Ever heard of Tony Mandarich? He was a football player back in the ’90s –hold up!! Let’s pump the brakes. This is, after all, a review of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first novel in the Stormlight Archive which seems to be getting all of the praise as “The Next Big Thing”. First off, it’s huge, a thousand pages huge, the first book in a prophesied 10-book series huge. And, in case you’re wondering what I thought, it’s great.
See, all fiction books come down to three essential things: Characters, Plot, and Setting (and I would argue Theme, although it isn’t always a requirement, sadly). You need compelling characters to care about, so that when good and/or bad things happen you have someone to care about. Characters are the point of the story. The plot is any motivations to spur the characters into action. The setting is also important because it helps form our frame of reference and the context of the story.
The Way of Kings has all of them turned all the way up. Even theme.
There are three main characters. Dalinar is a general fighting a war against a mysterious foreign people that killed his king not long ago. Shallan is a young scholar looking to gain knowledge to help her faltering family house. And Kaladin, when we meet him, is a slave.
They’re all high quality. They’ve got their own backstories with joy and sorrow. They’ve got friends and enemies that are written nearly just as well. It amazes me that each story works at this high level for the entire book. Although the point of view switches throughout, I can’t say that I was ever sad to leave one character because I was always interested in returning to the next one.
The book doesn’t share the spotlight evenly though. Kaladin is definitely the main, main character here. We get flashbacks of his former life, where you learn things about him all the way up to near the end of the book. Some people aren’t fans of flashbacks in the narrative structure because it can hide too much information or feel like an extra trick to build suspense. But it’s handled in such a way here that it doesn’t feel cheap or laboriously delayed. It works because we learn who Kaladin was at nearly the same pace we learn who he is.
Let’s go back to Dalinar real quick. He possesses a Shardblade, a magical sword summoned from thin air and can cut through anything except for other Shardblades and Shardplate, a special type of armor that makes its wearer stronger, faster, and nigh indestructible, which he also owns. It sounds awesome because it is awesome.
The whole story takes place in a world where hurricane-strenth storms scour over the land every few days. The entire ecosystem has adapted to survive in these conditions making it strange and vastly different from anything else I’ve read. Each location you go to is unique. The Shattered Plains, a landscape of deep fissures and uneven rocks is so phenomenal that I dub it as one of the most interesting places I’ve been to in fantasy storytelling.
The book starts with a bang — an assassination attempt is underway and the writing weaves together marvelous action while fluently explaining one of the types of magic. (Yes, one. By my count, there are three different magic systems.) But a few chapters after that, the story slows down. It’s intentional. Sanderson lets you simmer, soaking in the locations, the people, the religions, the special world that he invented. If you like world-building, here is a master class. Each chapter overflows with the combination of character, setting, and plot. You’re constantly learning about someone, somewhere, and something.
This story is huge. Both in terms of what actually happens and the different types of stories it wants to tell in the future. Sanderson’s goals are to put the Stormlight Archive up on the pantheon of fantasy greats. He’s already declared it as his magnum opus. The potential greatness for this series is reaching new heights.
Which leads me back to Tony Mandarich, the football player from earlier. Mandarich is to football with a great racing stallion is to horse racing. He was virtually bred to be the pure football athlete. He had all the size and power a football player desires. He had the pedigree. But when it came to actually perform in the NFL, he couldn’t live up to the hype. Although his body could handle the rigors of the sport, it was his mind and attitude that couldn’t. Three years after coming into the pros, he was out. To this day, he is considered one of the biggest busts in NFL history.
Sanderson is not Mandarich. He will likely never be considered an outright failure. But he does have the potential — the ceiling — that no other fantasy author may ever have. Sanderson is the man who authored in part the final three books of The Wheel of Time series. The complexities, lore, characters, and history within that series were held to the highest standards by the fanbase, and not once have I heard it that he failed.
But it is the fulfillment of expectations where Sanderson and Mandarich are alike. The Stormlight Archive garnered such a massive following from the starting gate. Does it hold up as it plays out over the next two decades? This right here, this speculation, was another reason why I picked up this book. This is literary history in the making. Whether he creates the greatest story ever told or has to be replaced with someone else, the fantasy genre will remember him.
As for The Way of Kings, it’s five stars from me. Let the hype be shouted from the peaks of fantasy literature. Here is a book with all the world-building, philosophical hand-wringing, and plot twists you can not-so-reasonably expect in one thousand pages. I have already rearranged my ‘To Be Read’ list so The Words of Radiance at the top.