The Way of Kings [US][UK] is that it is Brandon Sanderson at his finest, but reviewing the book has been a difficult task because it is, essentially, an introduction on an epic scale. It is like that first booming, silence-shattering crack that heralds an avalanche. It is a starting point, a beginning, and like all beginnings it needs direction before it can be properly evaluated. I struggled with this review because of all the expectations and hype surrounding not just the book, but the series itself. Case in point, the blurb on the back:
"What Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time has been to the fantasy genre for the last two decades, The Stormlight Archive will be to the next, and The Way of Kings is where it all begins."
For any Wheel of Time fan, the gravitas of the above statement is tantamount to a challenge. Read me, it proclaims, and tell me if I am worthy. And so far, the truth is that for all its potential for development and its sheer epicness, the Way of Kings simply isn't enough to answer the challenge, yet, but it is indeed a noteworthy beginning.
The novel is blessed with the trademark excitement and adrenaline filled action emblematic of Brandon’s style. Moreover, readers will notice a darker slant and harder edge to Brandon's writing when compared against his previous work – a welcome shift in my opinion. In addition to these relative improvements in tone and temperament readers will also notice that Brandon has gone above and beyond in providing backstory and creating a world that will surely be one of the most richly populated in the history of the Fantasy genre. Case in point, The Way of Kings weighs in at over 1000 pages and comes complete with annotated illustrations and assorted other bonus features which serve to flesh out the world of Roshar, and it is a hell of a ride.
The novel is epic, ambitiously so. What starts out as tightly focused flash and bash fantasy a la Mistborn quickly matures into something much more robust. Three characters, each comprising their own separate plot line, are the driving force behind the book. As familiar archetypes, they are best described as the Scholar, the Warrior and the Leader.
The Leader, with all his tragic heroism, nobility and promise-keeping will strongly remind readers of GRRM's late Lord Stark. He is the personification of duty and moral vigor. He is also, interestingly enough, insane. The central dilemma of his character is twofold. He must strike a balance between his duty to his king and what he knows to be right. Plagued by terrible visions of the past, the Leader must decide whether his hallucinations are gift or curse, and whether or not acting on them will doom not only him and his family, but the king and kingdom to which he owes his fealty.
The Warrior, a slave fighting for survival, will smack strongly of Terry Goodkind's Richard Rahl while prisoner of Jangang's war camp. Betrayed by his ideals and his leader, the Warrior will struggle to make sense of a life in which he has lost too much. Followed by a magical helper that only he can see, the Warrior must learn to master his newfound abilities or watch himself and his companions and fellow slaves march towards their deaths. By far the most appealing of the Stormlight Archive's characters to date, readers will revel in the vicissitudes of life as a slave and the ensuing quest to once again be something more.
The Scholar, a character present in all of Brandon's work, is her own creation and delightfully so. Her mission is to save her family after the death of her father, and to do so she must apprentice herself to a brilliant heretic sorceress. An artist as well as a scholar, the student must become the teacher if she is to survive the politics of court and the dangers of her emerging gift. The Scholar's point of view is one steeped in philosophy and thought and will assuredly please readers looking for more from their fantasy than the clang of steel on steel.
All three main characters, unknown to each other though they are, are united by loss. They all share a past in which someone they held dear has died, be it father, brother or wife. The silent bond of loss, on an abstract level, provides for some much needed thematic continuity between the different story lines, which are otherwise only loosely related.
Interestingly, Brandon has spoken a number of times about how The Stormlight Archive will be concerned with the ascendency or rebirth of magic in a world that has grown mostly ignorant of it. While this is true, The Way of Kings is more concerned with instilling in readers the knowledge base necessary to appreciate that development. As such, the first point I want to make is that many readers familiar with Brandon’s work will see the magic system of the Stormlight Archive as a combination of those from his Mistborn trilogy and Warbreaker duology. Think glowing heroes with enhanced strength and the ability to push/pull and, instead of being limited by the amount of metals in ones stomach, magic users are limited by the amount of stormlight trapped in gems/currency. Besides the obvious mechanical similarities, Brandon has left an enormous amount of room for the magic system to grow, both in terms of its own inherent logic but also in terms of some heavy foreshadowing and lore strategically placed throughout the novel. In fact, this is true of pretty much every aspect of the book – the potential for development is astounding.
Any discussion of the magic system of the Stormlight Archive would not be complete without at least passing mention of the total and utter awesomeness of the Shardblade. An incredibly rare relic of the age of magic, a Shardblade is a sword that can be called from nothingness (takes 10 heartbeats to summon) and forms in your hands as if from mist. Get this, they can cut through anything as if it were air. The only exception is when they cut people. Get you arm cut, and it withers instantly. Get cut somewhere more necessary and your eyes turn smoky black and your done for. Given their rarity and devastating effectiveness in battle, Shardblades play a significant role in the Way of Kings, and I imagine that they will play an even greater role in the series as a whole. An obvious question for Brandon if he should stumble by: what are the blades Shards of? Anyway, the cooler brother of the Shardblade is Shardplate. It glows, its studded with gems, it can take a hell of a beating, and last but not least, it gives you the strength to squat thrust mountains if you feel like it.
Lastly a brief discussion of this new world Brandon is introducing us to in the Way of Kings. In a geopolitical sense, the world of Roshar is a patchwork of diverse nations with radically different cultures and customs. For example, the country from which the protagonists hail is a tightly hierarchical society dominated by a nobility with blue eyes. A complicated and somewhat murky system of rank and privilege governs but the system is still obviously feudal at its origin. In that same nation men are trained to war while women specialize in the arts. The 'specialization' is a bit extreme to the point where, for example, men don't know how to write. The same national quirkiness is true of other peoples of which we see little but learn relatively a lot about.
The Way of Kings has given the Stormlight Archive an amazing start. In it, Brandon has admirably demonstrated his ability to grow as a writer, to learn from his previous projects, and to capitalize on his already significant strengths. That said, tWoK isn’t yet the world-shattering, mind-blowing, paradigm shifting contribution to the fantasy field that it is sometimes advertised to be. It is epic, yes, and it is awesome but it doesn't merit the acronym just yet. It has boundless potential and all the right ingredients to achieve incredible success, which it undoubtedly will, and given the relatively small glimpse of Roshar permitted to us so far readers cannot but help be entranced by the prospect of further installments to the Stormlight Archive. The only regret you'll have after putting down the Way of Kings is that the rest of the series isn't written yet.