Brandon Sanderson has gained a popular following for his ongoing work finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. His own trilogy, the Mistborn series, also showed great promise: Mr. Sanderson skilfully blended existing fantasy tropes and described a detailed magical system that piqued the curiosity of readers.
Both these impressive efforts are dwarfed by Mr. Sanderson’s monumental new book, The Way of Kings. As the first volume in an epic high fantasy series, Mr Sanderson’s latest work has gathered attention and praise from fans and critics alike. The Way of Kings is present on many bloggers’ best of 2010 lists, and, according, at least according to a survey on Tor.com, is viewed as one of the best fantasy books of the last decade.
There’s no question that Mr. Sanderson has written an immensely popular and entertaining high fantasy. But he has also exposed, and fallen into, many of the genre’s lingering faults.
Roshar, the setting of The Way of Kings, is a tense and violent world. Raging storms frequently scour the land, which is mostly composed of broken deserts and harsh mountains. The land is also permeated with magic. Virtually every aspect of life comes with a “spren” – windspren frolic in the breeze, rotspren infect wounds and gloryspren are attracted to moments of great triumph. A few scholars study the spren, but Roshar’s infusion of specialized sprites is taken for granted by most of the population. A more potent form of magic appears in the form of Shardblades and Shardplates: enchanted weapons that make their wielders invincible. The possession of these items dominates both the treacherous politics of Roshar and the plot of The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings follows a handful of different characters, as is now the industry standard (thanks, GRRM!). Kaladin was a promising “dark eyes” surgeon, but followed his little brother off to war, and has now been reduced to slavery under the banner of his “bright eyes” warlord. Shallan is a “bright eyes”, and the daughter of a noble house to boot, but still has plenty of problems with which to contend. She has apprenticed herself to a member of the Alethi royal family in the hopes of stealing a powerful artifact to help her brothers.
Dalinar is part of the Alethi royal family. He’s a great warrior and noted general, but, as of late, has been receiving strange visions that are causing him to reflect upon a life soaked in blood and glory. Adolin, his son, is dealing with his father’s growing instability. He’s torn between filial piety and a concern for the greater good of his people.
It takes a while – and bit of acrobatic finessing on the part of some minor characters – but by the end of The Way of Kings, the connections between the protagonists begin to solidify. The great quest of the book also takes its time in unfolding – only at the end of The Way of Kings does the shape of the series begin to unveil.
With The Way of Kings, Mr. Sanderson may have achieved his potential as one of today’s predominant fantasy writers. He has crafted an epic story using familiar genre tropes and archetypes. Importantly, he has shown himself to have a rare and impressive talent for balancing the narrative requirements of character, world and story. In fact, Mr. Sanderson’s book is such a technically proficient exemplar of the fantasy genre that it invites criticism on the categorical level.
The first problem is simply that of length. While I’m not one to complain about the obvious economic benefits of getting a thousand pages for the cost of a single book, the ludicrous size of this volume exposes the genre’s tendency to glorify the over-written. Mapping the development of the characters and the plot of The Way of Kings over time, a great deal of the book was simply unnecessary.
Kaladin is not once but repeatedly on the brink of despair, only to try something new, find his situation worse, chat about it with his pet spren and then circle back to the brink all over again. Equally, Dalinar and Adolin make for an interesting, politically-infused subplot, but their familial tension is no more the well-developed for being revisited a half-dozen times. Mr. Sanderson is talented enough to keep each individual episode from being dull, but that doesn’t excuse the sheer excess of episodes. Without espousing some sort of utilitarian view where every page should be written in Newspeak, the fantasy genre needs to question its long held belief that volume equates prowess. A book can manage to be suitably "epic" without being bloated.
The second genre-wide flaw exposed by The Way of Kings is one of fantasy’s oldest traps: the strangely Objectivist worldview that you’re simply not special unless you’re born that way. This is the Harry Potter syndrome, where heroes are selected by the fickle whims of predestination rather than by merit. (Hermione Granger is born low, works her ass off and is rewarded by spending seven books as a comic sidekick.) In the strangely conservative realm of high fantasy, stableboys stay stableboys unless they were actually born to be kings. And if they were, class will out.
The Way of Kings begins encouragingly enough. Both Kaladin and Shallan are hardworking, middle-class protagonists who attempt to achieve their goals through education, persistence and practice. However, their efforts are stymied until they each learn to accept the inborn magical power that lies deep within them. Their eventual success is due to the supernatural uniqueness that is their supposed birthright – and not because of their hours of training and effort. I suspect that, could Kaladin do it all over again, he'd spend less time on the training field and more in the pub.
The other two protagonists, Dalinar and Adolin, are not only born to rule, but also, at least in Dalinar’s case, further chosen to receive prophetic visions. All four characters may show it differently, but they are each a hero because they were handpicked to be one by the vagaries of god and prophesy.
Perhaps most grievously of all, The Way of Kings inherits a final flaw from the fantasy genre as a whole: an unfortunate, if unintentional, racial subtext.
In the case of The Way of Kings, the light-skinned Alethi people are the rulers of the world of Rothar. Their society is divided between bright- and dark-eyed people – a division that is rightfully denounced within the text itself and, given the events of this volume, something that will clearly be rectified as part of the series’ plot. Mr. Sanderson is clearly on top of this particular division.
More disturbing, however, is the depiction of the Parshendi. The enemy of the Alethi are a dark-skinned, semi-human barbarian race from a different land. The Parshendi are also distant cousins of the Parshmen – another dark-skinned, semi-human race, but known for both their docility and great physical strength. They are used as slave labour in every aspect of Alethi society. Without spoiling the dramatic reveal at the close of The Way of Kings, it is worth noting that the book's conclusion not only enhances the alienation of the Parshendi race, but also provides an exceedingly awkward contextual justification for their treatment.
The unfortunate Parshendi are joined in Roshar by both the Shin and the Herdazian races. Both of these races can also be easily paired with real world analogues – both in physical appearance and in the use of cultural stereotypes.
The depiction of race, and the abysmal use of stereotype as a short-hand for reaching the reader, has been gnawing at the genre since its origins. Looking back to the roots of fantasy, this is literature that has always relied heavily on creating an “other” to conflict with the goodness, purity and civilization of the “good”. Even examining a few of the genre’s giants, Eddings and Tolkien, it is easy to see why they have received criticism for using real world jingoism to populate their fantasy worlds. Tragically, in crafting the imaginary, it seems that fantasy often draws too easily from the wrong kind of real.
It is unfair to The Way of Kings that this review dwells so greatly on the book’s flaws: flaws that are genre-wide and in no way limited to Mr. Sanderson’s excellent work. Taken on its own, The Way of Kings is entertaining and hugely dramatic. And even if Mr Sanderson doesn’t break any new ground with The Way of Kings, he certainly covers old ground in the most enjoyable way possible – much like Patrick Rothfuss did with The Name of the Wind (2007). The Way of Kings is as good as a book can be without being exceptional – a jubilant celebration of the genre’s status quo.
High fantasy has recently made great strides in storytelling, but there is still much that can be improved qualitatively. Mr. Sanderson has inadvertently exposed many of fantasy’s persistent flaws. The Way of Kings allows us to look past the debate between world-building and character development and take a broader, more critical view of where fantasy stands. Mr. Sanderson has clearly mastered the genre as it is today, and, if he chooses to, would be well-placed to carry its banner forward into the future.