I keep promising myself I’ll write all the other posts inspired by this book before I write the review, but I’ve found I can’t. I guess this post will just be a big, informative one.
This is a spoiler-free review for Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. I review a lot of Sanderson’s books (well, at the moment, this is the second– but it feels like a lot), but it’s well-deserved. I learn so much from each of his books, far too much to leave unsaid. The Way of Kings is a masterpiece of epic fantasy– at over 1000 pages, it’s larger than any modern book I’ve read. For this reason, I waited for a vacation to read it, so I would have the time.
I flew through it, in about five days. It was so well written, and although there were a couple stumbling blocks (which I will discuss), it was quite gripping. It was amazing. It’s difficult to pace myself and keep from writing a scatterbrained review, but I’ll try.
First of all, this was completely different from anything I’ve read before. Fantasy is not a new genre to me. Lord of the Rings, the Mistborn trilogy, Redwall– although I haven’t read much of the adult side of the genre, I felt like I knew what it would entail. After all, middle grade and YA fantasy ought to be basically the same as adult fantasy, except for perhaps content and length. Well, I discovered something: trilogies and standalones are one thing, even standalones in a series like Redwall or Ranger’s Apprentice– epic fantasy is a completely different animal.
This book made so many promises, started so many plot lines rolling. The book carried plot lines through to completion, but not every plot line got a resolution. Many were just teasers for something deeper beneath the surface– indeed, even the main plot lines felt like mere scratches on the surface of this great story. We explored the characters and got satisfying conclusions, but things were left open. Nothing ever seemed held back or unsatisfying, but everything seemed like something exciting to discover later on in the series.
The characters were amazing. Each one seemed proactive, without seeming perfect or like a superman. I tried to write a post about this– perhaps I’ll succeed– but I abandoned the post halfway through because it was a difficult concept to explain. I’ll try here: basically, all the characters were proactive and occasionally successful while being in nasty places. For example, outside of Way of Kings, the scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader sets an ambush. Han Solo walks into the room, sees Vader, and instead of accusing his friend of betraying him, he pulls a gun and tries to shoot Vader. It doesn’t work, but we like it because he’s actually doing something, despite his situation. The same works for each of the viewpoint characters. They’re all in predicaments of one sort or another, and although some of them seem to have given up to it, they’re all still amazingly proactive. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. When they do succeed, it’s very exciting and not at all annoying, as it might be watching Superman punch everyone into oblivion. Superman is a hero, but he’s never in a bad spot.
That was really interesting to me. The characters are in bad spots, but they’re acting– and because of their bad spots, they have a lot of angst, which causes them to act. It’s a great sort of motivation, and I’m kind of wondering why that same thing didn’t work in HP 5… Ah, that would be it. Harry never acted in that book– he was just moping around being angsty, really. With this, they’re actively trying to improve their positions, and we love it. Instead of just having the emotion be present and annoying, it’s being used as a motivation. That’s nice to see.
The suspense in this book was really amazing. I was completely involved in the action scenes, as I would be if they were in a movie. That’s the best suspense I’ve seen in a book; it’s difficult to do because you’re using words instead of images. With images, you can’t flick your eyes down the page and see what’s coming, nor can you accidentally see the solution to the problem out of your peripheral vision– and yet I was completely glued to the words in this, stunned by every plot twist. It was really amazing.
I’m still trying to figure out how the author did his coincidences. He had an explanation for them all, but those came later; he didn’t foreshadow to avoid Deus Ex Machina. Perhaps he did foreshadow a little bit… I’m really trying to figure this out, but I don’t think it has an obvious answer. It might be that saying the character was carrying a “lucky” object was enough foreshadowing… but that’s enough of that. I’ll find someone else to discuss it with eventually.
The magic systems were astounding. There were so many of them, for one thing. None of them were really delved into, but none of them needed to be explained that deeply. They were such cool systems, too, so they seemed tantalizing.
