Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Way of Kings

I reviewed The Rithmatist, Brandon Sanderson's young adult debut, for YA Summer a few months ago. I normally try not to do the same author twice in a year, but Misanthrope and Smartypants have been swearing up and down that this one is great for months, so I finally caved....and am very glad I did.

Not to be confused with The Way of Shadows, which is both half as long and half as interesting.

Rating: 4 stars
Length: Well into "imposing tome" territory (1258 pages)
Publication: August 31, 2010 from Tor Books
Premise: The world of Roshar is controlled by the highstorms that destroy the landscape even as they bring light and magic and by the long-forgotten secrets that place everyone in danger.
Warnings: battlefield gore
Recommendation: If you have the resolve for 1200-odd pages and don't mind a slightly slow start, give this one a try. It looks like this might be able to pull off a cast-of-thousands epic fantasy without slowing to a crawl-- the action is glorious, the world manages to be alien but comprehensible, and Brandon Sanderson has a deft touch for writing about ideals without becoming trite. 

What makes this epic fantasy properly epic:

The story opens on nine cryptic figures abandoning the tenth of their number and then skips 4500 years to the present day, which is a fair indicator of this book's scope. Sanderson has gone to great lengths to create a world that's different from every near-Earth clone with magical seasoning out there, and it's fascinating to untangle how the highstorms (which produce the stormlight of the series title) have shaped every aspect of life on this world. Storms of water and magic that can sweep up boulders and trees as they move rage across the landscape with some frequency-- both Roshar's ecology and cultures have evolved to deal with that, though regions farther from the origin of the storms seem to follow more normal patterns. The storms tear at the earth, so grass and other plants can retract into the ground. Animals need to be sturdy to survive these conditions, so most of them seem to come with carapaces or antennas, calling to mind crustaceans rather than mammals. These tempests aren't without their blessings, however; gemstones of any size left out in the open will become infused with Stormlight, which glows brightly and can also be used in some types of blended magic and technology. These glowing gemstones are placed into the heart of small clear spheres that are the currency of the realm, so people can use their currency for illumination, and vice-versa. It's an elegant mechanic, one that lets pieces of worldbuilding follow each other more logically, and there's abundant room for this dual magic-technology to expand in future volumes.

Three of the four primary character arcs balance beautifully well. Kaladin, once a captain called Stormblessed and now a slave, carries the lion's share of the point of view, but the Kholin lord Dalinar and his son Adolin between them manage to balance out the views of how this war on the Shattered Plains is really going. These brightlords see the larger shape of strategy and fate of the realm, while Kaladin catches only glimpses of that while he measures the cost in human suffering. Adolin's struggle is to some extent dictated by Dalinar's, since he is the head of their house, but he's willing to fight against his father on one page and at his side on the next out of love and exasperation and loyalty. The two of them carry some of the best action scenes in the book, since the powerful Shardblades and Shardplate make superhuman feats possible, but they also provide the book's moral center. Dalinar dictates that his family follow the Codes, ideals for life and war taken from an ancient book called The Way of Kings. He blames himself for the death of his brother, King Gavilar, and believes that he could have saved him if he's gone along with what seemed like madness at the time. These Codes for the treatment of comrades and officers and the enemy twine together with the half-lost oaths of the Knights Radiant who once protected humanity to form the roots of an honor system with more resonance than the personal codes found in so many other books. Many other protagonists won't kill children or steal from the innocent, for example, but these are closer to full life philosophies that will doubtless show themselves in further permutations as the series develops.

The action sequences....really, words don't do many of them justice. The full-scale battles are gripping, especially the Battle of the Tower (trust me, you'll know it when you get there), but the world provides for many other types of tension. Kaladin spends time facing the raw power of a highstorm, Jasnah Kholin has no problem turning people to pillars of flame with her Soulcaster if she feels that it's justified, and Dalinar's visions uncover entirely different types of enemies. After the first dense action scenes, Sanderson demonstrates the rare gift of making these fights easy to picture while also showing something about the characters involve. They fight as they do for a reason, always, and their internal landscape is linked to the external struggle. Once this book gets started, it's genuinely exciting, and the second half in particular absolutely flies by. Kaladin really deserves the bulk of the action he gets-- it's easy to get frustrated with the way he lingers in angst and despair, but his backstory makes it clear that he absolutely has reason to feel that way and that it's in fact a miracle that he didn't kill himself before the book started. He hits one emotional low after another but continues to pick himself up, sometimes with outside help and sometimes without it, and in the end it's hard not to admire the way his response to giving up is eventually "well, I'm already here in this pit and am not stepping up because I'm afraid. That's not a good enough reason." He has the best crazy plans, the best action scenes, and only doesn't have the most potential to draw the most loyalty because he and Dalinar came out in a tie. His journey from here is going to be at the heart of the series, and Sanderson absolutely chose well in making it so.

