Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

the_way_of_kings_coverBibliography:

Sanderson, Brandon. The Way of Kings. 2010. New York. Tor Fantasy.

ISBN 9780765326355.

Plot:

The first in a planned ten-part high fantasy saga, The Way of Kings tells the seemingly unrelated stories of four major and a handful of minor characters as it lays the groundwork for a much larger plot.  Szeth is an assassin and exile, sworn to serve every whim of anyone who holds his Oathstone, who both hopes for and fears death.  Shallan Davar is a teenage girl attempting to save her family by means of a deception that will destroy them if it is uncovered.  Kaladin is a slave, disillusioned and full of hatred for the nobility who betrayed him, determined to keep himself and his fellow slaves alive in spite of the task at which they are expected to die.  Dalinar Kholin is a warlord whose adherence to an archaic code of honor, and growing doubts about the war-turned-sport his country is engaged in, set him against the other members of the ruling class.  Undercurrents of a large-scale political plot, pieces of a lost history and a cryptic prophecy, and hints that the world’s magic is not all that it seems are woven through the separate stories as they begin to converge.  As might be expected, the book’s conclusion raises as many questions as it answers, if not more.

Critical Analysis:

Brandon Sanderson has created an interesting, original fantasy world that readers are drawn into through rich sensory descriptions that provide a backdrop to, but never distract from, the stories of the people living in it.  Although there are obvious themes of class division, fate and destiny, warfare, and political intrigue, one of the most interesting is that of the conflict between the characters’ moral ideals and self-interest.

Dalinar, uncle to the current king and the most powerful and ostensibly most respected of the Alethi highprinces, has everything to lose if he follows his own moral convictions and trusts in the validity of his prophetic dreams.  He must increasingly go against the conventional wisdom of cutthroat Alethi politics and the strategies of the war-turned-sport against the Parshendi in order to do what he believes is right.  His original goal is to protect the relative peace and unity his brother, the late king, managed to create by bringing together the highprinces on the basis of shared interests.  This requires keeping them loyal to the new king.  On the other hand, Dalinar’s visions hint ominously at a great destruction, one that he wants to prepare for but cannot warn the king or the rest of the nobility about without risking accusations of madness and heresy.  The internal struggle against his own doubts and fears, and the resistance he encounters from those who would otherwise be allies—including his own sons, who love and respect him but fear he is going insane and will tear the entire family down—will resonate with any reader who has ever had to balance their own convictions against popular opinion.

On the opposite end of the political and social spectrum is Kaladin; young, darkeyed soldier-turned-slave.  His own hopeless, bitter outlook is contrasted repeatedly against his determination to help the other bridgemen survive.  He knows they have almost no chance of prolonged survival, but his inner sense of responsibility—and guilt over previous failures to protect soldiers under his command—drives him to try and turn them into a unit capable of protecting themselves in battle.  His internal conflict, much like Dalinar’s, comes down to self-interest vs. his sense of morality, although the circumstances are different.  The reader is given hints that he has tried to save other slaves and help them escape in the past, and failed.  He theorizes ways to escape on his own, and knows he could, but his conscience prevents him from using the other slaves and then abandoning them.  He is also aware that there is little to no chance of successfully helping even a small group of men get away.  At first his hatred of the lighteyes—which the reader is given some background on, but not the complete story—is an additional driving factor in his determination to keep himself and the rest of his bridge crew alive.  By the end of the book, even that is pitted against his deeper sense of right and wrong when he must choose between a miraculous chance for his crew to escape and saving Dalinar and his men when Sadeas purposefully abandons them to die in battle.

Shallan’s initial justifications for deceiving and stealing from Jasnah are, if not sympathetic, at least understandable—she doesn’t know the princess, Jasnah certainly has the money to replace her Soulcaster while the Davar family will be utterly ruined without it, and it is the only remotely feasible way to save them.  Shallan herself is initially a weak personality, compared to most of the other characters.  She is easily influenced, unsure of herself, and almost cowardly.  As she grows to know and personally respect and care for Jasnah—and develops a genuine desire to continue as her apprentice—she is forced to choose between saving her family or loyalty her new teacher.  Her willingness to risk her own life comes across more as desperation and resignation than actual bravery; her decision to confess everything and ask Jasnah for forgiveness after her betrayal is discovered and she fails to get away with the Soulcaster takes much more courage.

Each chapter is headed by a quote—the last words of different, anonymous individuals—or a short passage from what appears to be a letter or a journal.  These seem to have a common theme, but are cryptic; their exact meaning and relevance to the overall story is not explained in this installment, although they occasionally tie loosely into the events of the following chapter and give the reader an additional mystery to wonder about.  Shallan’s interest in scientific drawing and natural history provide a clever opportunity to reveal more about the world’s alien flora and fauna; a partial bestiary is scattered throughout the book in the form of her sketches and notes.

Very little is resolved at the ending—more questions are raised than are answered—but given the planned length of the series, that is to be expected.  At almost 1,000 pages this is not a quick read, but it’s not at all difficult to get through thanks to the balanced pacing, smooth blend of intrigue, dialog, and well-written battle sequences, and engaging characters.  Recommended for fans of high fantasy and adventure.

Awards:

Whitney Award for Best Novel of the Year and Best Speculative Fiction (2010)

David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Novel (2011)

Reviews:

“… In a storm-swept world where history has dwindled into myth, self-serving aristocrats squabble over mystical weapons that render their bearers immune to mundane attacks. The ambitious scholar Shallan learns unexpected truths about the present, the virtuous aristocrat Dalinar reclaims the lost past, and the bitter and broken slave Kaladin gains unwanted power. … Sanderson’s fondness for misleading the reader and his talent for feeding out revelations and action scenes at just the right pace will keep epic fantasy fans intrigued and hoping for redemptive future installments.” – Publishers Weekly

“This colossal volume opens a fantasy saga clearly influenced by the Wheel of Time, which the author is in fact finishing. It’s a classic story of intrigue, magic, and war, with a large cast of characters and multiple settings lovingly detailed in a way only possible in volumes of this size. Two characters stand out. One is Shallan, a young woman seeking to enter the household of a royal princess so that she can steal a magical talisman and restore the tattered fortunes of her family. The other is Kaladin, a gifted young soldier enslaved for desertion, who fights his way back to freedom in battles on the Shattered Plain. There’s wit (Shallan’s amiably unscrupulous sailor protect Yod is a gem), magic (the weather is almost a character in its own right), and erudition (if the fighting on the Shattered Plain doesn’t owe something to WWI, this reviewer would be surprised).  Readers will plunge into it, even as they send up cries for a glossary and cast of characters.” –Roland Green, Booklist

Connections:

There are plenty of possible topics for a book discussion group, for fantasy fans and non-fans alike.  A fantasy discussion group might focus on the detailed world-building, the creature designs and descriptions, or the unique magic system (a hallmark of Sanderson’s fantasy writing).  General book groups could discuss the social and political issues that have similarities to those of the real world: gender roles, the reason for their development, and how they affect both individuals and an entire culture; relationships between classes in a society and the ways people are divided into them; the effects of an environment on the way in which plants and animals evolve; war for profit or as a form of sport.  There are plenty of literary devices to be explored, as might be expected from a book of this length.

Similar Read:

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. 2007. New York.  DAW Books.

ISBN 9780756404079

– Reviewed by Rachel C.