Book Review: Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings
If you love Brandon Sanderson, you’ll love The Way of Kings.
Thing is, I don’t love Brandon Sanderson.
Sanderson is a hit or miss author for me– and maybe it’s just my luck, but I seem to be hitting the misses more often than not. Maybe I just haven’t gotten over Steelheart, because goddamn that is a terrible book. But, Tor.com was giving away a free ebook of The Way of Kings back in, like, March, and I figured ‘why the heck not?’ And while I tend to prefer dead-tree versions of books, I’m glad I nabbed the ebook of The Way of Kings, because it’s one of those fat fantasy novels that can easily be repurposed as a booster seat or something if you really needed it to.
In any case, while the ‘standard’ bit of Map Fantasy is set in some analogue to old-tymey Europe, I have to give Sanderson some credit for opting for a rather alien setting that feels more like something out of a sci-fi novel. Like his Mistborn books, The Way of Kings is set in a blasted, inhospitable wasteland that kind of makes me wonder what part of Utah he lived in as a kid.
Based both on the weirdo planet and the weirdo alien cultures that inhabit it, this book is absolutely stuffed with fantasy nonsense vocabulary: chull, cremling, gemheart, shardblade, fabrial, safehand … it’s enough to make your spellchecker cringe. And on top of that, the book has even more Very Important Capitalizations: Desolation, Thrill, Calling, Lashing, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. The worst of the lot is the made-up word ‘spren.’ On its own, it’s a fine enough term for various little pixie-things that zip around because this is a fantasy novel. So there are windspren, firespren, even deathspren … that’s fine. But early on, Sanderson drops the term ‘anticipationspren’ and I honestly couldn’t take the rest of the book seriously after that. Your tolerance for weirdo fantasy nonsense is definitely going to influence how you enjoy the book.
It’s hard to pithily sum up the plot of The Way of Kings. This is both because it’s a book with a lot of stuff going on … and yet not too much happens at all. At least, that’s what it felt like after reading through a thousand or so pages. The Way of Kings is a sprawling Epic Fantasy (a Map Fantasy, even), that follows about a half dozen viewpoint characters (with a couple of others thrown in to pad out the word count/worldbuilding) from time to time. And while they each have their own plotlines to follow, The Way of Kings really suffers from “first in a series-itis,” in which the whole damn thing feels more like a prologue to get everyone where they need to be to get the actual plot underway. Sanderson’s got ten(!) of these books planned out– and, well, I guess he started getting ideas when they tapped him to finish the Wheel of Time series.
The biggest problem with The Way of Kings is that some of the viewpoint characters are far, far more interesting than others. Or, perhaps more specifically, Sanderson and I have pretty much opposite views of who the book should be about. Namely, one of the viewpoint characters is a young woman by the name of Shallan, who sets out to apprentice herself to a heretical Princess-Academic in order to steal a magic widget from said Princess-Academic. Books and crime? Sign me up! And, sure, Shallan has a tendency to be too ‘clever’– a lot of her quips come off as a little contrived, but nobody’s perfect.
Sanderson proceeds to ignore Shallan for like, 75 percent of the book. Instead, we get far too many pages devoted to a dude named Kaladin, a guy who’s had a shitty life and is so angsty about it you don’t even know you guys. On the one hand, I understand starting a character at rock bottom, so they have someplace to grow and aspire to. On the other, Kaladin’s background (laboriously detailed in far too many flashbacks) is just one awful thing happening to him after another, mostly for no reason. Seriously, Matt Murdock’s got it made compared to this guy. By the time the novel gets underway, Kaladin is a slave, relegated to expressly be cannon fodder.
… at which point, Kaladin’s response is basically ‘well, I’m just gonna do this job so well that I won’t die!’ or … something. Which … is kind of a crappy thing for your protagonist to be doing. I mean, sure, somebody like Conan’s been captured and chained to a galley all the damn time. But does Conan ever say ‘well, I guess I should just row really hard?’ Hell no. Within a chapter– two, at the most, Conan’s up and leading a mutiny and then sailing around to hang out with a bunch of half-naked chicks in a Frazetta painting. And that’s why Conan is awesome.
Be like Conan. Not like Kaladin.
