Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

7235533Title: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives #1)

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Tor Books

Review:

Any fan of fantasy fiction is well acquainted with the name of Brandon Sanderson. Still in his thirties, he is already the author of several YA and adult fantasy novels and made a name for himself by writing the final three books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.

The first book in the Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings, was written a few years ago and like most epic fantasy fiction, we’ve had to wait for a long period of time to read the second book. This is understandable given his commitments to finish The Wheel of Time.

There is always a danger in picking up book one of an epic fantasy series. George R.R. Martin has been at his Song and Ice and Fire series for a couple of decades and does not appear to have clear direction. Scott Lynch has battled medical issues and the third book in The Gentleman Bastard series has been postponed countless times.

With Brandon Sanderson, there is little danger of this happening. In his short career thus far, he has proven himself as an expert in the industry in three categories that will be the focus of my review: prolific writing, close third-person narratives, and magic systems.

Prolific Writing

Brandon Sanderson has been quite transparent about his writing process in the podcast, Writing Excuses. Together with Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor, Sanderson shares details from his outlining and revision process to the business side of things and the roles he assigns to his personal assistant. Where other fantasy authors are putting out a book every three years, Sanderson writes up to three books each year. And they are not short, either! The 1001 pages of The Way of Kings worked arm muscles that hadn’t been used in awhile.

Sanderson has also branched out into YA fiction, writing four Alcatraz novels and will be releasing the first in a new series this year. The quantity and breadth of writing is reminiscent of Orson Scott Card (a fellow Mormon and blurber on Sanderson’s covers). I would also maybe compare his quantity and breadth to Daniel Abraham, who is regularly releasing space opera, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and even graphic novels.

Even though Sanderson is dabbling in several areas within the genre, I do expect The Stormlight Archive to be his magnum opus. It is expected to be a ten-volume body of work and I would be surprised if any of them are shy of the 1000 page mark. With other authors, I would approach this with trepidation. With Sanderson, I feel confident I am in good hands.

Close Third-Person Narrative

Not that long ago, books were typically written with an omniscient viewpoint. The reader was able to jump into one characters thoughts, then another. Frank Herbert’s Dune would be an example of this and it was so commonplace that the reader thought nothing of it.

The trend over the last couple of decades has been to write with a close third-person narrative. We see directly through the eyes of the viewpoint character and know there thoughts just as they do. Sanderson has perfected this art and in The Way of Kings, he makes clear delineations for when the viewpoint character shifts.

There are a number of viewpoint characters in the novel, but I will mention the three that make up a bulk of the first book:

Kaladin is a slave whose story is told in two timelines: the present and in a series of flashbacks telling his coming-of-age. In short, he is the son of a surgeon who joined the military with his brother and was later made a slave for refusing something that no other man would likely refuse. As a slave, he serves as a bridgeman, moving portable bridges in the midst of battle so that the troops can navigate the chasm-filled landscape. The bridgemen’s lives are worth little to highprince Sadeas and several men are killed by arrows in each run. Kaladin leads the men in technique and discipline, making his bridge crew more agile than some of the soldiers. His heroic acts, however, lead him to be seen as a threat by Sadeas.

Shallan Davar is a noble who has fallen out of grace. Her father has died and she has her eyes set on becoming Jasnah’s (King Elhokar’s sister) ward/tutor. While Shallan has a fascination with academia and shows a talent for art, her intentions are not scholarly and she intends on stealing the royal elite’s prized soulcaster.

Dalinar Kholin, like Sadeas, is a highprince and uncle to King Elhokar. He lives by a noble code, following a book known as The Way of Kings. Sadeas finds Dalinar’s methods ineffective, bringing conflict between the two throughout the novel. Dalinar also suffers from hallucinatory fits that could be a sign of him going crazy or a communication from the gods.

Magic Systems

What separates The Way of Kings from a series like Martin’s war-ridden A Song of Ice and Fire is the liberal use of magic. Of course, Sanderson is so enthralled with the concept of magic that one system is not sufficient.

