It finally happened. After a decade of skepticism, I gave in and dipped my toe into what may be the most popular adult fantasy series of the last ten years, reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings is very much an epic fantasy opener, introducing three major storylines bound for convergence in future books. The lion’s share of page time is dedicated to Kaladin, a former physician’s apprentice turned military leader unjustly sold into slavery and set to work—in the middle of a large-scale, protracted conflict between his people and the mysterious Parshendi–that is designed to get him killed. Another storyline follows Shallan, a young noblewoman seeking to cover up her family’s misfortune by inserting herself as apprentice to a renowned scholar, while a third returns to the Parshendi conflict and spotlights a military leader increasingly jaded with his people’s fruitless tactics.
It’s rare that I say this about a book, but The Way of Kings was in so many ways exactly what I expected going in. There aren’t many fantasy authors subject to more online adoration and criticism as Sanderson, and both his fans and his critics seem to have a fairly accurate picture of his strengths and weaknesses. His care in worldbuilding is difficult to match, but unexceptional prose often fails to capture the incredible vibrancy of the alien landscape he’s devised. This lack of prose punch also leads to an annoying tendency towards repetitiveness, which in turn contributes to a book that doesn’t fully earn its staggering 1250-page length. On the other hand, meticulous plotting puts all the pieces in place for a heart-pounding finish that makes the last several hundred pages pass like fifty. What’s more, his finish hits the perfect balance for an epic fantasy opener, closing enough plot arcs to justify a novel of investment while opening enough—with an excellent mix of the heavily foreshadowed and the genuinely surprising—to drive interest in the remainder of the series.
So the opening of The Stormlight Archive is just what it is reputed to be. Whether that’s good or bad depends in large part on the reader’s tastes. If you don’t like epics that take their time laying out the constituent pieces, don’t even bother—this isn’t the book for you. If prose styling is one of your most valued pieces of writing craft, you’ll probably find yourself frustrated.
On the other hand, if you adore fresh, detailed worldbuilding that feels full enough to support hundreds of stories, Sanderson may be the author for you. Even I, as a reader who rates worldbuilding toward the bottom of my priority list, enjoyed at least a couple of the indulgent interludes that showed off various aspects of the world. Similarly, if you enjoy knowing every detail of the use of magic, you’ll likely revel in the magical fight scenes, even those that I personally found tiresome. And if you enjoy underdog stories, Kaladin’s plot is such a perfect fit so as to carry the entire book on its own.
It’s a big book with a lot to offer various groups of fantasy fans, and its popularity is no surprise. But there are plenty of aspects that may register as unimportant to the initiated that will be deal-breakers for someone unused to sprawling epics or demanding lush prose. Personally, I found the repetitions and the time spent detailing the magic system—especially in the interludes—enough to hold me back from really adoring The Way of Kings, but the gripping underdog story and masterful ending is enough for me to move the sequel up my list.
Recommended if you like: detailed worldbuilding, magic systems, underdog stories, sprawling epics.
Can I use it for Bingo? Finally, a hard mode book for the 800+ Page square! Additionally, it fits Chapter Titles, Found Family, and a _____ of _____ Title.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.