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It’s near Christmas and it’s time for another best fantasy book review! I’m usually not very impressed with most of the fantasy books out there, hence the lack of reviews that I know I should be writing for this site. But just occasionally, there is that book that knocks me out of my writing lethargy and prompts me to start mashing down those keyboard keys. Brandon Sanderson’s latest (or for the people obsessed with detail, his penultimate latest) work, The Way of Kings, is a tour de force of epic fantasy writing. It’s the first in a 10 part epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive, and is clearly intended to be Sanderson’s version of The Wheel of Time. That’s a pretty bold claim, considering that many people (right or wrong) consider The Wheel of Time to be the King of Fat Fantasy. After finishing the book, I found the claim quite possible. Let me just say that I can see this series being much, much better than the Wheel of Time in every way (discounting the fact that Jordan’s train derailed 6 books in and it took Sanderson himself to put it back on track to a finish).
I suppose that after a couple years finishing off someone else’s writing property (Robert Jordan), Sanderson said “screw it, let’s do something better.” He certainly has the resume experience now. Now the question you are probably asking is this: Is The Way of Kings actually any good.
In fact, The Way of Kings is Sanderson’s best work by far. The book is everything you want in an epic fantasy series that aims to dethrone A Wheel of Time for the epic fat fantasy crown. I’ll go one further and say this book was the best fantasy book I’ve read this year. Yes, it’s that good!
The Way of Kings is the tale about mankind after it’s been thrown from heaven and onto Roshar, a world lashed by endless magical storms. Millenia of punishing war with the race that responsible have left men a shadow of what they once were. And of their implacable enemy that suddenly vanished, they have only legends.
The starting plot centers on a handful of characters with the main one being Kaladin, a not-so-simple slave who’s given a living death sentence: to work as a bridge runner on the Shattered Plains. The world, as expected, is a pretty dastardly place for the average individual. Throw into the mess a magical assassin who kills kings at whim, humans treated as second class citizens by the dominant (elvenish) race, super-hero-ability magic armor so priceless that kingdoms rise and fall by it, and an end end-of-the-world scenario and you have the stage set for a pretty interesting story. The magic system itself is pretty damn cool too, but then again it’s a Sanderson book so that’s expected.
This is the first of ten books so there is no hope of any sort of resolution happening in the book. The book sets the stage up and positions the players for things to come. Yet, despite the fact that it’s the first book of many, it’s does a pretty swell job of throwing you into the coming fray.
First off, anyone who is a big fan of that epic fantasy will find a new home in Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. If you like Wheel of Time, Name of the Wind, or even A Song of Ice and Fire, well, it’s a given that you’ll LOVE this book. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. There are hundreds of reviews for the book already and it’s rated 5 stars on amazon. Seems quite a few people also like the book.
It’s got all the stuff you love about fat fantasy epics. Magic. Check. Action. Check. Detailed plots. Check. A detailed world. Check. A relentless, all-powerful enemy that must be stopped. Check. With all that, it’s a given that fantasy fans are pretty impressed.
The fantasy genre has moved forward the past few years. I’ve been reading fantasy for almost 20 years now and I’ve seen a huge change in the type of fantasy books being released now. Fantasy has, for the most part, matured. Gray plots and gray characters seem to be all the rage now. But once in a while, you want to sink your teeth into an ol’ good and evil fantasy plot. A book where good and evil are clearly delineated. There is no mistaking who the good guys and the bad guys are in The Way of Kings. Sanderson doesn’t try to impress you with anything ground breaking in terms of plot or characterization. And I’m glad — Sanderson can spend his creative energy telling a good old yarn.
There’s a lot to like with The Way of Kings. I’ve been following Sanderson quite closely since he’s debut novel, Elantris. He’s grown as a writer over the years and he’s been getting more and more ambitious with his writing. Now, Sanderson has never claimed to be the next George Martin. His books aren’t pretentious and he doesn’t try to impress with clever plotting, genre bending twists, or even witty writing. But the man knows how to write a page-turning classic fantasy tale.
Here are a few things that I liked about the book.
Lots of Detail
The Way of Kings is the first in an epic 10 part series. And the book is big, like really, really big. There is the usual world building and character casting. This book is clearly laying the ground work for a much larger tale. There’s a lot of detail pumped into the book. But for the most part, the detail is pretty fascinating. I admit I’m a sucker for detail in a fantasy book. I like to see different cultures, different races, and so on. The level of world building never seems to interfere with the actual plot though — and this is pretty key. Comparisons with The Way of Kings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time are impossible not to make (ignoring the fact that Sanderson has written 3 of them), but one of the flaws Jordan made was to lose sight of to plot amidst the world building. Sanderson does not make this mistake in The Way of Kings and I’m sure he won’t in future books.
Interesting Magic System
Sanderson makes it a point to create interesting magic systems. I can’t tell you how tired I am of the usual magic systems used by authors. After a few books, the magic systems all seem the same. Sanderson makes a point to do something new. We saw this in his Mistborn series, his Warbreaker book, and now his Stormlight Archive series.
Sanderson spends quite a bit of detail building up the way magic works in this book. He creates an entire magic system and one that’s unique. It will be interesting to see how he builds on this system as the series progresses.
Brandon Sanderson knows how to create some serious action scenes. The Way of Kings, for the most part, does not completely center around action. Indeed, it takes nearly the entire book before it happens. But when the action finally happens, be prepared for a hell of a roller coaster ride.
The book does suffer from a few problems, however. It takes a while for anything to happen. Oh, the characters are introduced, the chess pieces are moved into the starting position, and the world building commences in earnest with all the various cultures, peoples, and magic system slowly drawn up.
Sanderson puts a LOT of working into building up the protagonist, Kaladin. You feel do feel sad for the poor guy as he’s beaten down again and again over the course of the novel. Through flashbacks to Kaladin’s young life, Sanderson also helps round out the character a lot more. So rest assured you are not just handed a cookie cutter hero right out of the super-hero box. I quite like the hero and I’m eager to see what happens in future parts of the series.
The book just works. I’m not going to spend another 500 words trying to convince you WHY the book is good. It’s just…good. So read it and I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed. As I’ve mentioned, there will be a lot of comparisons drawn between this book and The Wheel of Time. But for you Robert Jordan haters, don’t let that deter you at all. This isn’t Robert Jordan: it’s something better and something different. And who better to write a better Wheel of Time than the guy finishing the series?
Now the book has a few problems…not critical throw-away-the-book type of problems, but a few issues nevertheless.
What I Didn’t Like
My main complaint with this novel is that the main character gets stuck in limbo mode. For hundreds of pages, the main character gets trampled on, abused, torn down, beaten, and experiences failure after failure. I found myself anxious after hundreds of pages to see the main character) actually do something tangible other than suffer. Fortunately, the action packed climax of the book made up for the long 700 page torture session the protagonist endures. But you’ll have to be very, very patient. On the plus side, the plot is very entertaining and the prognosis likable in every sense.
—END SPOILER ALERT—
Final Word on Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings
So let’s get to the gritty. Is The Way of Kings worth buying? Hell ya. There hasn’t been any epic fantasy this good in a long time. This is not some new twist on the genre or some witty novel that’s going to impress you with a gray plot and fancy words. It’s old school epic big fat fantasy, but it’s fantasy that’s written RIGHT. So pick up the book and prepare to lose several days of your life. Sanderson has a reputation for getting books out quick, so I doubt you’ll be waiting years for the sequel either.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!