On the Bookshelf: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Book One of The Stormlight Archive
The Stormlight Archive is the latest mega-epic fantasy fiction series to hit the bookshelves. It begins with The Way of Kings. This book is a 1,000+ page monster. Seriously, it is so massively huge it has its own gravitational pull. I understand that based upon astrophysical observations of The Way of Kings, Stephen Hawking has a new theory that black holes are really caused by epic fantasy fiction novels published by alien civilizations. Even more, the world built by this series seems to place a great significance on the number ten so, you guessed it, there will be nine more volumes to follow. I need a new bookshelf!
Even at this point in his young writing career, Brandon Sanderson is already becoming known as a world-builder without equal. In The Way of Kings readers are introduced to Roshar, the setting for The Stormlight Archive. Roshar, for the most part, is a world shaped by massive storms that regularly scour the landscape. Plants have evolved to protect themselves, reaching out from rock-like pods they may retreat into when threatened by wind or predator. Great cities are built in the lee of rock formations that provide shelter from winds capable of flinging boulders. These storms also seem to provide the power for the magic of this place, energy that can be trapped in gemstones called Stormlight. It is a harsh and unforgiving landscape further shaped by repeated continent scale cataclysms known as Desolations. These Desolations seem to be part natural catastrophe and part genocidal war that seem to occur just far enough apart that the previous Desolations are lost to myth and legend.
There are three main viewpoint characters to The Way of Kings, each of them bringing a unique perspective to this first book.
Kaladin is a young man who starts life studying to be a surgeon, becomes a soldier, and following a betrayal becomes a slave. From his viewpoint we learn much about the Shattered Plains. This harsh, broken battleground is where the armies of the ten High Princes of Alethkar and the seemingly savage Parshendi have been contesting for five years following the assassination of the Alethi King Gavilar (a spectacular fight scene at the beginning of the book). Kaladin becomes a bridgeman in the army of the Alethi High Prince Sadeas. He finds himself running virtually unprotected into the teeth of volleys of enemy arrows, carrying a bridge, so that the soldiers in Sadeas’ army can launch assaults across chasms. Bridgemen aren’t supposed to survive, but Kaladin miraculously survives run after run and comes to be the leader of his bridge crew, determined to find a way to keep his men alive and eventually to help them escape.
Shallan is a young minor noblewoman who seeks to become a student of one of this world’s greatest scholars Jasnah Kholin, a heretic and sister to the current King of Althekar. Much of how society works is revealed through Shallan. Her youth has been sheltered and now she is off on her own in one of the great cities. Everything we learn through her is tinged with the wonder of seeing something for the first time. Also, as an aspiring scholar much of the history and back story of Roshar is revealed through her viewpoint. However, the best part of Shallan’s story comes from her talent as an artist. She has an ability (though not revealed to be magical or not) to take what she calls Memories, and sketch them in incredible detail. Sort of like perfect recall but almost unconscious in its execution. Included in The Way of Kings, among its many maps and illustrations, are several pages from Shallan’s sketch book, artfully detailing some of the stranger and more interesting aspects of the wildlife and landscape of Roshar.
Dalinar Kholin, is the third main viewpoint character and, thus far, my favorite. He is uncle to the current King of Althekar and as the General for his assassinated brother King Gavilar, conquered / united the Alethi High Princes into a kingdom. Dalinar is the proverbial old-soldier. He is honorable, stiff, upstanding and stodgy. At this point in his life, even though he is recognized as a highly skilled general, a great warrior and a High Prince in his own right, people have begun to see him as out of touch. This view is furthered by the strange visions he has begun to have during Highstorms. Many, including Dalinar, fear he is losing his mind. My favorite part of Dalinar’s viewpoint is that he is a Shardbearer. Dalinar fights in what is essentially powered-armor known as Shardplate and wields a massive magical sword that he wills to appear in his hand called a Shardblade. These weapons are a legacy of the legendary Knights Radiant. They are rare, mysterious and currently (at least) unable to be duplicated. When fighting with Shardplate and Shardblade, Dalinar shows his true skill and why he is known as the Blackthorn. He is an unstoppable and ruthless killer, a juggernaut who leads his highly disciplined army from the front, slaying legions singlehandedly as the Thrill (a berserker-like battle mindset that may or may not be magical) carries him along. Even though there are several (ten if I remember right!) different magic systems in this world, Shardbearers may well become the iconic symbol for this series.
As honorable mention for viewpoint characters is Szeth, the “Assassin in White” who slays King Gavilar at the beginning of the book. While he wields a Shardblade, he also commands the Stormlight powered magic of a Surgebinder, something that may be far more dangerous. This guy makes ninja look like amateurs. In Szeth, Sanderson shows why his magic systems work so well, they are all about balance and symmetry. They also provide for the awesome action scenes that Sanderson is so good at writing.
I really enjoyed The Way of Kings and I very much look forward to the remainder of The Stormlight Archive. Starting a new epic fantasy series like this is not for the faint of heart. I know several people who have given up on The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, as they seem to drag on for an eternity. Remember people, epics are marathons not sprints! That considered, I have no fear that Brandon Sanderson will falter and leave his readers hanging with The Stormlight Archive. As I understand it, Sanderson has essentially already written the series, though it requires heavy, heavy revisions, meaning new books should be arriving with clock-like regularity between the final books of The Wheel of Time and other projects that Sanderson has in the works, or percolating in his imagination.