The ride is luxurious, the scenery is often breathtaking, but The Way of Kings is truly a long and winding road. Brandon Sanderson spent over a decade, beginning before the publication of his debut Elantris, bringing this vast and sprawling novel to completion. If anything, it answers a question that had been puzzling me for some time. When Sanderson was chosen to complete Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga — practically the Platonic ideal of the meandering, aimless epic fantasy — I was surprised to hear him speak of Jordan as a principal influence on his writing. Sanderson's novels, specifically the Mistborn trilogy, are long but admirably focused, the latter of which is not something you can honestly say about Jordan. Sanderson's stories move at a brisk pace and rarely indulge in plot digressions. He'd have been the last guy I'd have pegged as a Jordan disciple.
But in The Way of Kings — published concurrently with the final (and equally massive) WoT volumes, which does leave me somewhat in awe of Sanderson's work ethic — Jordan's influence is writ large. As an exercise in sheer creative vision, it is impossible not to admire. Its story is played out upon the largest canvas Sanderson has ever mounted. And it is written to the absolute highest literary standards the genre can boast. Despite the book's length, Sanderson shows a lot of consideration in asking his readers only to follow about three principal plot threads, as opposed to, say, piling on several dozen at a time a la Steven Erikson. Complexity, Sanderson understands, should not require confusion.
But what we are left with at the end of the day is, for all its very real merits, one of those thousand-page tomes in which far too little takes far too long to happen. For all the artistry of its execution, The Way of Kings never duplicates the sheer breathless entertainment value of the Mistborn novels. It's too invested in being literary to remember to be plain old fun.
Sanderson fills the book with one absorbing scene after another. But up to the point we're nearing the climax — literally, I pegged the 900-page point with the note "things finally starting to get exciting" — The Way of Kings reads less like a novel than a collection of beautifully-written scenes in search of a novel. It all comes together just fine in the end, I'm pleased to say. But the readers who'll end up appreciating The Way of Kings the most will be fans of epic fantasy who care far more for an immersive worldbuilding experience than taut storytelling. Sanderson has some of his characters experience the philosophical epiphany that life is much more about the journey than the destination. I'd have preferred a few more thrills along this journey, that's all. Given 400,000 words to work with, there could have been, as Elvis would say, "a little less conversation, a little more action."
Among the principal players, the most interesting is probably Shallan. In a world where the arts, scientific research, scholarship, and even literacy itself are regarded as feminine vocations, Shallan travels to the coastal city of Kharbranth to seek tutelage from Jasnah Kholin, a prominent scholar and daughter of royalty, notorious for her rejection of religion and her unwillingness to take on new wards. Jasnah herself is immersed in studies of ancient history, trying to separate myth from fact, and she grudgingly agrees to take Shallan under her wing after admiring both the girl's tenacity and her penchant for pursuing scholarship on her own initiative. Shallan, however, has an ulterior motive for seeking Jasnah out. Her story, though it takes up a comparatively small portion of the novel, is most satisfying, thanks to Sanderson's considerable skills at character development and his gift for dialogue that never sounds stilted even when characters talk about such heady subjects as morality, philosophy, and duty. Shallan will have to learn a thing or two about how the big wide world actually works, and how to weigh her own wants against greater threats to the world at large.
Mostly, The Way of Kings is the story of two warriors, Kaladin and Dalinar Kholin. Kaladin is a disgraced prisoner of war, once the son of a rural surgeon with a promising future, and now a beaten and bedraggled ex-soldier plagued by brutal betrayals and a crippling case of survivor's guilt. We meet him as he is being shipped to the Shattered Plains, a bleak landscape of rocky plateaus separated by deep fissures, where war has been raging for over a decade between the nation of Alethkar and the peculiar, ill-understood race of the Parshendi in the wake of the Parshendi's betrayal and murder of Alethkar's king. (This sequence opens the book with a real bang.) Here Kaladin is to serve with other prisoners as a bridgeman, whose job it is to race ahead of the advancing Alethi armies and place portable bridges across the fissures for them to cross. That the bridgemen are also intended to serve as arrow-fodder rather drastically dampens any hope for long-term survival.
Dalinar is an Alethi Brightlord commanding one of the many armies at the Shattered Plains, and the owner of one of the rare and highly prized sets of Shardplate armor and matching Shardblade. These magical artifacts, traced to ancient warriors in ancient battles now obscured by myth and religion, are this world's equivalent of a nuclear arsenal, and a nation's strength is determined by how many such warriors they've got. Brother to the murdered king, uncle to the increasingly paranoid current one, Dalinar must deal not only with the intrigues of his rivals, but a growing concern over his continued fitness for command and a genuine fear for his sanity. When the Plains are wracked by the terrifyingly violent (and magically potent) highstorms, Dalinar is thrown into seizures in which he experiences hallucinations (or are they?) of events millennia past. These all seem to portend an imminent cataclysm greater than anything anyone has ever known.
