Book Club: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

My most recent book-world to explore has been The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  This one I read for my actual, real-life book club.  As per usual, SPOILERS ABOUND.


The World

The world resembles in some way how I imagine the times of the Old Testament, in the sense that it is a time of deeply divided kingdoms and dusty battle in rocky/desert-like conditions.  Of course, this is fantasy, so it's actually very different.

First of all, the land is basically all rock.  They live in caves that they cut out of the rock using Soulcasters - people who use a special instrument to transform anything into anything else (literally - they also soulcast food).  They have storms called High Storms that bring some kind of power to everything (called stormlight).

There are humans (living in the kingdom of Alethkar) as well as other races: the Shin, Parshendi, and Parshmen.  The Parshmen are servants to the humans.  They are quiet and docile and seem to be happy to be commanded, which we all know is always a bad sign because no race is just super happy to serve all the time.

The gender roles among the humans are pretty interesting.  Men are basically only in charge of war and combat.  Maybe physical labour.  Women are scholars, engineers, artists, and writers.  Men don't even know how to read or write in this world.  Of course, while it's interesting to explore a world where fields that, in the real world, are generally run by men (scholarship, engineering, etc.) are seen as feminine, it's also nothing too special, because the old gender divides are still strong: there is "men's work" and "women's work" and a man is really looked down upon if he does "women's work."

Oh, and people are divided by being lighteyes and darkeyes in terms of social standing and power, so the button is tied pretty tight on the whole race-relations metaphor.

The Story

First we meet a very tired soldier who is trapped in some kind of repeating life where he battles (with others like him) to save humans in a giant war, and then when they die or complete the battle, they loop back around and have to do it again.  They abandon their posts, leaving humanity to fight for themselves.  Later it becomes clear that they were probably what people call a legendary Radiants - god-like figures who used to fight for humans against thevoidbringers  and then suddenly disappeared.

Next thing we know, we're at a feast where the human king of Alethkar is celebrating a new treaty with the Parshendi people, but the Parshendi have commanded an assassin (a Shin man named Szeth) to kill him, and make sure he is seen doing it.

The story then jumps ahead, six years into the war of vengeance between the people of Alethkar and the Parshendi.  We mainly follow a few characters: Dalinar, brother to the slain king and protector of the new king; Kaladin, apprentice surgeon turned soldier turned slave; Szeth, the Shin man who was forced to assassinate the king and now is traded from master to master with no choice but to kill a bunch more people; and Shallan, a young budding scholar who makes herself ward to Dalinar's niece and discovers dangerous secrets about soulcasting and the Parshmen.

We also meet a bunch of random characters along the way who have no bearing on the story at all, but I'll complain about that later.

Overall Impressions

I honestly don't really get why people love Brandon Sanderson so much.  His books are so long and I don't generally get truly interested in what's happening until at least halfway through - and when the book is over 1,000 pages long, that's kind of a problem.  That said, once I got interested I was really interested.

Here's the problem, though: clearly, what Brandon Sanderson really wants to do is write one, giant, 5,000 page book.  He just wants to put all the characters in and share everything to do with their journeys and show off all the different aspects of his world, but he can't do that all in one book because not everyone has e-readers and carrying around a 5,000 page book would make our weak little backs go out, so he separates it into a few separate books that are still really long but not quite so bad.

Great idea, except that most book series still separate the greater story into littler story-chunks that are satisfying on their own.  The end of The Way of Kings didn't actually wrap up ANY of the storylines in the book.  He also introduces BRAND NEW CHARACTERS throughout the entire thing (including one around page 700!  700!  Yes!  That's right!  At 700 pages!  A new character!)   This would be okay if they advanced the plot somehow, but they DON'T!  They all just get little one-off chapters.  They are like the standalone episodes in a season of Buffy when they realize that things are getting way too serious and they need to put something light-hearted in there to keep fans from giving up on life.  They are like flavour text on a character card for a role playing game.  Except that this is a 1,000 page book and that is too long of a book to have flavour text and/or standalone chapters.  Besides, I can only invest in the journeys of so many people.  Eventually, I just don't care.

I will give the benefit of the doubt that they probably reappear later in the series, so that's something, I guess.  Except that at best he's using that as a tool to push people to get the next books, sort of like how Dan Brown ended each chapter in The Da Vinci Code with someone who looked up and was astonished by what they saw (keep reading to find out what that was!)  It's the book version of click baiting.

Of course, if I was completely lost in the story and devouring the book I wouldn't care.  I would read this one and then the next one with vigour and say "oh well, it had some structural faults but I love it and everyone should, too!"  That's basically what I thought about The Bone Clocks - lots of structural flaws, but I loved reading it so it didn't bother me.

So now I'm stuck: I am finally interested enough that I want to know what happens to these characters, but I don't want to actually read the rest of the series and go through thousands more pages to get there.

PS: I looked up Brandon Sanderson and now I feel bad for not liking his books very much, because he just looks like such a nice person.  Sorry, Brandon.  Don't feel bad.  So many people love your books.  Maybe I just don't get you.

Photo by Nihonjoe, Wikipedia Commons.


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