‘The Way of Kings’ is the first book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’, an intended fantasy epic which will undoubtedly be Brandon Sanderson’s Magnum Opus. Even for Sanderson, it’s audacious in scope and reach, bringing in a huge variety of characters and side plots alongside the overarching story.
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
The Stormlight Archive takes place on Roshar. For the past six years, since the assassination of their king by a mysterious Assassin in White, the Alethi people have been at war with the Parshendi. The war has dragged out into a prolonged siege on the Shattered Plains, with ten separate Alethi armies from its ten High Kingdoms battling less to kill Parshendi and more to obtain gemhearts, valuable sources of wealth and resources to feed their armies. Amidst this war, a lowly slave fights for survival, an army commander grapples with his own conscience and sanity, and a woman from a kingdom across the ocean enacts a plot to save her family – and in doing so, finds herself involved in something bigger than she could ever have conceived of.
Each book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ primarily focuses on one character, with a number of secondary characters also getting regular point-of-view chapters. ‘The Way of Kings’ focuses on Kaladin, a slave who has ended up a soldier in Amaram’s army. Kaladin struggles with where his life has ended up and the horrific life of a bridgecrewman – the most junior soldier in any army – but is determined to improve things for both himself and his crew, Bridge Four. Over the course of the novel, Kaladin works to gain the trust and respect of his crew, save as many of them as possible – and in the process, potentially save himself.
Kaladin has depression, alongside post-traumatic stress disorder, and the depiction of his depression is one of the best I’ve seen in fiction, let alone in epic fantasy. Sanderson never shies away from the severity of the illness, or its fluctuating nature, and the impact that it can have both on Kaladin and on those around him.
The main secondary characters are Dalinar Kholin, Shallan, and Szeth. Dalinar is the famed Blackthorn, a feared nobleman and soldier and the brother of the previous King. However, since his brother’s assassination, he’s developed more of a conscience, switching his focus from battlefield brutality to politics. He’s determined for the High Princes to stop fighting each other and instead cooperate, using the teachings of an old book called ‘The Way of Kings’ (as an aside, I love it when book titles are explicitly referenced within the book). However, Dalinar is naive in the art of politics, and his case isn’t helped by his perceived instability and sudden refusal to kill on the battlefield. He was my least favourite major character in this book, but his story develops much further in later ones.
“Sometimes the prize is not worth the costs. The means by which we achieve victory are as important as the victory itself.”
Shallan comes from a complicated – and awful – family. To avoid ruin, she finds herself posing as a scholar to become the ward of Dalinar’s sister Jasnah Kholin so that she can steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a mysterious device that allows her to turn one material into another. However, Shallan finds herself loving her studies under Jasnah, and trapped between loyalty to Jasnah and her family. Shallan is an incredibly complex character – many people find her unlikeable, but I love her. She’s had to cope with more in her short life than most will in a very long one, and the effect this has on her personality and psyche is explored in incredible detail.
‘The Way of Kings’ is military fantasy, but also has a strong focus on family loyalty and politics. The worldbuilding is exceptional, with a variety of cultures, classes, lifestyles, and beliefs all covered. The one thing left unclear is the magic system – unlike in most Cosmere books, where the rules and limitations are immediately apparent, ‘The Way of Kings’ is set in a world where much of the magic has been forgotten, and characters are just starting to rediscover it. The hidden magic becomes unveiled to the characters as it’s unveiled to the reader, a beautiful symmetry that really creates a connection.
The ending is a cliffhanger, but the sort of cliffhanger that creates anticipation, not the sort that feels too abrupt and like a cheat out of properly ending the book. It’s the perfect end to the slow increase in tension and tempo and sets up the sequel, ‘Words of Radiance’ admirably.
“We are not creatures of destinations. It is the journey that shapes us. Our callused feet, our backs strong from carrying the weight of our travels, our eyes open with the fresh delight of experiences lived.”
Overall, ‘The Way of Kings’ is an incredibly solid start to what will clearly become Sanderson’s strongest series. A must read for all epic fantasy fans, and highly recommended to all fans of complex characters, excellent portrayals of mental health, family dynamics, and political and cultural tension.
Published by Gollancz
Paperback: December 30th 2010 (Published in two separate volumes)