With the release of his newest young adult book Steelheart (You can find Katrina’s review here ), and the second book of Stormlight Archives series due in a few months, Brandon Sanderson is lighting up the Fantasy community. For the man who completed the twenty year epic Wheel of Time I would expect nothing less.
Having written dozens of books, both published and unpublished, Sanderson continues to show that he is capable of generating content. Does it stand up though?
Let’s take a look Sanderson’s first in a ten book series that I expect will be keeping readers enthralled in the coming years and see how he stacks up on Loller’s List. My own personalized list for grading how I recommend novels
based on five components I look for in a fantasy or science fiction book. Each section is graded between 0 and 2 giving a score out of 10
Fair warning, Spoilers abound below
So first things first, where will be spending the next four hundred thousand words?
With The Way of Kings we are introduced to the storm swept world of Roshar, where west blowing superstorms infused with magic drastically alter the lifestyles of the people and environment. Roshar, which is also the name of the supercontinent the story takes place on, exists within Sanderson’s overarching Cosmere, the universe where many of his stories take place.
Roshar isn’t just some generic medieval world with the familiar tropes. Storms so powerful they destroy everything in their path, combined with uncertain week long seasons, have made the wildlife a good deal heartier than Earth’s. Most plants retreat into rocky shells when they sense wind, and the animals are variants of crustaceans. Those same storms that wreak havoc across the landscape also infuse gems with light, giving the people their currency as well as power for technology.
Across the world are mysterious creatures called Spren . They seem to appear to specific things, such as when blood is spilled, or when someone is doing something creative. They are small, often shapeless creatures that bubble up from the ground or appear in the air, dancing around the thing they are named for. The Spren are generally ignored by citizens, being so prevalent, and only one is intelligent enough to speak, a WindSpren named Sylph.
With plenty of room in his novel for world building Sanderson takes you on a slow journey through this foreign land, focusing on small portions at a time giving you a greater idea of the continent at large from character interactions
Without question, the worldbuilding is topnotch.
In Roshar Stormlight powers everything. Not surprising given the series title. Warriors wade into battle wearing near impervious Shardplate suits that lend the user strength and speed. Shardblades drawn from thin air cut through anything except flesh, killing organics by paralyzing limbs and burning out souls.
Fabriels take the place of science, magic macguffins that are powered by storm charged gems. They come in all shapes and sizes, from quills that mirror one another despite being vast distances apart, to bracelets that can convert anything into anything else. Armies are fed by turning rocks into grain, and precious metals have little to no significance as anything could be converted.
The Fabriels, ShardBlades and ShardPlate are all treated like technology by the world’s inhabitants, and though magic clearly exists it is no different to them than a computer would be to us. Some characters, such as the Kaladin have the ability to channel the storm light stored in gems to gain strength and speed. While Kaladin’s powers are fledgling, Sanderson shows us the full extent of his capabilities through another character Szeth.
Much like the Mistborn series , the magic has very rigid rules that are well planned and explained. However when in combat, the magic is so well explained that it can be distracting. As if the author were explaining the hammer striking the bullet every time a gun was fired, the magic makes sense and does not lead to unwanted plot derailment, but can be exacerbating at times.
Due to the nature of magic on Roshar, Sanderson has stated that he intends there to be 30 fully realized types of magic before the end. So far he has only gone into detail about what appears to be one, with some hints to others. With the word count coming in at just shy of 400k words for the first book alone, he has plenty of time to explore in the next nine books.
Overall the magic is vibrant, fully realized, and interesting to read about. Despite minor complaints the magic never overpowers the plot with unexplained sudden powers, and adds to the character instead of defining them.
With a third person focused perspective Sanderson uses chapter breaks to focus on certain characters throughout the book. The entire novel is split into five parts, with interludes between four of them that detail the stories of minor characters, giving depth to the story with their short tales. The main story focuses on four major characters, with a fifth that while important to the story, does not take up nearly the amount of screen time.
Kaladin, the main character, was once a surgeon’s son, though now he is a bridgeman, a slave who runs bridges into combat at great risk to himself. He is the most well rounded and well written character in the novel, with an impressive character arc detailed in various flashbacks to his youth, shaping up his decisions as he presses on against impossible odds. He is taken to the brink of death both physically and emotionally at several points, and his chapters are heart pounding and engaging. Through his window character the WindSpren named Syl, further depth and mystery is attributed to the character as he deals with her growing consciousness and his own burgeoning magical powers.