Still, because Kaladin is Designated Protagonist, he inexplicably manifests some magic superpowers of destiny, complete with a windspren sidekick named
Navi Syl. And hell, it’s pretty telling that Kaladin’s first thought upon discovering his new magic isn’t “oh hey how can I use this to escape and/or get revenge on all the assholes trying to kill me” but rather “OH NO I AM SO CURSED AND SAD.”
Speaking of magic, The Way of Kings has got at least two (probably three?) different magic systems. It’s all meticulously put together (Sanderson includes charts at the back of the book, which I summarily didn’t read), and yet all of it feels very, very videogamey. For one, there are a couple of characters in the book who wear what’s basically Magic Power Armor, waving around Giant Magical Lightsabers. There’s also a school of magic that lets you play around with gravity and run on ceilings and stuff, which is the straight up gimmick from an old NES game called Metal Storm. (Not saying Sanderson stole the idea or anything, but it’s the first thing that came to mind). And all the magic is powered by gems acting as magic ‘batteries’ that you certainly wouldn’t pick up off of dropped enemies in the middle of a battle, oh no.
To be fair, Sanderson is very good at writing action scenes, so those times when we see the Magic Power Armor Knights going all Dynasty Warriors in a battle, it’s pretty neat. But again, this isn’t the focus of the book, because Kaladin has a destiny or some nonsense.
It doesn’t help that the cultures in The Way of Kings … don’t make a lot of sense. For example, the Alethi, the main Empire/Kingdom/People/Whatever in the book, are … ridiculously arbitrary in their culture. For example, in Alethi-land (if not everywhere in the novel), only women are allowed/expected to read or write … or do art, or science, or … well, seems pretty limiting. Especially if all your army officers have to bring their wives with them on campaign to do the paperwork. Or super especially if you can’t freakin’ read and yet you need to find women you trust in order to communicate back & forth with secret spy messages and stuff (this is an actual thing that happens in the book).
The Way of Kings also features a caste system (another Sanderson standby), which I couldn’t help but look at askance. Basically, Alethi society is divided between ‘lighteyes’ and ‘darkeyes’– the darker your eye color, the lower you are on the proverbial totem pole. And yes, real-world racism is just as stupid and arbitrary, I get it. There’s a place in fantasy fiction to explore real world issues … buuuuut I’m not sure if Sanderson is the guy to do it.
It doesn’t help that the main nameless bad guys of the setting, the Parshendi, are typically described as dark-skinned. And, uh, there’s a distinct difference between the ‘tribal’ Parshendi who are fierce and warlike and literally grow carapace armor from their skin, and the ‘domesticated’ Parshmen who are ‘naturally subservient.’ Oh, and (spoiler alert), it’s revealed at the end of the novel that the Parshendi/Parshmen are descended from the Big Evil Horde that nearly killed the world thousands of years earlier … and, uh, yeah. I’d like to give Sanderson the benefit of the doubt here, but turning around and going ‘it’s not weird if you keep reading until the end of a ten book series!’ is hardly much of a defense.
The most frustrating thing is, even though The Way of Kings has a lot of flaws, it’s still got a lot going for it. There are a handful of events and revelations towards the end of the book that are legitimately interesting, and a handful of characters that are genuinely compelling. But even then, there are multiple occasions when Sanderson could have taken a more complicated, interesting route … but doesn’t. In one egregious example, the moustache-twirlingly evil dude who seems like he’s going to be that bastard ‘on your side’ … turns out to be just moustache-twirlingly evil. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, etc.
Really, The Way of Kings is a book with a lot of big worldbuilding ideas behind it … but Sanderson gets so caught up in this strange, alien world that he doesn’t pay enough attention to the people in it. Or, hell, even for all its worldbuilding, a lot of the book’s logistics don’t make sense. I mean, one of the expressly mentioned uses of gem-magic is to transmogrify matter– to the point where food can be straight up created out of rocks. Given how important agriculture is to human society, this is huge, but Sanderson doesn’t touch on the potential implications. I’m not saying he has to give us a full farmer’s almanac of rock-cultivation or whatever, but it’s just a prime example of Sanderson’s tendency to obsess over his favorite cool bits without paying much attention to the rest.