Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I didn't know that I liked thousand-page-long fantasy epics.* But Sanderson might have convinced me otherwise.

The first and most obvious thing to say about The Way of Kings is that it is a bit over a thousand pages long.

The second thing to say about it is: you won't mind. In fact, if you're like me, you'll get up the morning after you finish the thing and be disappointed that there isn't more to read.

It's not compelling because it's suspenseful - although it does get suspenseful at the end - but because it's interesting. The setting is the most striking thing about it: the Stormlight world is fully realized, and its features and curiosities only become more interesting as the plot unfolds - plants that grow rock shells around themselves to withstand the infrequent, raging winds the scour the plains, the odd bits and pieces of myth that hang about the edges of the world, occasionally, astonishingly proving to be more than myth, the huge monsters with gem hearts hidden under their carapaces . . . it's all bizarre and vast and beautifully coherent.

But even though the setting is what's most striking, what's most compelling about the story is its characters, especially Kaladin, a surgeon-become-soldier-become-slave. (It cannot possibly be an accident that "Kaladin" sounds like "paladin".) Kaladin reminds me of Cazaril from Bujold's Chalion books, and he has a similar character arc. And this is where the thousand-page length of the novel really becomes a virtue: the length of the novel allows Kaladin's slow transformation from a beaten man to a leader to feel realistic. It happens so gradually you don't realize what's going on until you have hundreds of pages to look back on. But when you do look back, you go, "Ahhh . . ." and happily settle in for the next hundred, just to see how our hero is going to change in response to the next impossible challenge.

For me, the only place the story dragged was during the flashbacks. Happily, the flashbacks are short (comparatively) and infrequent. I kind of wish they weren't there, because they interrupt the flow of the story and, though often action-heavy, they seem slower than the rest of the book.

But that's a really minor quibble. The flashbacks, especially because they're short, are totally worth it for the enjoyment of the rest of the book.

The theology of the books (like every good fantasy, it has a theological element) was the least compelling part of the book for me. It's nothing like as insightful as the theology of Chalion. But it's also very clear that, well, that the theology of the first book isn't clear. The characters don't know much about what's going on with the gods in this first volume, and we readers know only a little more. It'll be interesting to see where he goes with it in later books; the plot does lead me to believe that we'll get a clearer picture of it in future volumes, since a lot of the plot is driven by the characters' search for knowledge. So far, it seems to be more of a Greek pantheon situation, where they gods are not so much more than men, and so you sort of have to read it accordingly, with due discernment.

Wonderful read though. Recommended.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*The Lord of the Rings totally doesn't count.

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