Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

You'd almost forget it, amid the torrent of well deserved praise he has received for his work completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series but Sanderson has written a number of very good epic fantasy novels in the past years. Finishing another man's work may sound like an ungrateful task but the success of The Gathering Storm must have opened doors for him. With The Way of Kings, book one of The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson is starting on his most ambitious project yet. An epic fantasy series projected to take ten volumes to complete. Tor is looking for a successor to the Wheel of Time series and they may just have found it in The Stormlight Archive.

Thousands of years ago the human population of Roshar won a great victory over a now legendary enemy. After the gods turned away from the world humanity was left to its own devices and survived against the odds. It changed the world forever. The weapons remaining from that war, still influence the wars of the present, with the bearer of a Shardblade or Shardplate providing an army with a huge advantage. A Shardbearer is practically a one man army, nearly indestructible and capable of mowing down regular combatants by the dozen, they can dominate the battlefield. Possession of such rare weapons gives one access to the upper class of society. Countless attempts to reproduce the technology of that ancient era have failed so these last reminders of that conflict long since faded to myth are all that is left of the time when the gods still looked upon the world.

Recently there have been signs that the ancient enemy may not have been as decisively beaten as once assumed. Four very different people are faced with signs that a new apocalyptic struggle lies ahead of them. A daughter of a noble house about to collapse under debts tries to gain apprenticeship with a noted scholar in order to gain access to a precious object and steal it. What she finds when studying with her mistress makes her doubt the wisdom of this action. A young man training to be a surgeon is turned into a soldier against his will. On the field of battle he finds he has talents he would not have discovered otherwise. A high-prince and Shardbearer fighting an endless war of attrition receives visions during the violent storms that often strike the region, urging him to unite the people. An oath bound assassin is sent on a mission of death and destruction to clear away the obstacles for his patron to prepare humanity for what is coming. For each of these characters eventually realizes the Everstorm is coming and the world is not ready to face it.

It has to be said, this book is epic by every standard and Tor went to great lengths to make it a noteworthy release. They coaxed Michael Whelan, who more or less retired from doing cover art recently, into doing the cover. I like the work he did on Steven King's Dark Tower books better but I must admit that it is a fitting piece for the novel. The interior artwork is provided by three artists, Isaac Steward, Ben McSweeney and Greg Call and includes a number of maps, pages from notebooks and images of the creatures and plants of Sanderson's world. Sanderson himself used every trick in the book to make this an epic undertaking as well. The novel is over a thousand pages in hardcover. I hate to think how big the paperback release is going to be. There's preludes, prologues, interludes, an epilogue and an appendix as well as 74 regular chapters. The cover price of US$ 27,99 may be a bit steep but you get an awful lot of book in a very pretty package for that.

When you get right down to it, it is the content that counts though and although I did enjoy the book, I do not think it is material for a rave review. It looks like Sanderson has invented another complex and imaginative magic system in this world. The outlines of this system are mentioned in the book but a lot is left to be explored in later volumes. As a reader, Sanderson is someone who wants to know how things work and this is something that carries over in his writing. An appendix with information on various elements of his world is always present in his books for instance and The Way of Kings is no exception. Although a lot of this magic system is still shrouded in mystery it looks like very promising. It's one of the many beginnings in this book.

Sanderson's world is not quite the standard pseudo medieval setting either. Again there are a number of elements left to explore but in essence it seems a harsh place full of violent storms, with an erratic climate and inhabited by a host of strange creatures. One of the main beasts of burden is a creature that looks somewhat like a giant crab for instance. A fine sketch of the animal has been included in the book. Another strange creature we encounter, and one that is more important to the plot, are the strange Sprite-like beings called Sprens. They seem to be attracted to strong emotions in particular and mostly disappear as quickly as they show up. Like many things in the book, it is one element of this world Sanderson has just begun to explore.

The book offers a varied cast of characters. As usual with these massive series the reader will develop a preference for some of them. I didn't really dislike reading any of the points of view but I must admit I enjoyed the chapters with Kaladin (the surgeon turned soldier) a bit more than the others. There's a strange tension in this story line between the urges to heal and to fight in this character that make him an interesting read. The high-prince Dalinar has his moments as well. Most of his struggle is in how to interpret the visions he receives and whether or not they have a religious significance or if he's just going mad. Religion and doubt lurk right below the surface in much of this novel, another element found in more of Sanderson's books.

The author is obviously trying to lay the foundation for the later books in the series. The number of characters and points of view in The Way of Kings is not excessive but after a few hundred pages I did get the feeling that Sanderson was taking his time to get to the point. I must admit he delivers a strong finale with a number of interesting twists in the story but by the time we got there, I was more or less done with the book though. One of the best ways I can illustrate this is using the scholar/thief Shallan as an example. She appears briefly in the last hundred or so pages that wrap up the novel after being absent for almost a quarter of the book. Her inclusion in the finale almost feels like an afterthought, something the author remembered he needed to wrap up. It had also been clear where Kaladin was heading for some time then. The climax of the novel is a fine bit of writing but I did feel Sanderson was taking a bit too long to get there.

The Way of Kings has gathered is share of rave reviews already and indeed, for the fans of epic fantasy there is a lot to like in this novel. I don't think it is the best he's ever written though and I did have that feeling with each of the previous novel I've read (I read them in publication order). He's laying a solid foundation, I would go so far as to say it is a promising start, but in itself I don't think it is a brilliant book. Then again, (I refrained from doing so until this point but Tor is practically begging for a comparison with The Wheel of Time so allow me this one) the same could be said for The Eye of the World. Sanderson may well be on the right track. It will be interesting to see where he will take this story in the yet unnamed and hopefully slightly more concise second book of the series.

Book Details
Title: The Way of Kings
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 1007
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2635-5
First published: 2010

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