I Did It
I am back. For the past week I have inhabited Roshar, a land of highstorms that will strip the flesh from your bones, where the Alethi segregate based on eye-color, where men carry bridges to almost certain death, and where mysterious entities called spren inhabit all things. That is to say, I marshaled myself through the 1000-page behemoth known as The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I laughed, I cried…I lived a week of wonder.
We Go Way Back
My introduction to Sanderson was as the man who saved The Wheel of Time series from extinction by working together with Robert Jordan’s wife after the man died before publishing the final installments of the multi-million word series. Since then, any conversation I’ve had with friends or strangers has pointed me toward The Stormlight Archive, a series intended to span ten books (three published and seven more planned).
As I have only just completed the first installment, the aforementioned The Way of Kings, I cannot speak for the remainder of the series as it stands. But, this first book has done for me what few other epic fantasies have been able to: it felt epic. Sprawling. More like narrative non-fiction of another land, rather than an imagination let loose.
But Sanderson’s imagination was indeed given full reign. The world-building is exacting. Lord, the man spent ten years preparing this land and narrative, and it shows. The sheer amount of (to name a few aspects of the world) flora, fauna, land formations, nations, customs, and hierarchies, can be daunting. The world we are familiar with is gone, replaced with one in which chickens and strawberries are the exotic, and giant crab-like beasts of burden are the norm. Soil is beyond the fathoming of those who inhabit these lands.
The amount of fantasy in this story is succulent. And, it is so methodically set up that it almost never feels contrived. Whether or not it occurred this way, the world feels built from the ground up, each aspect of this alternate reality works with the other parts. Even what seems arbitrary, like the seemingly absurd variegation of spren (little spirit-looking things that pop up in all sorts of situations) or the ostensibly arbitrary hierarchy of Alethkar (light-eyed people being the ruling class) begin to make sense in the greater context of the history of the narrative. Nothing is accidental.
None of this outstanding worldbuilding would mean anything were it not for the complex characters, the actual lifeblood of a story. Their arcs are slow-building (comparatively few actual events occur in the story), pursuing a complex route to establish their motivations, secrets, and fears. Their pasts are slowly revealed as their present begins to warp and change around them. Weighty decisions are made, obstacles overcome, growth, all that good stuff.
And, oddly enough, as immensely fantastical as it is, it feels more down to earth than many other fantasy stories I have read. Aside from barreling straightforward into a land far-removed from that which we know, the writing demonstrates restraint. There are a few moments that have touches of what I have come to think of as ‘anime-ness’; that is, where a character’s behavior is just a tad…too idiosynchratic. As much as I love the amiable character Rock, I did grow weary of hearing ‘airsick lowlanders’ time and again as though the point were not already made that the man finds those outside his own cultural group as ones who act and think absurdly. Or Syl’s eccentric mannerisms used again and again: hands on her hips, head cocked to the side.
Just Read It Already
There are weaknesses in the story, and as long as people tell stories, there will always be so. But, that considered, The Way of Kings was some of the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while, and any weaknesses take major scrutiny to even glimpse. For those who enjoy fantasy, it is unthinkable that I wouldn’t recommend it. For those not into the genre, it can still prove a worthy read, those perhaps A Game of Thrones would still prove a better stepping stone into the genre, though not for lack of political intrigue, as TWoK certainly has its share, with twists enough (and injustice) to make it a solid contender.