Tell … tell my brother … he must find the most important words a man can say.
First, the worldbuilding and magic systems.
Sanderson is well known for his magic systems for a reason. The book opens with a blithely rewriting the laws of gravity in order to kill a king with a six plus foot long sword. If that doesn’t drag you into a book wanting more, I’m not sure what would.
Unfortunately (or not, depending on what you’re looking for), for every answer you get on how things actually work on Roshar (the name of the world The Way of Kings takes place on), you get even more questions. What
And the worldbuilding doesn’t stop there. It’s fascinating to read about a world that feels quite as alien as Roshar does–and yet manages to feel real. To me, it feels like an ocean without water. Most of the native animal life is crustacean in form1 and the planetlife has a tendency to move around and hide from danger. There’s a huge battle taking place on the Shattered Plains– which in my mind at least feel like someone dropped a plate the site of a continent and shattered it into millions of pieces.
And the seasons / storms. Seasons fly by much more chaotically and quickly than we’re used to, with storms (accurately named Highstorms) that can cause all sorts of damage sweeping across the continent semi-regularly. It really makes me wonder why–especially since in Sanderson’s The Final Empire etc the strange weather and geography had a perfectly sensible astrological reason for much of it. So what in the world happened / is happening to Roshar?
And finally, spren and the Shardblades. Take two ideas: one, that thoughts / feelings / ideas can manifest as tiny beings (fearspren, angerspren, rotspren, windspren). Two, that you want to have a world where six foot long basically anime style swords make sense. Take both of these and fill in the details in the way that Sanderson does.
Second up, the characters.
As Truthless, there was only one life he was forbidden to take. And that was his own.
Despite having a relatively minor part in this book–mostly just in the interludes, Szeth-son-son-Vallano / The Assassin in White is absolutely fascinating. He knows more about how at least one branch of magic works on this world than just about anyone and uses it as a nigh unstoppable–but not a willing one. He’s a fascinating character and I sorely want to know more about him.
“Yes,” [Syl] said. “That was sarcasm.”
She cocked her head. “I know what sarcasm is.”
Then she smiled deviously. “I know what sarcasm is!”
Stormfather, Kaladin thought, looking into those gleeful little eyes. That strikes me as ominous
Next up, one of the main point of view characters, Kaladin is an interesting combination of extremely competent and depressed (rightfully so). He has a chip on his shoulder better described as a boulder, but–as we learn throughout the book–there’s a good reason for that.
Kaladin really becomes an interesting character as he begins to really bond with his spren Syl (see above) and starts to move towards his destiny, whatever that happens to be. It’s fascinating watching him take his men and build them up, even if you know that everything is just going to come tumbling down again before all is said and done.
“Sometimes,” Dalinar said, “the prize is not worth the costs. The means by which we achieve victory are as important as the victory itself.”
And then you have Dalinar. Uncle to the (current) king, he’s a Good Man. He lives by a code of honor even when it really would be much easier to go another way and he’s starting to have visions of what Needs To Be Done. He could use a bit more character development, but he’s got time2.
“I see. And this is how you’d respond if the Almighty himself appeared to you here? All of this formality and bowing?”
She hesitated. “Well, no.”
“Ah, and how would you react?”
“I suspect with screams of pain,” she said, letting her thought slip out too easily. “As it is written that the Almighty’s glory is such that any who look upon him would immediately be burned to ash.”
Shallan is hilarious. She’s a fiery redhead (of course) with a wonderfully snarky sense of humor on a mission far beyond her comfort zone in order to save her family. There’s something very dark in her past, but we’ll have to wait to figure out what it is.
“It wasn’t an admonition,” Jasnah said, turning a page. “Simply an observation. I make them on occasion: Those books are musty. The sky is blue today. My ward is a smart-lipped reprobate.”
Jasnah herself (the king’s brother / Dalinar’s niece) is also fascinating. She’s an atheist in a world where almost no one is and a scholar that might just know more about what’s actually going on / how everything works in Roshar than just about anyone else.
And finally, the plot / structure. It starts hard hitting with the prologue, but settles down for the long run. There are a number of independent plot lines (the main characters never end up in the same place at the same time) set all over a complicated world. Settle and and don’t expect any quick answers–or even answers at all in some cases–and it works.
There are a few end of chapter cliff hangers, but for the most part, it doesn’t feel that bad to switch from one point of view to another. The main counterpoint is Shallan completely missing in part 3, after a rather intense cliffhanger. I’m still annoyed about that–even if when we finally do get back to her in part 4, things escalate dramatically.
Overall, it’s a wonderful book. The best epic fantasy that I’ve ever read. My only regret? That the series won’t be finished for a decade or more.
Sometimes we find it hardest to accept in others that which we cling to in ourselves.
Amusing aside: I’ve now read Way of Kings twice. The first time, I read it one chapter at a time, discussion it with my wife over email. We finished it 6 February 2015. This time I read it by myself (and thus somewhat more quickly). I finished it just after midnight… on 6 February 2018. Something amusing about that.
And even the exceptions are interesting. Why are there horses? Why does Shinovar seem to have all the features of our own Earth when everything else is so very strange? Our grass is so alien to them:
She was not going to ruin a good dress for a pot of drooling, wall-staring, imbecile grass.
So far as I know, the Stormlight Archives are planned as two series of five books each. Given just how massive the Way of Kings is… we will likely get to know these characters rather well by the end. ↩︎