The Way of Kings--Brandon Sanderson
August 2010 by Tor Books
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
One such war rages on a ruined landscape called the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where ten armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.
This is a slow, slow burn that builds up to a wildfire. With three separate prologues, Way of Kings takes a long time to get into. Only Sanderson gets a 350 page grace period; I would have given up on any other author. My patience was eventually rewarded, and the book ended phenomenally, but you really have to stick it out.
The world building in Way of Kings is more in-depth than in his others. The basic ecology of the planet is entirely different from what we're used to, so Sanderson spends a ton of time developing the world, the climate, the plants, the animals, and multiple cultures. At times this is fascinating and other times it is tedious. Way of Kings is the beginning of a ten-part, so there is a lot of exposition to go through. His extensive world building will be a hurtle for some readers. It's worth the investment, but it is quite an investment.
There is a huge cast of characters, but Sanderson excels at character development, so even when we only see a character for one chapter, we still feel like we know them well. This is what I love most about his books. His villains are especially well developed. He gets you inside their heads so well that you can't help but love them even as they're stabbing you in the back. Each character feels justified in their actions, which makes them far more compelling than villains who are bad just because they are bad.
Kaladin's story was particularly interesting. Similar to the prince in Elantris, he drops to the very bottom of society, becoming bait for enemy soldiers. In that hopeless existence he manages to inspire and unite the other bridgemen. Sanderson never has simplistic right-or-wrong plots. Not only does he give you each character's perspective, each character faces impossible moral conundrums. Should you save the few people you know and care about or should you save the much larger number of people? Should you live honorably even if it could get you killed? Do ends justify means? Hard questions make for an interesting plot and real character development.
The magic system is only hinted at through most of the book. Unlike in Mistborn where there is a teacher to explain the magic system, no one really gets how Stormlight works, so the characters discover the magic system along with the readers. It's an "I have no idea what I'm doing, but this is keeping me alive, so let's figure it out" kind of thing. I'm interested to see where he takes it in future books.
Like most of Sanderson's books, Way of Kings has a twist near the end that tosses into question everything we had understood previously. Think the twist at the end of Well of Ascension, but perhaps a bit smaller. It's one of those WHAAAAAAT?!?!? moments.
I got involved halfway through the book, and as always, the climax was great. It's a good book, but one meant for readers who already like Sanderson's writing style.