The worldbuilding, too, was astounding. You could tell it took years to develop, and yet it wasn’t thrown at you in dry blocks like in Tolkien. Everything was thought-out, and while you got to see what the world was like, you saw it through the eyes and actions of the characters. Sanderson could have simply explained everything until his readers were asleep. He didn’t. He showed us the world, as it would feel as if we were living it all. It was amazing.
The plot, as befits such a long book, was spread out– but actually, it was even more spread-out than I expected, and quite twisty. He managed this, I think, by delving deeper into things than he really had to. He expanded the storylines to fit the book, but it never felt intentionally slowed. It was fast-paced, yet long. Another series might take three books to describe that storyline– or they might take only half of a book. There were scenes in there that felt like final battles, and yet they weren’t. It was pretty masterful storytelling to keep me engaged through so many different storylines.
Speaking of which, the storytelling. It was, as always, amazing. Sanderson is not a poetic storyteller– he puts thought into his words, but not so much that it’s purple. As he says, his writing style is a window through which you can see the story, not a stained-glass creation that distracts. But not only that, you see the story through the lens of the character. It’s really well told.
Having said that, however, there were problems. At the end of each chapter I would get up and walk around, then sit back down and keep reading. It was a long book, and sometimes I was glad for the breaks, but this would happen even when I had an hour of uninterrupted time. There seemed to be no explanation for it. I was completely engaged in the story, I wanted to see what would happen next, but I was kicked out of the story at every chapter break. There were plot twists in the right places. It wasn’t like House of Hades, where I was just bored with the characters’ apparent successes. It was just… bumpy.
I figured out what was happening when I was about halfway through the book. (I tried to write a post on this, too, but I couldn’t manage it. It was a little too technical, and I might even find it difficult to explain now.) The problem was in the transitions. I know, that sounds like high school essay writing, but it’s true– it’s easier to continue reading when the next chapter seems to pick off right where the former one left off. That can be accomplished by echoing words from the last sentence of the previous chapter, even if there’s a jump in time during the break. Unfortunately, with multiple viewpoints, that’s difficult to do.
Well, actually, it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. In many books, the plot twist at the end of one section will be enough to make the reader continue, reading through the next viewpoint to find out what happened with that cliffhanger. It’s usually very effective. It just wasn’t this time.
Indeed, even when two chapters in a row had the same POV character, I was kicked out of the story. Why? In my opinion, it’s still the transitions, but exacerbated by the small snippets of randomness at the beginning of each chapter.
In Mistborn he did this too, and I didn’t seem to have a problem then. I don’t understand it all the way yet. In this, however, the snippets were more ambiguous and less tied to the action of the story. They took the emotions of the previous chapter and cut them off abruptly, then handed us off to another POV after little more than a sentence. Barely ever explained, those little snippets kicked me out of the story consistently.
Would I suggest he delete them all? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s difficult to say. All I can tell at the moment is that it was happening, and it was undesirable. The snippets were pretty cool, and contributed to the tip of the iceberg feel of the book, but they took away from the gripping nature of the story. Within chapters I was fine– at the breaks, I lost the excitement.
Well, perhaps I should have made this criticism a different post. You can see how good the book is if this is the thing I’m picking on. It bugged me a lot, but only because the rest of the book was so amazing– I didn’t want to put it down, but I was. (I think I remember doing the same thing with Great Expectations or something, but I didn’t think much of it then.)
I think it’s obvious that I liked the book. I don’t want to think about whether it has eclipsed Mistborn in awesomeness, but it is definitely one of my favorite books. I have three of Sanderson’s other books to read soon, but at the moment I’m reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. I can’t decide whether it’s because I’ve gotten a taste for epic fantasy, or because I want to read Sanderson’s ending to the series. Both. I will do all within my power to read all the books Sanderson writes.
I would definitely recommend The Way of Kings. If you have the time to read it, go for it– if you don’t, go for one of his smaller books, like Mistborn or Steelheart (that’s his latest one, which I haven’t read yet, but I’m sure it’s awesome). The sequel to Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, is coming this spring.