I’ve been reviewing a load of movies, but I haven’t done enough in-depth reviews of books, which is bad for a writer’s site. To remedy this, a review of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings. Above is a slice of the cover art, as created by Michael Whelan.
Way of Kings is part one of the Stormlight Archives, an epic fantasy series the likes of the Wheel of Time (which Sanderson also wrote for), the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and of course A Song of Ice and Fire. I don’t usually start on epic fantasy series any more until they are finished – I don’t like unfinished stories, and I don’t like having to re-read every time new instalments come out. I made an exception this time, because Sanderson is a prolific writer and he writes differently from Martin and Erikson – more on that later. The series is going to consist of two spans of five books, at least that’s the plan so far. Of course, the Wheel of Time was also planned as a trilogy.
The Way of Kings starts with a prologue of a knight, fighting a battle against something called a desolation. When he’s done or dies, he will have to return to a place where he will suffer horribly until he’s sent out against another desolation. After surviving the battle, he speaks with his companions and they decide they will not go back. The implications of this will ultimately be nasty, but they do not care any longer. Fast forward 4500 years to the start of the book. Whatever happened 4500 years ago is now a legend, shrouded in mystery.
The book follows several people living in a war-torn world, plagued by extremely powerful storms. Dalinar Kholin is the brother of the murdered king of Alethi. He and the Alethi military and court are in a vengeance war against the perpetrators. Kaladin is a surgeon’s apprentice turned soldier, who was wrongfully made a slave. And finally there is Shallan Davar, the daughter of an Alethi lord, who is desperately seeking to be apprenticed to the daughter of the murdered King to save her family.
What I liked and disliked
Way of Kings takes a while to get started, and I had to wrestle my way through the first few hundred pages before things got going. The last half of the book is very engaging, and I really liked the way the character arcs played out.
One of the problems I have with a Song of Ice and Fire, is that no character ever wins, it just gets more and more terrible for everybody. In the Way of Kings, terrible things happen, but there is still a sense of victory. This is where Sanderson differs from Martin and Erikson, and one reason I feel better about reading only part one of the series with no end in sight. In a multi-volume epic, there should be some sense of closure in each of the books. A Song of Ice and Fire is like reading about a single stretched-out train wreck that just gets worse and worse, with maybe some ray of hope at the end – although, after eighteen years, that end is still nowhere in sight. Sanderson takes a different approach, ensuring that the characters in Way of Kings all gain something and become more than they were in this first book, while setting up a larger conflict for later books. This is the same approach that, for instance, the Star Wars trilogy follows, and the Marvel movies. In contrast, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a single tale split across three movies/books, like a Song of Ice and Fire.
If you are looking for a quick read, that sucks you in on page one and pulls you to a cool ending that solves all conflicts, then Way of Kings is not for you. If you are looking for an epic fantasy tale that slowly unfolds an interesting world of epic conflicts, with only the first steps taken along a much longer road, then Way of Kings is for you.
Below, I’ll go more in-depth, but that also includes spoilers for the book, so:
if you don’t want the book spoiled, stop reading here.
One of the things that I really want to discuss about the book, partially because I would like to be able to replicate it, is the way the story builds to the confrontation at the end of the book. I’m referring to the battle where Dalinar nearly gets killed, but is rescued by Khaladin. This is the kind of resolution where a lot of things come together to make a great ending. But what ‘things’ are coming together, and how? Let me try and break it down.
To have an ending like this, you need a conflict resolution where the characters have a lot at stake and they resolve whatever internal conflicts they have to come out on top against all odds. Note that the events themselves are secondary in this. It’s a mistake a lot of beginning writers make – me included – to point at what happens and say ‘this was so cool’, while the events themselves are not as important as the way the character arcs and stakes were set up earlier in the book. The reader needs to know the stakes, and needs to understand what they mean for the character and sympathise with what the character is going through as a result.
In this case, the arcs in question are those of Dalinar and Kaladin. I’m going to disregard Shallan’s arc, because hers is more build-up for the second book, although it does have its own resolution, playing out in parallel.
