I don’t read too much high fantasy these days. As a teenager, I read the first few books of the Shannara series, and the first four or so of the Wheel of Time series (which, coincidentally, was finished recently by Brandon Sanderson after the original author’s death). My favorite part of these kinds of books tends to be the initial flush of world-building, and I got bored with the endless twists, reversals, false climaxes, and protracted meanderings that tend to plague these books after their worlds are well established.
In the Shannara books, I vaguely remember, the main character saves the world, then has to save the universe in the next book, because each false climax much also be more dramatic than the last. Which is not to say that they aren’t still great books, just that I tend to tire of the formula after a few volumes.
I started listening to this audiobook not because of a desire to find another fantasy series (it’s projected to be ten novels long, each weighing in at a thousand pages or more), but because I’m doing a lot of woodworking lately, and I need more than podcasts and radio stations in my ears. I signed up for Audible and I’ve been using the bang-for-your-buck shopping model (with mixed results, I’m quagmired a quarter through the 29-hour version of Booker prize-winning The Luminaries), and I’ve discovered that fantasy novels offer a ton of bang for your buck.
So I waded into The Way of Kings having only heard a couple of tidbits about Sanderson and his massive books. I found exactly what I was looking for: a well-rendered world with enough drive to keep me invested in the story over the course of tens of hours, and enough entertainment that I enjoyed all those hours along the way.
However, if I was reading this book instead of listening to it, I might have gone insane. It proceeds, at times, at a glacial pace, painstakingly detailing every tiny facet of Roshar, the world in which the story takes place. That makes for a much more complex experience, but also a much slower one.
Luckily, there’s plenty of action to spice up the story. This first volume focuses largely on Alethkar, a country in Roshar. Alethi men mostly just fight; all artistic disciplines (drawing, music, even writing and scholarship) are considered feminine pursuits. The main war is being fought on the Shattered Plains, a broken landscape with deep chasms between rocky plateaus.
[The next few paragraphs have a few minor spoilers. Nothing past 20% of the story, mostly just premise, but if you want to go in completely fresh and learn everything for yourself, stop here.]
The Alethi once fought for vengeance against the Parchendi, a foreign race of human-like creatures (generally thought to be sub-human) that took credit for the assassination of the Alethi king before the main story begins. In the present day, the Alethi and the Parchendi mostly just squabble over gemhearts, the magical hearts of the fierce beasts native to the Shattered Plains. These gemhearts are fantastically valuable, as they can be used to power Soulcasting, one of the main forms of magic in Roshar. Soulcasting can turn anything into anything else; the Alethi use it to create food for their troops and stone barracks strong enough to withstand highstorms, incredibly violent storms that sweep through Roshar every few days.
Against this backdrop, the narrative follows three main characters. The first is Kaladin, the dark-eyed (or low-born) son of a doctor who joined an army instead of studying medicine and then got sold into slavery. He finds himself working on a bridge crew, a horrible job carrying massive portable bridges around so the army of an Alethi high prince can march over the chasms. Kaladin is very young, only 19, but he is both charismatic as a leader and stalwartly moral and honorable.
The second perspective character is Dalinar Kholin, a light-eyed (high-born) high prince of Alethkar. His nephew is the king, and his brother is the ex-king who was killed by the Parchendi (allegedly). He finds himself unsatisfied with the squabble for gemhearts, and tries to get the other high princes to actually attempt to fight the Parchendi and win the war for good.
The third perspective character is Shallan Davar, a young woman from Jah Keved, another country in Roshar. She sets out to become the apprentice of a famous researcher, Jasnah Kholin (Dalinar’s niece). Her end goal is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, take it back to her debt-ridden family and use it to buy their salvation.
As you can probably tell from even these brief capsules, Sanderson does not suffer from a lack of imagination. He has painstakingly thought out every minute detail of this world, from the religion to the economy to the class system to a number of vast secrets that he only begins to hint at toward the end of this first volume.
This complex fabric allows Sanderson to parcel out many morsels of development—the reason Parchendi always fight in pairs, for example, or the reason that Kaladin never dies, despite staggering odds against him—to keep the mammoth narrative moving forward while the bigger game-changers simmer in the background. But be warned: this book will require patience. It’s the first ten percent (or less) of a massive story, and Sanderson clearly has a ten-book-sized arc planned. He has imagined every detail of this world, and will not hesitate to use a whole lot of that material in long explanatory passages.
Impressively, despite Way of Kings being extremely heavy on world-building and premise-establishing, it features an outstanding ending that would’ve felt satisfying if it was a standalone novel. Somehow, Sanderson manages to tie up many of this first novel’s disparate threads, and simultaneously set up the beginnings of a more epic plot arc for the next volume and beyond.
This book is not one to be read in a weekend, obviously, but if you’re in the market for a massive book to fill many hours, this is an excellent choice. I’m not convinced that this series won’t fall prey to the same problems (mostly dullness and repetitiveness) that drove me away from other fantasy series by the fifth book or so, but for now, I’m waiting with bated breath for the sequel, which comes out on March 4th.