This is a seriously big book! I mean really, really big. It’s a good 1000 pages long, it features one of the best character arcs I could have wanted and begins a huge, epic tale of war, finding truth, rediscovering history and, you guessed it because it’s Sanderson, intricate magic systems. While I started reading the hardback book, which also has beautiful illustrations by the way, I did end up buying the Graphic Audio audiobooks again. More on that after my thoughts about the story itself (but spoiler: it was totally worth it again).
THE WAY OF KINGS
by Brandon Sanderson
Published by: Tor, 2010
Hardcover: 1007 pages
Graphic Audio: 37 hours
Series: The Stormlight Archive #1
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.
Speak again the ancient oaths,
Life before death.
Strength before weakness.
Journey before Destination.
and return to men the Shards they once bore.
The Knights Radiant must stand again.
Roshar is a world of stone swept by tempests that shape ecology and civilization. Animals and plants retract; cities are built in shelter. In centuries since ten orders of Knights fell, their Shardblade swords and Shardplate armor still transform men into near-invincible warriors. Wars are fought for them, and won by them.
In one such war on ruined Shattered Plains, slave Kaladin struggles to save his men and fathom leaders who deem them expendable, in senseless wars where ten armies fight separately against one foe.
Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Fascinated by ancient text The Way of Kings, troubled by visions of ancient times, he doubts his sanity.
Across the ocean, Shallan trains under eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece Jasnah. Though Shallan genuinely loves learning, she plans a daring theft. Her research hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.
This is a very difficult book to review because there is so much going on, although the time covered in-world isn’t even that great. Since we’re following three protagonists, I’ll break this up into three parts, starting with my favorite. Because I can.
Kaladin Stormblessed stole my readerly heart immediately. He is a slave who was once a soldier and he’s basically given up on life. We meet him as he is transported and then sold to a Highlord waging war on the Shattered Planes. The Shattered Plains by themselves made me go Woah! because it is such a cool world-building idea. The illustrations in the novel show a place that looks like wet earth left to dry in the scorching sun broke into lots of little pieces, almost a mosaic of ground with chasms between the single plateaus. It’s not just a piece of world-building for easthetics’ sake, but the premise for Kaladin’s entire existence in this book.
Twenty years ago, the king was murdered. An assassination ordered by the Parshendi, a race of human-like people who had just made peace shortly before apparently changing their minds and killing the king. So now there’s a sort of revenge-war going on that has warped into something quite different. With the use of bridges, the High Lords cover the Shattered Plains to meet the Parshendi and fight them. But on some of the plateaus, there are gemhearts – a sought-after type of riches and glory and whatnot. It’s way too much to explain here (which is why Sanderson wrote 1000 pages, duh). The important thing is that Kaladin becomes a bridgeman, a person who – along with other slaves – carries a bridge at a run, puts it down for the army to cross, crosses himself, then picks it up again and repeats until the assult is done. And then do the whole thing on the way back again. It’s absolutely gruelling but also has some of the best descriptions in the book. The utter hopelessness that takes hold of Kaladin permeated his early chapters and gave the novel some serious atmosphere.
Through the course of the book, Kaladin changes, grows, learns things about himself and faces his past. That’s all I’m willing to say, spoiler-free, but his character development was simply stunning and I looked forward to his chapters the most. He also becomes friends with a spren, a sort of Sanderson-esque Tinker Bell. She’s awesome!
Next there is Dalinar, a High Lord on the Shattered Plains, showing the war from another perspective. He’s got his own problems, apart from running assaults and fighting a war he no longer believes in. During Highstorms (oh boy, another bit of world-building too intricate to describe. It’s just a really big storm, you guys) he is haunted by visions. It’s the Stormlight Archive version of VR where Dalinar sees stuff and can interact with the people he is shown. Sometimes he “wakes up” in somebody else’s body. I won’t say I understood all of it – which was definitely on purpose on the author’s part – but it was damn thrilling to read. I liked Dalinar a lot, not just because he is basically a lonely Stark in a Lannister world, but also because his story line creates such a nice balance to Kaladin’s. Where we follow the lowliest of slaves, doing the hardest and most dangerous job during the war, Dalinar shows what it’s like on top of the food chain, being the man who commands slaves to run into their death. Except, Dalinar being a Stark, he doesn’t waste bridge crews the way his rival Sadeas does.
