, they have a casual sense of entitlement and disregard for their "lessers." Dalinar is a king in the heroic mold, and much like Kaladin, he follows a strict code of ethics in an attempt to be an inspiration to his men. Of course, having a Shardplate and a Shardblade, which is basically the magical equivalent of a suit of powered armor, makes it a lot easier for him to be heroic. It's mainly his visions that make him interesting, and those are mostly little bits of info the author baits us with, dropping clues about Roshar's past and future.
Dalinar's son Adolin (also a Plate and Blade-bearer) is one of the minor POV characters. He's also a noble goody-good warrior like his father, and not very interesting.
Of the three main characters, Shallan (the only female MC) gets the fewest pages. (Sanderson has said he's going to redress this in the next book.) As a character, I found her the most interesting, as Kaladin and Dalinar, while very different in station, were pretty similar in that they're both heroic warriors striving to be an inspiration and role model, and they were both fighting in the same war. So, lots of action and striking heroic poses with the former two; Shallan is little more than a teenager, and a non-combatant. But of course, she stumbles onto some secrets and abilities of her own, and it's through her that we get to learn more about Roshar, and ultimately, get a couple of Big Reveals.
Like I said, most of the minor POV characters are uninteresting. Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, is the only one I really wanted to read more of, in large part because he has all kinds of super-powerful abilities, and we are told almost nothing about where they came from or what his background is. He's possibly the most powerful character in the story so far, and the only one from one of the non-European-flavored cultures.
Sanderson loves intricately detailed, carefully thought magic systems. There are at least three in this book, and more are hinted at that will probably be seen in future volumes. The internal consistency of his magic systems is a virtue, but I also had the same reaction I had to Mistborn, that Sanderson has played too many fantasy roleplaying games and thinks that everything must be quantifiable. He's improved in The Way of Kings; the magic is a little more mythic and varied.
A lot of other themes are similar to those in Mistborn: the religions hint at a supreme being and good/evil dualism, but also lesser godlike beings. There are arbitrary caste systems, oppression, and a lot of philosophizing about the theory and practice of leadership. There is an alien, hostile environment. There are ancient texts giving clues about the end of the world. So, if you've liked his previous work, you'll probably like The Way of Kings.
That said, did I mention that this is a big book? And that it's the first of ten?
Sanderson admits this is his labor of love, and he finished the first draft years ago. Now that he's become a big enough name to get an epic series of his own published, I fear that he may be heading into Too Big To Edit territory: 400K words can't all be essential to the story, and The Way of Kings definitely has some bloat. I have a feeling the next nine volumes aren't going to be any trimmer.
Also, there are a lot of questions introduced in volume one, ranging from fundamentals about the world of Roshar to individual character mysteries. Only a few of them get answered by the end. Things do come to a climax of sorts, but there are all sorts of dangling cliffhangers. Get ready for ten volumes of "To Be Continued..." Sanderson says volume two will come out in 2012. His plan is to average two volumes in this series every three years. So if he actually keeps to that schedule (I hear those GRRM and Robert Jordan fans crying bitter tears of laughter), that means The Stormlight Archive will be finished in... 2024.
And you Harry Potter fans thought you had a long wait.
Verdict: Sigh. I guess I might as well start reading A Song of Ice and Fire while I wait for The Stormlight Archive, Book Two. This is an epic fantasy series you can share with your future children, because they'll be old enough to read it by the time Sanderson finishes this sucker.