To describe all of the elements of the magical system is premature in the first novel. One of the main forms comes from a source known as stormlight. The world in which the novel takes place suffers from frequent and violent storms that are strong enough to tear down houses and kill men if they are not properly protected. The storms bring stormlight, which is typically stored inside gems. These gems are used in constructing special armor known as shardplate that is quite resilient against bladed attacks. Only repeated strikes in the same area can wear the armor down.

Even more valuable than the shardplate is the shardblade — a magical sword that is so sharp that the user can barely feel it pass through solid matter (including rocks!). A shardbearer calls his sword out of the air like mist and if he lets go it disappears. The sword can only be taken if the shardbearer is killed. A shardblade is said to be more valuable than kingdoms, but it comes at a cost to the bearer of it. Not only are physical attributes (eye color) changed, but there seems to be an emotional change that draws or repels people who seek it.

For a few select people, stormlight can be harnessed from within themselves. This gives them great powers including surgebinding (defying gravity) and super-enhanced fighting prowess. A person with this power can jump from forty feet high and land safely or walk on walls.

Different from stormlight, there is another magic system known as soulcasting. This is a form of magic where one substance can be changed to another. Shallan believes that Jasnah uses her soulcaster to perform this magic.

Finally, Sanderson’s world has fairy-like spirits known as spren. There are many kinds of spren, appearing in response to human emotions (e.g. fearspren) or to physical changes in the world (windspren). They don’t typically speak to humans; however, one spren known as Syl becomes an acquaintance of Kaladin, forming a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Final Remarks

I will say that I enjoyed the novel for the first half of the book, but I didn’t love it until I got into the later parts. Large-scale epic fantasy requires so much character development and world-building that it often takes awhile to get into the groove. Writers such as Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch grab me in the initial paragraphs with their poetic prose. Sanderson has high command of language and strong narrative voice, but his words are used to tell a story and make no attempt to be literary or elegant. This is not a criticism, but rather a description of his writing style.

I was somewhat reluctant to embark on this series, feeling somewhat lost with what to do with George R.R. Martin’s series that has lost its way in the last two volumes. It’s too late now, though — I’m caught hook, line, and sinker. The Way of Kings is a book I grew to love and I will be very eager to pick up the next volume in the series later this year.

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(A short) Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Title: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1)

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: DAW

Format: Hardcover

Review:

There have already been thousands of reviews of The Name of the Wind and I am not sure how much new I have to add to the discussion, so I will be brief.

The novel tells of a struggling inn keeper named Kvothe who recounts his life to a scribe, known as The Chronicler. It is a coming-of-age story of a orphaned boy who dreams of entering the university to be educated in the ways of magic. The Name of the Wind is filled with fantasy, adventure, death, and even a bit of clumsy love, written with a poetic prose that makes each page a delight to read.

Probably the biggest criticism of the novel is that Kvothe is an unlikable character. He is conceited and recognizes himself as more than brilliant. This pride does not come without consequence and Kvothe often finds his way into trouble because of his over-confidence. His abilities have left him with enemies within the university, giving his primary fault true consequences. Kvothe rarely dwells on his self-aggrandizing, instead fully focused on the task at hand.

While the plot is not entirely unique (Harry Potter instantly comes to mind and other novels before that), The Name of the Wind is a true joy to read. It is very traditional in the form of epic fantasy, but sets itself apart with the superb writing and compelling world that Rothfuss has formed.

Review: The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham

Title: The King’s Blood

Author: Daniel Abraham

Rating:

Publisher: Orbit

Format: Trade Paperback

Review:

There’s no denying Daniel Abraham’s versatility. He has been successful in writing epic fantasies, space operas, urban fantasies, and most recently, graphic novels, with an adaptation of GRRM’s Game of Thrones.

The King’s Blood is Daniel Abraham’s second novel in The Dagger and the Coin series. The appropriately titled series tells of various factions competing for power by shrewd monetary deals and ruthless swordplay. Cithrin is an ambitious young banker who has her eyes set on establishing her own bank. As she travels north, she unknowingly sets herself on a path with Geder, the puppet king of a cunning priest. Geder is clueless to the priest’s intentions and heeds his advice with rote obedience.