The red pen:

Fascinating though this world can be, the entry to it feels too slow at times. The first chapter of the book proper deals with a magical assassin going after a king, so there's no way this should be dull, but it almost manages. This assassin spends most of his narrative space trying to explain exactly how his Lashing magic works and what he's doing with his Shardblade. It works, after a fashion, but it bogs down too much in vocabulary to the detriment of that sequence's tension. Some of the next few chapters have the same problem as they try to cram too much worldbuilding into too little space. To some extent it's necessary to the story, but it becomes troublesome when it's paired with Kaladin and Shallan's early fussing. While their later journeys are both intriguing (more on Shallan later), these framing chapters (roughly the first two hundred pages) consist largely of introspection and hints at backstory rather than much forward motion. It makes for something of a slow start, which ultimately ends up being forgivable given what an excellent payoff the last two hundred pages are, but it's still a bit daunting to realize that over half the length of some books is devoted to worldbuilding, plot, and development of characters who are compelling but not honestly that nuanced. Is it worth the wait? Absolutely. But the early pacing is slow to the point of plodding, and that makes it harder to tune into the later action.

One problem with such a long series is that of juggling the characters who are going to be important and deciding who needs to be introduced at which point. Sanderson has gone the route of at least sketching out many major players in the first volume, but the arcs don't always line up. Kaladin, Dalinar, and Adolin do a good job of covering the battle on the Shattered Plains and enacting the masculine ideals of society, but Shallan's arc has to cover a separate kingdom outside of Alethkar as well as the feminine pursuits of art and scholarship. This could have worked out nicely, but after the first quarter of the book, Shallan's sections start to take up far less space and she gets only enough action to advance her own plot with various exposition crammed in. Given how many secrets she's carrying and how many secrets about the world she and her mentor are trying to uncover, that makes her narrative the weak spot. She's a strong enough character to hold her own if she's given more space in the sequels, but many of her revelations (as some for the world as a whole) slot into place in a rushed fashion after the book's climax. After the somewhat rambling introductory segments, the later ones feel so compressed that the big revelations don't quite have time to breathe.

The overarching issue of The Way of Kings, however, might be described as allocation of detail. Sanderson has clearly put a great deal of thought into how the world works and what role these characters have to play there, and in some places it works well: though Dalinar and Adolin, for example, we learn about the Shards, how Alethkar was created, how honor and politics intermingle, how the Alethi people see themselves and foreigners, and how the war of the Vengeance pact is being conducted. Pieces with slightly less contextual anchoring end up feeling wobbly. Soulcasting, for example, involves the manipulation of matter using gems that are cracked and broken after the power expenditure, but the underlying power and system behind it remains hazy. Religion is also something of a weak spot. We know that the religious followers of Vorinism once tried to institute religious rule and were struck down, so now they occupy no governing positions and instead work to help each person seek the Almighty. The issue is that it ends up sounding like a roleplaying game system-- people have Callings, though which they seek their Glory, and after great accomplishments they can Elevate....though we have no idea what this means or how it occurs. Magic and spirituality matter to the shape of this universe, but instead of full explanations or just enough to be useful in later books, the scraps of detail fall into a shape that's unclear at best and frustratingly vague at worst. 

The characters tend to follow a similar pattern, unfortunately. Most of the secondary cast seems to exist as contrast background noise, making cowardly decisions to demonstrate how honorable the protagonists are in such an environment or being helpless so the protagonists have something to protect, while those very protagonists sometimes waver but never seem to be in danger of moral ambiguity. Brightlord Sadeas and Jasnah Kholin show promise as figures of good intentions wrapped in ruthlessness, but he's a lone grey spot in a cast of stark black and white. These people have to struggle to make decisions, true, but thus far they're drawn in bold, quick strokes instead of thinner lines. That can be a strength, given how much attention the plot needs, but whether most of these characters are capable of truly surprising us remains to be seen.

The verdict: Getting into The Way of Kings can be difficult at first when Sanderson piles on too much world-specific vocabulary at once, but it's absolutely worth the wait. Once the action gets going, the world takes on a life of its own-- every character and nation and system has a rich history, and we see enough little flashes for that to be intriguing instead of mind-numbing. The prose is straightforward, unmemorable on a line-by-line basis but excellent for its intended purpose of telling an excellent story without getting in the way. This is the right way to kick off such a long series, and it's going to be hard to wait for the sequel.

Prospects: This is the first book in The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy project. The series is planned to be ten books long, and the second book, Words of Radiance, is slated for release on March 4, 2014.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The early books of the The Wheel of Time sometimes carry this sense of scope, but the worldbuilding frankly isn't quite this intricate.

Have a look at the full cover painting by Michael Whelan!

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