Dalinar’s story served pretty much to make sense of the societal norms. We learn things like reading and writing being a woman’s job. Men need glorified secretaries if they want stuff written down or written stuff read to them. I found this incredibly silly, but then again, so is the idea that people are “sorted” into castes based on their eye color. Lighteyes are aristocracy, darkeyes are on the bottom. I suppose it’s not much sillier than dividing people by their skin color, but picking eye color made it all the more obvious how arbitrary and stupid it really is – picking people’s station by physical differences. Dalinar’s story is the one that delivers the most exciting battle scenes and offers a seriously AMAZEBALLS epic ending. All balanced with a nice dose of world-building. Well done indeed.
My least favorite story, I’m sad to say, is Shallan’s. The only female protagonist got the worst deal, if you ask me. She is far from the Shattered Plains, and she has a plan of her own. Shallan arrives in Kharbranth, a city hewn into stone, to become the apprentice of the notorious Jasnah Kholin (who’s related to the current king, who is thus related to the guys fighting on the Shattered Plains). Jasnah is a scholar, so much time in Shallan’s storyline is spent with books, in dusty rooms, establishing more of the world, this time from a woman’s perspective. Another silly bit of world-building is that women (at least aristocracy) have a “safe pouch” in which they keep one of their hands hidden. Showing that hand is equivalent to me letting a boob hang out in public, so one hand is always sewn inside whichever garment Shallan wears. I hope there’ll be some cool explanation for that because it seems incredibly stupid and hindering in daily life. Seriously, I need to use both hands all the time.
Shallan’s story takes a LONG time to pick up pace, but when it does, it is both weird and creepy, and wonderfully exciting. She is the one who discovers this book’s big plot twist at the end, and it wasn’t even a cheap one. I really liked how it changed my world view (for the world in the novel, that is) completely and puts things into a different light. Shallan’s story isn’t bad, but it felt to me like much less care was put into it compared to Kaladin. I fully believe Kaladin was Brandon Sanderson’s favorite bit to write and that shows.
Lastly, there is another character who shows up much less frequently, but who is another constant. Szeth the assassin probably has the worst job you can imagine. He’s an assassin who has to kill whomever he is commanded by his current master. The only person he can’t kill is himself. And he yearns to die! We know very little about Szeth, except that he’s got some seriously cool tricks up his sleeve but, boy, do I want to know more about him.
All things considered – also the ones I didn’t even mention here, like Shardblades and spren, stormlight-infused gems and Parshendi armour – this is one hell of a book. It has epic battles, great character development, the right amoung of flashbacks, plus interludes following completely different characters in different places. As a series starter, the book did a lot of groundwork for the world-building, and there is no shortage of that, but it kept a nice balance between plot and exposition. We are thrown just enough hints to get us intrigued but Sanderson skilfully leaves many questions open for later. It is a long book, yes, and it’s only the first part of ten (!) but I honestly can’t wait to read on and find out more about this world, follow these characters and see how everything is connected.
About the Graphic Audio edition:
Graphic Audio is usually unabridged recordings with a full cast, great sound effects and background music. This time, I noticed that some bits were abridged, although nothing important. It’s clear that “Kaladin said” and “Shallan thought” were left out, because we hear their actual voices saying or thinking stuff (thoughts have a sort of echo to distinguish from regular speech), but sometimes when I read along in the book, I noticed that a sentence or two of description was dropped. Again, nothing vital, and I can’t fault Graphic Audio the cuts in such a long story. I did follow along in the book quite a bit, if only for the illustrations and chapter headings. I also recognised some actor voices from the Mistborn series, and I must commend them on the excellent job they did – although all I have to go on is their voice, they truly sounded like completely different people.
Now I’m facing the difficult decision of whether to wait for the next book to come out as a Graphic Audio or to start reading my hardback copy. We’ll see how long I can wait…
MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Seriously excellent!