Dawson is aware of the priest’s hold on Geder and plans a coup. Meanwhile his wife, Clara, maintains their social rank by building relationships with others of the court. Finally we have Marcus, Cithrin’s trusted bodyguard, who desires to travel north to protect her from danger only to find himself in his own set of troubles.

There’s no denying that Abraham is a good writer and this series exemplifies it well. The world building is vast, yet the story moves at a quick pace, keeping the reader glued to the always-changing events. Dawson, who was somewhat of a dull character in the first novel, becomes one of the highlights of the second novel as his discerning eye sees through the priests intentions and he devises a plan to kill the king.

Geder remains complex. He is a scholar of the written word, but appears foolish by worldly standards. He is emotionally unstable and is prone to violent outbursts, but in quiet solitude, he has a forgiving spirit. His interactions with the priest leave the reader wondering if he is over-trusting, clueless, or really just uncaring for others.

The best part of Abraham’s writing is balance. It’s not pretentious, nor does it dwell on details. His writing is able to provide a descriptive setting, good dialog, and an appropriate depth of character. The chapters are short and there is never a point where I feel that the novel drags.

The novel is far from perfect, however. First of all, one cannot help but notice the strong likeness to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Like Martin, each chapter is titled with the point of view character’s name. Each character has a unique plot, none of which are either good or evil. There are elements of magic, but the use of it is slight. The stories take place in a fictional locale, but the culture resembles medieval Europe. The books appendices provide character descriptions. I’m not saying that the formula is bad, but it is hard not to draw comparisons and Abraham’s novel does not achieve the same epic scale as Martin’s massive novels.

I was also disappointed in Cithrin’s character arc in this novel. The first novel was a coming of age story for her as she bravely endeavored into banking by making illicit deals. In The King’s Blood, her ambition remains the same, but she purposefully side tracks herself by helping Geder for unknown reasons. I see Cithrin as a woman of power, which she demonstrates by assisting the king, but she is also a woman of purpose. This was forsaken for the second half of the novel.

In any case, reading The King’s Blood is an enjoyable experience and for those looking for an epic fantasy in the style of George R. R. Martin, you will find yourself at home here. There is plenty of adventure and character depth to hold the reader’s interest on many levels. I wait with anticipation for the next book in the series.

Review: The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

Title: The Dragon’s Path

Author: Daniel Abraham

Rating:

Publisher: Orbit

Format: Trade Paperback

Review:

I was recently introduced to Daniel Abraham after reading Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War (co-written with Ty Franck under the pseudonym of James S.A. Corey). Considering my positive experience with their space opera, I was eager to try Abraham’s ongoing epic fantasy series.

The Dragon’s Path is the first book in The Dagger and the Coin series. The series title is appropriate, for the viewpoint characters are known either for their deftness with a blade or their shrewdness with their purse. Geder (the first viewpoint character) is one of the sword-bearers, a literary scholar of sorts, whose hobby of scribbling speculative essays poses little advantage in Abraham’s violent, medieval world. He becomes a political pawn when he is suddenly thrust from low social ranks into a position of power.

Cithrin (the second viewpoint character) is a sixteen-year-old orphan, living and working in a branch of the Medean Bank. Her home city of Vanai comes under attack, threatening the bank’s reserves, and in desperation, Cithrin is sent to lead a caravan of riches to safety. An able swordsman named Marcus (the third viewpoint character) serves to protect her with his band of actors who are dressed to look the part of soldiers. Perhaps the most moral of the viewpoint characters, Marcus serves as a protector and father-like adviser to the cunning Cithrin whose coming-of-age passes in the blink of an eye.

Baron Dawson Killiam (the fourth viewpoint character) is an upper-class nobleman and childhood friend of the king. He is the marionette of Geder’s political career and serves as a defender of the current social order. His stubbornness is balanced by his wife’s soft and kind influences as he schemes against others to gain political advantage.