In a sense, the book's sheer size works both for and against the storylines of both these men. On the one hand, it gives Sanderson the room to lay out his world's history, his protagonists' place in the present order of events, the relationships with both their allies and enemies, and their paths to personal growth with tremendous care. Dramatic conflict is often more internal than external. But at the same time, suspense is undercut by some predictable plotting, and the dramatic power that should attend both men's character arcs is somewhat muted.
Kaladin responds to the hopelessness of his situation by taking command of his bridge team and turning them into an organized and disciplined force more likely to survive than not. In doing so, he restores a sense of humanity to them as well. These scenes are wonderful at their best. But Kaladin's almost bipolar ping-ponging from man-of-action to guilt-ridden wretch and back again grows tiresome. At 800 pages in, when he is once again in one of his self-pitying sulks over not being able to save everyone in his command, my sympathy took a backseat to an urge to just slap him silly. (Other characters would concur, at least.) But the worst effect of dragging out Kaladin's internal conflict to such a long and repetitive degree was that it made the culmination of his arc too obvious, and less emotionally gripping when it came. After all, spend over 800 pages rubbing my nose in the fact that your hero just can't muster up the will to go on, and what do you think we're heading for? Will he, when it's do-or-die time, finally discover the wherewithal — with just a little magic help — to rise above it all and fulfill his ultimate potential in a blaze of glory? What do you think, folks at home?
This kind of drawn-out narrative march towards inevitable outcomes happens elsewhere, too. Sanderson spends so much time building us up to expect a major betrayal, only to do a very obvious about-face and spend an equal amount of time assuring us that it wasn't going to happen after all, that — well, you can probably finish this sentence for yourself. Let's say it's hard to really be shocked at events you can see coming a great many chapters away.
In this way, the book's length is a liability. Sanderson could easily have shorn about 200 pages from the final draft, not deleting anything of great import, but simply condensing passages that go on and on in a way that conveyed the same information. And, being tighter, the result would have been more palpable suspense. The book makes its own argument for the virtues of brevity in scenes featuring Szeth, the assassin-slave responsible for the murder of Alethkar's king. An enigmatic and tragic figure who weeps over those he kills, Szeth's scenes are among the few in the book that will give your pulse a boost, and that's because he figures in fewer than a hundred of its pages. Sanderson creates a strangely sympathetic figure who is neither hero nor villain, infusing his short scenes with bloodcurdling tension and action, all the while enhancing his mystique by not over-explaining his origins (keeping them obscure, in fact). Surely not all the chraacters could have been developed in exactly that way. But it does keep one mindful that sometimes less truly is more.
For all this, I remain deeply impressed by Sanderson as a writer, and it would be a real disservice to fail to mention the book's virtues. I was fascinated by just about every aspect of Sanderson's development of his world, all the way from its deep history, to its flora and fauna, to its intricately detailed system of magic, which is pretty similar to that in his other books. (This physical component is tied to that power, and so on.) The expected climactic battle scene is still plenty exciting, and there are good hints that the sequel will considerably raise the stakes. And while it's hard to ignore that, like Sanderson's previous books, this one eventually reveals itself to be a superhero story at heart, the superpowers some characters find themselves with are just part of a greater storytelling picture, and not the whole.
Mostly, what you remember best from The Way of Kings are the intimate character moments — Kaladin's unmelodramatic devotion to his little brother; Shallan's discovery of the joys of learning; the bridgemen becoming friends while sharing lousy soup by the fire; and the story's one love affair, not between two doe-eyed teens but an older adult couple overcoming a lifetime of pain and missed opportunities. Yes, there are many fine scenes here. The Way of Kings may ultimately be a book whose parts are stronger than the whole. But devotees of epic fantasy, and Sanderson/Jordan in particular, will not want to miss the journey.
Followed by Words of Radiance.
Macmillan Audio sent me a copy of their unabridged, 36-CD (!) audiobook version of The Way of Kings. Running around 45½ hours, it will give you a sense of just how monumental this story is. The production values are up to Macmillan's usual impressive standards, with the expert reading split between Michael Kramer and Kate Reading (who for the most part narrates Shallan's chapters). Quite an investment in both time and money for this, but respectful to the source material and very much worthwhile for lovers of audiobooks. Just the thing to accompany you on that cross-country drive you've always been planning.