Stormlight Archive 1: The Way of Kings - Retro Review
To celebrate the upcoming release of Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, book three of The Stormlight Archive, Chris reviews both of the previous books in the series. No scores at the end, but suffice it to say that they're worth reading.
Epic fantasy books are often colloquially called "doorstoppers". These are the stories that are close to a thousand pages in length, and could be used to solidly prop up a door, build a house or bludgeon a home intruder to death. If it's written by Terry Goodkind, it's also an excellent source of birdcage liner.
Doorstoppers can be scary even to devout fans of the genre. To the casual observer, a doorstopper's plot unfurls across a Lord of the Rings-esque amount of pagecount. They can have dense worlds full of oddly-named characters who each have magical superpowers which the reader can only keep track of through a flow chart and encyclopedia of notes. The sense of immense plot and character expansion throughout each successive book, could make a neat and tidy ending far more unlikely - can you say Game of Thrones, anyone?
Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive is the first doorstopper series I've read where the grand scope afforded to epic fantasy is both accessible, engrossing and, largely, necessary. But, as the man himself will tell you, it takes a leap of faith to get there.
On the stormy world of Roshar, there are three people. Shallan is the young heir to a crippled noble family who travels across the world to seek knowledge and power from a heretic scholar. The scholar's uncle, Dalinar, is a Highprince in the army of Alethkar, a nation whose lords seek to avenge the assassination of their king through a years-long war against the mysterious Parshendi. Kaladin is a former surgeon and military prodigy who is branded as a slave and sold into service for one of Dalinar's rivals. The three of them not only have to deal with their own problems, but also face the possibility that the Voidbringers - long described in religion as the bringers of the apocalypse - may yet be returning, alongside one or two other things that have long been gone from the world.
By the end of The Way of Kings, you might feel that that's where the real story is starting. Indeed, rereading it alongside its sequel – the superlative Words of Radiance, one of my favourite books ever written –which is where far more of the plot's forward momentum is gained, I felt that Kings was more of a lengthy precede before the narrative fireworks start going off. The character arcs are gradual and a little glacial, progressing gently but steadily. In contrast to Words changing the status quo every few chapters, Kings maintains a solidarity of setting and focus throughout much of its pagecount. When all's said and done, it can feel like a bit of a slow start.
But that's half the point; Kings is a slow-burn setup for the wonder that spills out after. I came across a recent Reddit comment from Sanderson himself, responding to a question about where to start reading his work:
'[Kings] is most certainly my hardest book to get into. It requires you to trust me a great deal before the payoffs start mounting up. I usually point people at Mistborn as a starting point instead for that reason.'
So keep this in mind before you dive in: if you're unfamiliar with Sanderson's oeuvre, you may want to sidetrack to Mistborn, Elantris or Warbreaker first, and if you're not a regular doorstopper reader, you'll want to be sitting in a comfy chair without a parachute (the latter is for the trust thing).
Kings is methodical, rather than laborious, in its execution. We're introduced to our three protagonists, and a host of fascinating supporting characters, in logical steps, illustrating simply their backstory and motivations with minimal reliance on exposition. The world is described - again, without reams of expository unpacking - through a natural unfurling, where we see and hear about the diverse corners of Roshar and how our heroes fit into them. The central plot, once it's pushed into motion, draws all three protagonists together - first indirectly, then more apparently as things get further - and tantalises us with satisfying narrative climaxes (which, spoiler alert, we assuredly earn). At the book's endpoint, after a thousand pages of worldbuilding, myth arc hints and character development, a number of things we've gotten comfortable with are tilted, inverted or just plain thrown away; the book's epilogue stands as a masterclass on how to do a cliffhanger ending which still leaves us with enough short-term closure for the interim.
Each Stormlight book takes a central character as its focus for backstory chapters, with soldier-turned-slave Kaladin getting the top spot in Kings. Flashbacks are relatively few, and rarely get in the way of the main plot's flow; more often than not, an event in Kaladin's youth will conveniently bear relevance to something vexing him in the present day. The other characters are also suitably fleshed out, with everyone either exploring or alluding to difficult upbringings, tragic failures and mysterious past lives. Say one thing for Sanderson: the man knows how to make real people amongst the miasma of epic fantasy.
At times, though, the real person drama does get in the way of things. Though it improves remarkably by the sequel, Kings gets a little bogged down in some personal navel-gazing and soul-searching at the expense of further plot momentum. Kaladin falls victim a lot to this – which makes sense, given that his backstory deals with angst over a lot of personal tragedy which returns to haunt him – but several other POV characters halt the narrative to deal with some slightly melodramatic personal issues. The problem’s compounded by the book’s prologue-esque feel; our characters are slowly built, and progress through their respective arcs, but the lingering feeling is that this is a tenth of the kind of development we can expect in subsequent books.
That’s really the best way to encapsulate how I feel about Kings: it lingers. Don’t get me wrong, the book is still a fantastic start to Sanderson’s magnum opus, and nearly every character is instantly memorable thanks to Sanderson’s able-handed characterisations. The world of Roshar is expansive and arresting in its detail, aided by interlude chapters dealing with one-off side characters who live far away from our protagonists. But having now reread the book, I noticed far more the languid pace with which Kings unfolds. At the same time, those who look for something pulse-pounding will find their moments, including a propulsive fifth act which brings it all together for that cliffhanger.
The Way of Kings is a solid beginning. As the man himself says, it requires trust, but I can safely say that trust is overwhelmingly rewarded by the end of the book.
The Way of Kings is available in bookstores now in two paperbacks - Parts One and Two.
Oathbringer is due for Australian release on November 14th.