Ambitious might be the best word to describe Sanderson's epic fantasy The Way of Kings.
He certainly puts the epic in epic fantasy; the other books of his that I've read pale in comparison to the sheer scale of this novel. Clocking in at over a thousand pages and hundreds of thousands of words, it's hardly slim. The world-building is incredible; he's created dozens of distinct characters, cultures, and magics. Although it never becomes crystal-clear, Sanderson also makes it easy to tread the waters and understand the basics.
Indeed, Sanderson has a special gift for keeping one's attention. Although the beginning sometimes loses you in the sheer number of new words and concepts, once the book gets rolling, it's hard to stop reading. And that is a very good thing if a book is over a thousand pages long. Incredibly, I never felt bored; it takes a skilled writer to hold a reader's attention over such a massive number of pages, and yet Sanderson does it with ease.
I also never cease to marvel how Sanderson manages to perfectly balance character development and plot, in addition to creating a detailed and incredible storyworld. The main characters are complex and round and even the side characters admirably developed. Yet the character development never sacrifices plot or speed—the novel shoves onward with speed, if not urgency. And as is typical Sanderson fashion, there are a number of stunning plot twists.
Still, this volume is heavier than some of his other works. The novel opens with an assassination, the battle scenes of which seem to drag on a little longer than necessary. In fact, that very character is responsible for some of the darkest moments of this tome, being tormented by his involuntary service and yet unable to change it—and used repeatedly for dark deeds.
Kaladin, the “main” main character, is a man haunted by loss. Reading some sections made me want to cringe at how badly things had gone for him; losing everyone that was dear to him, over and over. Some parts were almost numbing, as multiple characters I had liked were killed, or as people who had feigned goodness showed their true, corrupted sides.
This did work positively, however: I rooted for him loyally. Every failure made me cringe because of how expertly Sanderson had made me want for him to come out on top.
Still, in the middle of the book especially, it seemed like there was no real stability. Was Dalinar crazy? Was Adolin wrong? Was the king descending into paranoia? Which characters were planning betrayal? Was there anyone actually good?
This made most of the novel very morally ambiguous.
As always, Sanderson doesn't shy away from religion, but sometimes the events that occur obscure the religious waters more than they clear them up. Many references are made to a common deity, known as the “Almighty”. (I could never determine whether “Stormfather” was another word for the same god or distinct from it.) Near the end, as several things are revealed about this “Almighty”, the waters become even more muddy.
Is there a “good guy” who created the Almighty? Obviously the Almighty isn't as ultimate as some of the characters believe. Is there actually something ultimate? It is never said. One character is also an atheist, and argues several times with different people throughout the novel.
Religion is not the only area which muddies moral waters. The themes of the novel conflict often. One character defends her trapping and killing of several highwaymen as “good” because she prevented them from preying on people in the future. Multiple characters justify murder for the good of their people. (Let it be noted that in both of these instances, the POV character disapproved.)
Sanderson seems to indicate that there is some moral rock, some absolute that morality is based on, but his characters have trouble finding any moral stability in a maze of questions. Some questions, such as the validity of killing in order to save lives, are never really answered. Sanderson gets lost in his moral conundrums, dragging some of the positives down with him.
That being said, there were some positives. Two of the main characters especially, Kaladin and Dalinar, take stands for what they believe is right.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
Kaladin is hurt so often that he begins to refuse to try and save people, to invest in them; as a result, he's plunged into a deep depression that he nearly doesn't come out of. But when he does, he invests in Bridge Four, a group of men destined to die in a hellish way—he gives them their humanity again. He gives them leadership and hope. He protects them and loves them.
As a result of this warmth, they become more than just “bridgemen”, the living dead—they begin to grow, to thrive, to find passion and honor and loyalty. It's a beautiful thing.
The other man is Dalinar, a staunch highprince who blames himself for not being there for his brother, the king, the night he was assassinated. As a result, he becomes rigid—morally straight in every way. Indeed, even when he begins to question his sanity, he is the only real moral character in the whole story. “You're the real thing, aren't you?” one character asks him.
Dalinar's two focuses are the Codes, the Alethi rules that tell him how to wage war, and an ancient book called The Way of Kings. Throughout the book, we get glimpses of The Way of Kings in anecdotes and proverbs. And they are indeed impressive. One passage on the humility of kings is reminiscent of some Biblical principles—in fact, the Codes and Kings together form Dalinar's morality, something he says changed his heart, and thus his behavior. (Whether or not it was intended, there is a strong Biblical parallel there.)
And in the end, both of these characters are justified for the positions they hold. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that the themes of trust, honesty, and honor triumph over the hatred and betrayal rife throughout the rest of the book, giving a degree of stability to a novel that would otherwise be more unstable.
Sanderson is, as always, imaginative and well-thought-out in the way he structures his world, his plot, and his characters. While the religious aspect is hardly compatible with Christianity, there does seem to be an underlying moral bedrock to the themes, despite the muddied waters. It's a complex book, and because of some of the content, it's not easy reading. But perhaps the title gives an indication of what Sanderson's focus is: The Way of Kings. A book about the warmth of real morality and humanity.
And despite getting lost along the way, I think that's where the heart of the book lies.
Rated 8.5 out of 10.
Recommended for ages 16 and up. There is little cursing—several minor words—and almost no suggestive content, so it is clean in that respect. However, I recommend an older age due to two factors. One, there is a significant amount of violence and corruption; the sheer number of character deaths gets numbing in certain sections. Two, it is morally complex and sometimes muddy, and requires some discernment.
However, I strongly recommend any student of the fantasy genre to read this novel. Regardless of whether you agree with his moral approach, Sanderson is extremely good at what he does. Furthermore, he is, more than any other writer I've read, a master of both plot and character; plus his imagination is superb. For that reason alone, if you can read the novel, I think you should read it.
Right now I have the second book in the Stormlight Archive on the mantle—and judging by the reviews on Amazon (higher than the reviews for the original) and the size of the tome (over eighty pages longer than the original), it's going to be an extremely fun week. (The following books, including Words of Radiance, are what I picked up from the library today.)