Dalinar and Adolin Kholin are father and son who give a wider view of the conflict that is the set piece for the characters. Dalinar is a high prince, brother to the old king and uncle to the new, and is convinced that the book ‘A Way of Kings’ holds the answer for why his brother was murdered. During the Highstorms he has visions of a Roshar long past, giving a firsthand look at the world’s history that is often at odds with what the characters believe in the current day. Dalinar goes through character upheaval as he struggles with idea that his visions are delusions, as well as a hinted at secret for why he has no memory of his late wife. While Dalinar is dynamic and captivating, Adolin seems to only serve as a window character for his Father’s much more interesting journey. When not showing off the characterization of his father the youth spends his time aimlessly courting women and thinking about dueling, giving a sharp but often uninteresting contrast to his father.
Shallan is a highborn women who risks everything to travel across the lands to find and convince a mentor to take her under her wing , so that she might steal a ‘Soulcaster’(A Fabriel that converts matter) and save her families fortune. Shallan is only in the beginning and end of the book, and is absent for a large portion of the middle. While this was a smart move on the part of Sanderson, due to her only action at that time being her studies, it was still distracting, and after a long stretch of hundreds of pages without her, I was not excited or even interested to read about her again. Though towards the end of her character arc there are large reveals that will have sweeping changes through the series as a whole, she still falls flat as a character. She starts as a plucky sarcastic unsure young women, and ends the series in the same way.
Szeth or Truthless as he is called is the fifth and least seen main character. His mysterious origins and goals overshadowed by the magic system that he is used to describe. He has the ability, like Kaladin, to absorb and redirect stormlight, though he is far more trained. He uses the power to change objects gravity, giving him an edge in combat. Character wise he is a tortured assassin who is forced by a strange personal code of honor to do the bidding of anyone who holds his ‘oathstone’ he is the catalyst that sets the book in motion, killing Dalinar’s brother the King. His presence in the book is often exciting and mysterious, though woefully underexplored.
The story at large involves these characters fighting a war on a massive craggy plateau against an alien foe. The battles seem like a game to the men in charge, but deadly to those fighting it. The war is shown from all angles from the view of Dalinar the general, Kaladin the bridgeman, and Adolin the soldier. Overall however the story feels like a short glimpse in such a long book. It is clear that the series is going to go in an amazing epic direction. However with so much exposition in the first novel very little actually happened in the way of plot. While introducing the characters was done very well, for 400k pages I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been shorter.
Overall both Characters and Story come in at a 1 for each.
1 Point/1 Point
In Roshar the color of your eyes tells everyone if you are high or low born. Lighteyes rule while darkeyes are subjugated. Darkeyes fight in wars hoping to obtain a Shardblade, or Shardplate so that they can be elevated above their status. Parshman are nearly mute servants who bow to the whims of those who control them, and are so ignored that when an army of them appears across the shattered plains that the King is accused of lying. Slaves are forced to run bridges in the face of overwhelming odds in order to continue living for a scant few extra days. Sanderson weaves the ideas of class warfare, slavery, and subjugation into the narrative without preaching or over exposition. The conversations on the subject between characters are poignant, and often have the tongue in cheek reminder of our world’s history of ridiculous race separations. Why is eye color so different from skin? An obvious parallel the reader will draw, without having to be led by the nose.
Leadership is another heavily touched upon theme, both in Kaladin’s quest to save his fellow bridgmen, to Dalinar’s quest to save the kingdom. With Kaladin it is a case of showing and not telling, with his actions speaking for his great leadership potential. With Dalinar however it is a series of long conversations and quotes from the titular book Way of Kings that influence why he acts the way he does.
Duty and Honor also play heavily as themes between all the characters, though much less so that the two above. Overall the themes are well seeded into the book, and are actually tied into the magic system as well. It will be interesting to see if they stay in the background when the magic system is fleshed out in later books.
At the end of it all I’ve given the book 8 of 10 points. It’s long, even for epic fantasy standards, and especially for the first book in a long series. Despite this however it is well worth the read. Sanderson is the master of his craft, he creates vibrant worlds and puts worthwhile people in them. I am very excited for where this series will go.
8 of 10