Review: Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings”

by Miles Raymer

Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings is like the first computer my family ever owned: It took a long time to boot up, but did some pretty nifty stuff once it got going. This massive fantasy novel is the first in a series of ten planned installments, only two of which have been published. Committing to the whole series is a daunting prospect given the turgid, repetitive nature of this first book. The Way of Kings could have been broken up into two or three standalone volumes, or (better yet) edited down to a much shorter single one.

Even so, this is a highly creative book that opens the door to a rich and intriguing fantasy universe. The world of the Stormlight Archive has a deep history and mythology, tools and weapons based on fungible but finite resources, peculiar gender traditions, and a unique assortment of atmospheric and ecological qualities. It all seems basically coherent and balanced, but Sanderson takes his time letting loose the details, leaving the reader to piece together a conceptual cosmos that is still incomplete by book’s end.

Sanderson’s strongest asset is his knack for clear description of physical locations and movement. Many fantasy novels struggle to convey precise images of imagined events and settings, but the locales and action sequences in this book are easy to picture and fun to follow. One character can manipulate gravity using methods that would be visually confusing in the hands of a less capable author, but his scenes are some of the best in the book. Sanderson enhances the familiar medieval combat tropes with magical elements that are totally badass, elevating the talents of skilled warriors to the level of demigods.

As with much contemporary fantasy, The Way of Kings seeks to revive as well as revise the feudal and monarchic systems of medieval history. Sanderson’s version of this dynamic is not without nuance. He is happy to champion benevolent rulers over sadistic or incompetent ones, but appears to ignore the possibility of democratic or decentralized forms of self-governance (which is not the same as rejecting them outright). There is also an element of “natural” hierarchy regarding eye color that will need to be reinforced or rejected as the narrative progresses. Overall, it’s too soon to tell if Sanderson’s final verdict on medieval morality will be progressive or regressive. For now, it seems he has a fair grasp of humanity’s alloyed potential:

Candle flames were like the lives of men. So fragile. So deadly. Left alone, they lit and warmed. Let run rampant, they would destroy the very things they were meant to illuminate. Embryonic bonfires, each bearing a seed of destruction so potent it could tumble cities and dash kings to their knees…To be given loyalty is to be infused like a gemstone, to be granted the frightful license to destroy not only one’s self, but all within one’s care. (loc. 7229-37)

The question of whether killing can be used as a force for good is central to the novel, as is the difficulty of valuing human life in a culture that thrives on perpetual competition and war. Sanderson loves battles so much that he includes far too many of them. But he does not ignore the tension between bloodlust and a higher plane of ethics.

He was protecting. He was saving. Yet he was killing. How could something so terrible be so beautiful at the same time? (loc. 18294)

Novels that push the thousand page mark gain a special kind of prowess, but they also submit themselves to a strict imperative to earn their robust lengths. The Way of Kings takes no heed of this imperative, often wasting the reader’s time with needless repetition of commentary about world features or the internal thoughts of characters. It’s not that Sanderson’s characters aren’t dynamic, but rather that their development comes too slowly. Even worse, many sections in the The Way of Kings commit the cardinal sin of being downright boring. It doesn’t help that the book’s most interesting character––a young scholar with a quick wit and dubious motivations––doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves (although I believe she takes a bigger role in volume 2).

While Sanderson’s imagination and descriptive abilities are clearly superb, the same cannot be said of his vocabulary and style. The Way of Kings suffers greatly from a lack of verbal and grammatical variety, making some of Sanderson’s complex thinking feel more simplistic than it actually is. There is much room for improvement here; one hopes that in the future Sanderson will stretch his formal muscles to match the strength of his ideas.

If you’re a hardcore fantasy enthusiast, you’ll probably be less irked by Sanderson’s weaknesses than I am. The Way of Kings ends with a promising string of twists and developments, hinting that there is more to Sanderson’s world than a casual perusal of the text might suggest. Even so, it’s hard to see myself clamoring for nine more books, especially ones of comparable length. This series might collapse under the weight of Sanderson’s inability to restrain his eager pen; conversely, it might improve as Sanderson matures. Only time will tell.

Personally, this novel reinforced my general preference for science fiction over fantasy. The two genres have a lot in common, and are often lumped together in bookstores. Both are fantastical, requiring significant suspension of disbelief. But while fantasy books impress with fabricated physical systems that have little basis in our shared reality, science fiction books are bound at least partially by the laws of nature as we know them. Fantasy writers depict societies that feel ancient, blending fresh worlds with existing or archaic models of government and ethics. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, envision societies yet to come by concocting new political and moral paradigms to match imagined technological developments. I don’t think this means science fiction is superior to fantasy, but it does make it generally more progressive.

And I have to admit: I’m more interested in humanity’s possible futures than our imagined pasts.

Rating: 5/10