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What I’m Reading: The Way of Kings

My brother sent me Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings a couple years ago with his highest recommendations, but I’ve been put off until now by the sheer length of the book. It’s a bit more than a thousand pages, and I just don’t have time for that! I finally got around to reading it, and I’m glad I did. This is epic fantasy in every sense, and an incredible achievement in world-building.

The book takes place on the world of Roshar, where fierce highstorms–powerful thunderstorms that can destroy structures, and people left out in them–have shaped the landscape. The highstorms fuel magic in Roshar, as well, most notably by “infusing” gems as they pass by–just leave your gems outside when a highstorm approaches. Be careful they don’t get taken, though, as gems are the currency in Roshar, as well as the lamps, for an infused gem produces a magical glow.

Three are three main character arcs that wind through the book, and which eventually intertwine. One of the arcs is really interesting, one is pretty interesting, and one is a bit dull.

The really interesting arc is about Kaladin, a young man who, when we first meet him, is the squad leader of a group of spearmen in a provincial army fighting border skirmishes in the land of Alethkar. He is earning a reputation for bold and skillful leadership, and he hopes if he can impress the officers, he’ll be allowed to take his squad to the Shattered Plains, where King Elhokar is fighting a glorious war of vengeance against the Parshendi, a tribe of muscular, not-quite-human creatures who assassinated his father.

When next we meet Kaladin, he is a slave, branded with a mark on his forehead indicating he’s dangerous, and traveling in a caged wagon through the wilderness. How has he fallen so low after his earlier promise? His master eventually sells him to the poorly-run army fighting under Sadeas, a cousin and vassal of King Elhokar, in the Shattered Plains. Ironically, right where Kaladin wanted to be, but far from the circumstances he wanted to be in. Kaladin is assigned to a bridge crew, who carry the bridges that the soldiers need to cross the gorges spiderwebbed across the Shattered Plains. As they are necessarily the first at every battle, and unarmed since they must carry the heavy mobile wooden bridges, the members of bridge crews have extremely low life expectancies. This is Kaladin’s chance to work his way back up, if only he can survive.

The pretty interesting story arc is about Shallan, a young lady who has traveled to the city of Kharbranth in search of Jasnah, one of the land’s most respected scholars, and sister to King Elhokar. Shallan ostensibly wishes to become Jasnah’s ward, learning all she knows of history, philosophy, and other scholarly pursuits. In reality, she wishes to steal Jasnah’s fabrial, a magical item that can turn one substance into another. With the fabrial, Shallan could save her family, a minor noble house that’s heavily indebted, from destitution. Only, once Jasnah does accept Shallan as a ward, Shallan discovers she likes the scholarly life and has a great deal of respect for Jasnah. Carrying out her plan is going to be harder than she thinks.

The least interesting story arc follows two royals, Dalinar and Adolin. Dalinar is King Elhokar’s uncle, and brother of the assassinated king. Adolin is Dalinar’s son. Dalinar is an honorable man, a mighty warrior who has fought and won many battles. Now, as he ages, he finds himself yearning for something more. He has begun having his scribes read him an ancient book, The Way of Kings, which contains rather different, nobler ideas about morality than held by most of the self-centered Alethkar nobles. He is also starting to have visions whenever a highstorm passes by, visions of ancient times that seem to imply he should be working to unite the Alethkar nobility and work toward peace. Adolin is worried about his father, but he’s especially worried that his father’s new-found concerns with honor, the ancient Codes, and peace will endanger their noble house.

Unfortunately, I never warmed up to Dalinar much, or Adolin at all. In fact, I never got the sense that Adolin has much personality, beyond that he courts a lot of young, single noble ladies. As for Dalinar, he’s rather humorless and stiff, and his constant worry about his state of mind (are the visions a sign he’s going insane?) is tiresome. During Dalinar’s and Adolin’s chapters, I became impatient to return to reading about the other characters.

Besides the characters, The Way of Kings is stuffed full of fascinating worldbuilding details, far too many to recount here. I’ve already mentioned the highstorms and the magic gems, but another notable artifact is the Shardblade. A Shardblade is a huge magical sword that appears in its wielder’s hand during times of stress, though it takes ten heartbeats to make it form (timing can be tricky!). Like the gems, it seems to be powered by the highstorms, as when it appears, it’s wet and covered with mist. It passes right through physical matter without cutting it, but it slices through the souls of living creatures, so that a swing of a Shardblade can leave a whole row of opponents dead, with burned-out eyes, but apparently otherwise unharmed. A Shardblade bearer is a mighty force on a battlefield–Dalinar and Adolin are both Shardblade bearers. To acquire one, you have to kill an existing wielder of a Shardblade. At one time in the distant past, there were hundreds of Shardblades on Roshar, but now there are only a few dozen.

Another interesting thing about Roshar is the different roles for men and women. Men, for instance, are supposed to have active roles like fighting and farming, which makes sense in Roshar’s quasi-medieval society, while women have more passive roles like cooking. But among those passive roles is reading and scholarship. Except for Adherents, or religious followers, men consider reading effeminate. Women are the scribes, the historians, the philosophers of Roshar. If a man needs to send a written message, he dictates to a woman, and a woman on the other end must read the message out loud if there is a male recipient. I found this division of gender roles to be quite fascinating.

So at more than a thousand pages, is The Way of Kings longer than needed? Well, maybe to an extent. I found much of the dialogue in the scenes with the royals and nobles to be wordy and a bit stilted. I know it was supposed to reflect the mannered way the royals speak, but it wouldn’t have hurt to trim it. But even if Brandon Sanderson had cut the dialogue to the bone, it would have reduced the page count by only, say, five to ten percent. The remaining book still would have been more than nine hundred pages.

The main reason The Way of Kings is long is because Sanderson is telling a big story that takes place over more than a year, plus plentiful flashbacks, with three major character arcs and dozens of minor characters. It’s a book to get lost in, to get involved in, to revel in the richness of the world’s details.

And yet, even with all that story matter–and though the three character arcs do come to a highly satisfying conclusion–The Way of Kings is only part one of four in the Stormlight Archive series (out of an anticipated ten!). I’m tempted to continue, but likely won’t simply due to the scale of the undertaking. I just have too much else to read! But for those who are looking for a long, immersive fantasy experience, expertly done, I highly, highly recommend this book.

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