What makes The Dragon’s Path an enjoyable read is the characters and each views Abraham’s world through a different lens. To Cithrin, economics rule and she begins to pave a way to financial prominence through ingenuity and deceit. To Geder, the world is cruel and misguided. He is uncertain in his aim, but will make bold decisions to avoid becoming a victim. To Dawson, the world is political. Every relationship is either to forge alliances or hinder enemies. The different worldviews of the characters help paint a rich tapestry of the society in which they live.

The style follows in a form similar to George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — the chapters are titled with the viewpoint character, none of which are clear protagonists or antagonists. The morally ambiguous antiheroes all serve to advance their own purposes (with a possible exception to Marcus) in a diverse, war-ridden world. But unlike Martin, there is very little in terms of fantastical elements. There are thirteen species of humans, but little is provided to the reader to differentiate them other than sparsely-added physical descriptions (such as tusks or long ears). The concept of multiple species is a great idea, but I am really hoping that subsequent books will explore them in greater detail, integrating them into the plot.

One of the challenges with developing an epic fantasy without a hero’s journey is developing a character the reader can identify with. Geder, at first glance, appears to be an unlikely hero — he’s a medieval geek, never fitting in with his expositions are seen as frivolous diversions. When he is put in a position that destines him to failure, he overcomes his circumstances in such a savage and detestable way that he commits treason on the reader. Despite draining the empathy out of me, Geder remains complex and interesting, leaving me completely uncertain of where his character will go.

Cithrin is probably the most interesting character. She is wise beyond her years, but her craftiness is limited, even when she uses her every advantage. Like Geder, our first impression of her changes quickly when we find out that she is not as innocent as we originally thought. But in her case, the character change is intriguing and through her struggles, she becomes more real to the reader.

I really enjoyed the first novel in The Daggar and the Coin series and I am very excited to read the already published second book. The characters are complex and are beautifully interwoven, the political and socio-economic environment are intricately designed, and the prose flows nicely. I recommend Abraham’s latest epic fantasy series and put it right on par with his space opera series, The Expanse.

Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Title: Range of Ghosts

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: Hardcover

Review:
I’ve heard good things about Elizabeth Bear, but before Range of Ghosts, had never read her work. In interviews she is witty and intelligent and given the accolades this book has received, you can imagine my excitement in reading this book. In many ways it met or exceeded my expectations.

Range of Ghosts takes place in a fictional world resembling central Asia. This novel is not so much about plot as it is about the milieu and its characters. Range is primarily told through (but not limited to) two points of view: Temur, heir and grandson of a Great Khan, is left for dead and is roaming the countryside to stay alive. Samarkar, once a princess and heir to the Rasan Empire, has renounced her royal status and fertility to become a sorceress. Amidst a great war, Temur and Samarkar will cross paths and work together to survive.

Let me start off by saying that Bear has writing chops. Her prose is well-crafted and smart — sometimes the humor is embedded in the text and can be missed if read too carelessly. When I first saw that novel was only 336 pages, I expected a quick read. That is not the way to read Elizabeth Bear. Her words are carefully selected and the pace is slower than most, but that does not make it dull. The world building is fascinating and it is okay to stop and smell the roses.

The plot itself is not terribly complex, but it is made rich by applying non-traditional tropes. This is not an epic fantasy of white men battling in Western Europe during the dark ages. Rather, Range of Ghosts follows the trend of recent fantasy with a non-western culture. Applying ghosts and djinn also help to separate this from traditional fantasy.

I struggle to be critical of this novel and I suspect it will be nominated for awards next year. A couple items prevent me from giving it a flawless review. First of all, the pacing is a bit slow for me. Perhaps it is my own impatience, but I found my mind wandering a couple of times as the novel digressed on history, setting, and the nature and details of Temur’s horses. Secondly, I found Samarkar’s character a little rigid, making it difficult for me to care about her.

Criticisms aside, this is an excellent novel and Bear is an author whose works I look forward to reading in the future. Range of Ghosts effectively demonstrates her ability to create a compelling world and story, leaving the reader satisfied for having taken the journey.