Dalinar wrestles with his role in the war and the court for the entire book. He’s been having visions in which he is told to unite his people for the true desolation that is coming. He does not know how to go about it. During the course of the book he tries various tactics to unite his people, within the constraints imposed by his people. He doesn’t seem to get anywhere at first, but step by step he manages to get somewhere, finally convincing his biggest rival Sadeas to go on joint assaults with him. In the meantime, he starts to distrust his visions and is ready to renounce his position, because he becomes convinced he might be going mad. This second set of events, playing simultaneously with his seeming progress with Sadeas, clearly indicates something is not right. And there are more hints: Sadeas does not agree with Dalinar, he just seems to see an opportunity by working with Dalinar. The visions turn out to be undeniably true – something the reader already knew, of course, from the prologue and other hints.
In the end, it turns out things were indeed not going very well. Sadeas was setting Dalinar up for a fall. He abandons him and his troops in a major assault, hoping the Parshendi will wipe out his rival. Dalinar is at rock bottom. Seemingly betrayed by the visions that told him to trust Sadeas, betrayed by Sadeas in truth, trapped amid an enemy army with his son and troops, about to die, with no way out. As readers, we are well aware of the stakes by this point: Dalinar is about to die, with his son and troops, leaving behind a love interest and a nephew in trouble. We’re also know the visions are true, and the whole world will fall if he dies here. Sympathy has been built up because we can identify with a man who goes through pains to be good, who is chosen to save the world, and who is a very capable commander.
And there we are, we know the stakes, we care about the character, and the odds are stacked heavily against him.
Kaladin was to be a surgeon. At first, it seems he ran away from his family to join the military instead. This is cleverly hinted at by him relishing fights, and his potential love interest applauding the greatness of fighting. Later, it turns out Kaladin was betrayed, over and over again, by the corrupt lighteyes. This not only provides a good arc for Kaladin, but also shows us readers how corrupt the highprinces really are, which interleaves with Dalinar’s arc. This slow unfolding of his motivations is done through a series of flashbacks interleaved cleverly with the rest of Kaladin’s tale.
Kaladin is at a low point early on in the story. After a number of betrayals, he is put in a bridge crew as a slave. He is to drag a bridge into a battle, unprotected, to draw fire away from real troops and provide those troops with a bridge to reach the battlefield. Kaladin is ready to kill himself, but he literally steps back from the cliff and decides to fight. Against all odds, and while others constantly work against him, he manages to turn his bridge crew into a fighting force. While doing it, he discovers he has magical powers, that allow him to survive what is happening. He wants to save his crew by running away, but is afraid it will not work and they will all die, except him.
In the end, Kaladin comes to a crossroads. He is present at the betrayal of Dalinar. Again, the stakes are high. Kaladin’s life is at stake. Sympathy for Kaladin comes from the fact that he deserves to survive and be free. He’s been working toward that for half the book, and every setback strengthens the idea that he deserves a win. We also see an assassin that has the same abilities as Kaladin, who is frightfully powerful; we know Kaladin has these awesome powers, if only he would use them. The odds of saving Dalinar are slim, and what is worse, he has a very tempting alternative to choose from: walk away during the battle with his bridge and escape, like he originally intended.
Again, we know the stakes, we care about the character, and the odds are against him.
At the resolution of the book, Dalinar is set up to die, and there’s Kaladin, who might save him, but he could decide to pack up and flee instead.
At this point, I was pointedly reminded of Game of Thrones. Since everybody who wants to read the book, has by now, or seen season one of the series, I’m just going to spoil it. At the resolution of Game of Thrones, the hero, Ned Stark, gets his head chopped off. I hated that. I’ve been stewing on the why of that for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because Ned Stark was doing the right thing, and he was punished for it. The character arcs in a Song of Ice and Fire all seem to boil down to ‘if you are kind, just, or you follow your heart, you will be punished for it’. I can’t stand that, and at the resolution of Way of Kings I was very afraid Dalinar would fall, and the kingdom with him, and the rest of the books would feature his son and Kaladin as a fugitive. It might have lead to a satisfying resolution in book five or ten, but it would leave me hanging at that moment. I was very very very pleased that was not the case. Kaladin does choose to do the honourable thing, and it worked out. Yes, there is much death, and there is a set up for much more trouble in the other books, but this resolution stands on its own, and makes me think it’s worth it to spend money on the first part of a series even if the rest is not finished yet.
A lot of people will probably disagree, given how popular a Song of Ice and Fire is. That’s fine, I’m not trying to convert anybody to disliking certain books. However, if you’re a writer, it’s interesting to look at these stories and the way they build up the characters and handle the climax. There are similarities and differences in both that are interesting to look at, if only to figure out what type of writer you are.
In short, go read Way of Kings.