You can expect this review to feel a lot like a Shardplate oozing Stormlight. I’ll just exude a nondescript glow as I wax romantic about this book. It’s a freedom I grant myself because 1) I have nothing bad to say about The Way of Kings and 2) I have nothing new to say about it. Chances are I won’t sway you to read The Stormlight Archive if you haven’t already been lured by the fantasy community’s opinion of Sanderson’s work. But, as a recent Sanderson initiate (thanks to site owner Andrew), I still want to take a few hundred words to explain exactly what I loved about The Way Of Kings.
The Way Of Kings drops readers into the heart of a massive world—though much of this book takes place in Alethkar—where various peoples are at war. Their primary objective? Recover gemhearts, which can produce and power magical armor and weaponry. I have, of course, diluted this summary so far that the average Stormlight fan will chide me for my stupidity. In reality, The Way Of Kings connects its myriad plots like the world’s most complex Lego set. Kings is a book that is thematically centered on discovery, both in its plot and its ideas. Sanderson has a vision, and he places bricks at various places from time to time, only revealing the wondrous finished sculpture when a 200-page conclusive explosion–often referred to as the Sanderlanche– erupts. Though there are too many characters to describe here, here are a few key players in this opening volume:
- Kaladin, a surgeon’s son who took his talents to war to protect his younger brother, then was branded as a slave and sent to work as a bridgeman.
- Shallan, an academic and a thief on a quest to pilfer a valuable object that could restore her family to its former glory.
- Dalinar, an elite warrior and Highprince who experiences strange visions and begins to lose his thirst for battle.
- Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, Princess of Alethkar, and talented academic studying the world’s vibrant and mysterious history.
- Adolin, Dalinar’s son, who grapples with his identity and the fact that he will one day take his father’s place as Highprince.
The Way Of Kings interlaces these characters with flawless cohesion. Sanderson knows when to drop a bombshell of a detail. He knows when to shift points of view to keep you hungry for more. And he knows exactly what every character is up to at any given time. Though each of these “protagonists” has a narrative, they’re all part of a grander shift in the world.
The Way of Kings bounces from the past to present, but the bulk of the story takes place six years after the assassination of King Gavilar. Alethkar goes to war with the Parshendi, a race of ashen- and red-skinned warriors who claimed to be responsible for the King’s murder. The warriors of Alethkar and the Parshendi find themselves at odds on The Shattered Plain, a network of treacherous plateaus separated by gargantuan chasms. There, giant gems called gemhearts form in massive chrysalises. The Alethkar are represented by 10 factions, each with their own leading Highprince, who employ military tactics to compete with one another for the treasures, often resulting in huge casualties.
Though The Way of Kings boasts many protagonists, Kaladin takes the starring role of this tome. His story moves at a breakneck pace as he is tossed into the life of a bridgeman in Highprince Sadeas’ army (Sadeas is one of Dalinar’s rivals). Bridgemen are expendable. Their job? Run bridges across the Shattered Plains, placing them across the huge gaps between plateaus so the Alethi army can reach gemhearts before the Parshendi. Life as a bridgeman is oppressive and deadly. Sometimes full crews are summoned for a run and see zero men return. The crew members, then, care little about anything but living another day to spend what meager coin they earn on booze or general debauchery.
Kaladin begins his journey with a similar mindset. But seeds of ideas start to sprout within him, sparking an evolution that rivals the best character arcs I’ve ever read.
Beyond Kaladin, Sanderson offers a subset of wonderful cast members that I’m told will be the focus of book 2 and beyond. Shallan captured my interest the most–an academic studying under the tutelage of Dalinar’s niece Jasnah Kholin. Shallan’s multifaceted personality and mysterious backstory drove me into a page-turning fervor, and I’m already hankering for more of her in Words of Radiance.
Dalinar took the longest for me to latch onto, but I came to love the fifty-something-year-old warrior. So much fantasy glorifies war and destruction, and I get it–those setpieces can be friggin’ cool. But to see a warrior question his place in a fight mid-battle offers a refreshing perspective. Part of it might be his age. So few fantasies dare to tell the story of an experienced, middle-aged protagonist, but Sanderson doesn’t shy away.
The most amazing aspect of Sanderson’s The Way Of Kings, in my view, is his ability to make me care about every single character. The book’s protagonists and side cast remain riveting throughout–no small task for a 1200-page juggernaut of a book. And where I’d normally hesitate to dive into such a big reading endeavor, I’m already clamoring to read the next book.
It feels like an added bonus that these characters exist in a rich and stunning world replete with captivating magic. Rest assured, it’s not just a bonus. Both these elements of The Way Of Kings shine with a brilliance I’ve come to expect from Sanderson (I’ve read only the Mistborn saga and adore it). Roshar, the world of The Stormlight Archive, is as diverse as our own. Its cultures have unique and intriguing customs that have far-reaching impacts as characters travel from one place to another. Every event in this world means something, though the implications aren’t always immediately noticeable. Sanderson is setting the stage for something massive, and even the tip of the iceberg–we only really visit two major regions– is a chunky piece of worldbuilding.
Stormlight is the primary source of magic in The Way of Kings. And while there will undoubtedly be more to come, this book focuses on Shardblades and Shardplate. These magical artifacts imbued with Stormlight give the wielder/wearer immense power, and they function in unique ways. A Shardblade can slice through flesh without leaving a mark, instead cutting off the nerve endings of the sliced body part. Slice through a man’s knees, and he’ll never walk again. Cut through his arm, and it becomes useless. Slice through his neck? His eyes shrivel as his soul separates from his body, leaving him a desiccated corpse. Shardplate gives warriors the strength of ten men and wraps them in an almost indestructible regenerating armor. The plate allows them to leap chasms, lift boulders, and protect them from almost everything except other Shardbearers. Combine the two pieces of legendary gear together and you have a warrior that can cut down entire battalions without breaking a sweat.
One 1200-page adventure contains all of this and so much more. I feel like I’ve just emerged from years of darkness, sunlight flitting down onto me as I take my first cautious steps into an unfamiliar world. I loved my jaunt through The Way of Kings, even though it’s the first stride into a vast new land. I’m relishing every single step. What a journey this is going to be. If you’ve been wavering, on the fence, undecided, or otherwise unsure about The Stormlight Archive, consider this the last nudge you’ll ever need. One book in, I already know the long trek is worthwhile. If you join in, I think you’ll feel the same way.
Rating: The Way of Kings – 10/10