Saturday, October 30, 2010

Way of Kings: A Review

Way of Kings is the first book in the new Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  The name may ring a bell for fantasy fans.  That's because Sanderson was tagged by Robert Jordan's widow to be the writer that finished Jordan's... sprawling (let's just go with that) masterpiece, The Wheel of Time.

So, no pressure there, Brandon!  Just about 10 million people waiting to see if you can pull off wrapping up the approximately 50000000 dangling threads that Jordan left hanging there for ya.  Hell, the Fates couldn't spin that freaking story into a comprehensive narrative.  But I'll tell you this - I've read the first book of his wrap-up, and I enjoyed it more than ANY of the series, except the first 3, which were still reasonably-paced and before Jordan added a bunch of characters I don't give a shit about.  I'll give you a hint - I want to read about Matt.  And Perrin if you have to.

But anyways, I've wandered off-topic.  Sanderson has major chops as a fantasy author, and I've read pretty much all his other books, except for Warbreaker, which I just could not get into.  Generally, Sanderson does quite a few things well.  The biggest being, he doesn't stick to vanilla medieval fantasy settings.  Pretty much all his books are set in odd, magical or alien environments, with unique and neat magical powers that are both interesting and consistent.  He also writes fairly character-driven stories - there is very little of the "bring the maguffin to mount anti-maguffin" in his work.

So what you can expect from a Sanderson novel is - neat, imaginative world that is very different from a standard fantasy one, and interesting characters that have to deal with this world.

Which is what you get from Way of Kings.  Except... Sanderson seems to have caught a slight case of "Holy shit my publisher will let me write a really long book" from working on The Wheel of Time.  Way of Kings is long.  Like, 1000 pages long.  And it's supposed to be the first of... TEN.  So strap yourselves in, folks.  If you don't get really into this world and story within the first couple hundred pages, put that motherfucker down and leave - you don't want to get invested in something like this in a half-assed way.  This is a series for readers.

But really, if you're a fantasy fan, you'll probably find a lot to like here.  The series title refers to the "magical" energy source of the world, Stormlight.  This energy is brought to the world by massive storms, called Highstorms, that periodically sweep across the world, wreaking destruction but also bringing energy, which can be captured in gemstones.

It's clear that Sanderson has given a lot of thought to what a world affected by Highstorms would look like.  The storms have stripped much of the world of topsoil, and most wild animals are insect or crustacean-like, able to take cover and survive the Highstorms.  Grain is grown inside hard-shelled "rockbuds", and huge, lobster-like "chull" are beasts of burden.  So, cool enough setting that just exploring it is fairly interesting.

Sanderson also manages to create enough interesting characters to keep you engaged.  The self-loathing Assassin in White, the honorable and disenchanted Khaladin Stormblessed, the rigid warrior Dalinar Kholin and a number of others drive the plot forward as the fight to survive and to understand the magic and the world they live in.

Sanderson is also quite good at making the actual nature of the world and it's history mysterious to the reader and the characters, and it's a fun and engaging ride to learn truths (and lies) with them.  The book keeps up a fairly good momentum, rarely dropping into what my buddy Loren calls "the swamp" where you are forced to keep reading even though you're rather just stop, because you want to see if it gets interesting again.  So, no swamp, good characters, neat world.

The only real complaint I have about this book is that it's got a lot of the whole Ancient evil from the past returns to destroy the world thing going on.  Although that's been done to death, generally, Sanderson's well-thought-out world and past a mystery thing help keep it fresh enough not to seem too repetitive.  We are as much in the dark as most of the characters as to the nature of the threat, the "Desolation", so finding out bits and pieces from each character's narrative ties everything together and keeps you reading.

If you don't mind getting into a long haul, you should check this book out.  It's a good one.  And Sanderson, unlike Jordan, when he was alive, actually gets books finished and out - the only author in fantasy that keeps up an output like Sanderson is Steven Erikson - probably the subject of my next review!