Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Tor Books
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.
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.
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.
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.