Update, 1/8/18: This post has been updated to include comments on books 2-3 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.
The Way of Kings
I’ll be totally honest: I have a bit of a man-crush on Brandon Sanderson.
I wrote about Sanderson briefly in my recap of the Wheel of Time books, as he was kind enough to step in and finish the series after Robert Jordan’s untimely death. For many writers, completing Jordan’s magnum opus would qualify as a “lifetime achievement,” but Sanderson seems intent on making it simply one more footnote in a prolific career.
Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005. In the years since, he’s published approximately one bajillion novels and short-stories (that’s my professional estimate), of which I’ve read virtually word. It’s always a treat to watch an author that you like blossom, and I’ve had a front row seat for Sanderson’s development. His early works like Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy were entertaining but raw. The character development could be a little scant, and while the magic system in Mistborn was intriguing, it was set up in such a way that the “pushing” and “pulling” (these are magical terms) in each combat scenario got old fast. And while there is definitely violence and tension in Sanderson’s work, his work can trend towards the “young adult” end of the spectrum, which is often a non-started for me. There’s rarely any sex (I’m guessing this is due to him being Mormon?), and in general you can depend on the bad guys being transparently evil, and the good guys snatching victory from defeat at the last moment.
But where Sanderson shines, and I mean really, really shines, is in his plotting. It’s very clear that before he gets to work on any given novel, he’s sketched out the plot in significant detail, such that readers can count on being guided to a satisfying, climactic ending. No matter which Sanderson work you’re reading, you can be pretty confident that at around 80% of the way through the book, you will feel compelled to take a break from everything else in your life and finish reading. This includes pausing your body’s biology for as long as it takes.
Now, on to The Way of Kings. This is the first of 10 entries into the “Stormlight Archive,” and it’s clear that Sanderson’s early works were basically a trial run for this, his own magnum opus. Here, he’s marshaled all of his considerable talents, and if your taste runs anything like mine, you’ll quickly be absorbed by the stories of Kaladin the slave, Brightlord Dalinar, and the scholar Shallan. Despite being the first book in a series, the novel is satisfying in its own right, and we get the kind of adrenaline pumping denouement that Sanderson has become famous for.
It’s tough for me to offer objective criticism for this book. I’m sure there are nits that could be picked, but this is the kind of story that reduces me to being a total fanboy. I eagerly await future entries into the series.
So, to sum up: do you like fantasy? If so, read this book. Period.
Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading
Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.
Words of Radiance
Sanderson has done it again! Words of Radiance is a worthy successor to The Way of Kings, simultaneously delivering an installment of his compelling saga, while setting the stage for future books (all eight of them!). It’s clear that Sanderson has a long-term vision for the series, which helps me as a reader to really invest myself in the story. Much like Robert Jordan before him, Sanderson does an excellent job of slowing pulling back the curtain on the world, while leaving tantalizing hints of foreshadowing and prophecy to keep us guessing (I wonder how finishing the Wheel of Time may have affected Sanderson’s approach to writing Stormlight?).
Words of Radiance is a truly massive tome (1300 pages), but it never felt drawn out to me. Part of Sanderson’s strategy (I think) is to make sure that each significant character has some sort of internal tension or mystery to them, so that when our POV switches to a different character, there’s almost always some sort of payoff involved for the reader. As The Way of Kings focused on slowly revealing Kaladin’s backstory, Words of Radiance focuses on Shallan, who really comes into her own as a character over the course of the book.
Like all Sanderson books, the book concludes with a frenetic rush of action and reveals, which leads to appropriately awesome moments for the reader. A friend pointed out to me the other day that this type of predictably awesome ending has become known as the “Sanderson Avalanche,” and therefore I will be referring to it as such in future blog posts.
With that in mind, I’ll be leaving the series review above unchanged: this is mandatory reading.
In preparation for reading Oathbringer, I went back and re-read books one and two of the series, which coupled with reading book three, made for a very satisfying month of living in Sanderson-land. I realize there’s a temptation to just re-read plot synopses of past books before jumping into new material, but with a series this good, I’d prefer to marinate myself in it for as long as possible.
With that said, I do have to admit that I didn’t think Oathbringer quite measured up to books one and two, though that’s admittedly a very high bar. I was surprised to look back and realize that Oathbringer was actually shorter that Words of Radiance, as it felt considerably longer. There comes a point in the book where I seriously thought I might be nearing the end (reading on a Kindle, and not looking at the page count), only to find that I had another two-fifths of the book left. Now, as a lover of both epic fantasy and the Stormlight Archive, I’m not going to turn down any extra content, but I did think the flow of the book was not quite as natural as that of the previous novels.
Oathbringer is also a bit of a challenge insofar as our protagonists are going through some pretty challenging times in the story, which (I think) makes it a little more difficult to zip along through the book. At almost any given time during the book, either Dalinar, Shallan or Kaladin is having a crisis of faith (or something equivalent), and despite the fact that all of their suffering seems genuinely earned, it can be difficult to not want to grab hold of them and yell things like “JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND INHALE THAT STORMLIGHT, DAMMIT!”
With all that said, have I changed my mind at all about the series itself? Not a bit. This is still the series I’m most excited about (though GRRM may have something to say about that if The Winds of Winter ever comes out). I eagerly await book four, as well as whatever side project Sanderson cooks up in the meantime…