The Way of Kings is remarkable even for this halcyon age for the doorstopper epic fantasy in which we live. Sanderson openly pitched it as a 10 volume series. The hardcover dwarfs the collected first eight volumes of The Walking Dead, the collected first three volumes of the Temeraire series, and the collected Chronicles of Narnia on my bookshelf. Sanderson doesn’t ease us in with a slowly growing, expanding storyline to rope us in; he jumps right in with multiple storylines and massive world-building. I think Sanderson has the success of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin as much as his own success with Mistborn to thank for the opportunity.
And it truly is a masterpiece of world-building. The world of The Way of Kings bears scant resemblance to our own. The defining characteristic of the continent of Roshar is the highstorms that sweep across it from east to west every few days (even the continent is shaped like the Carolina Hurricanes logo). The highstorms leave the eastern part of Roshar broken, but they also provide the magical “fuel” for the eastern nations. The storms are so frequent and intense blades of grass retract into the ground and other plants have exteriors best described as shells. The effect of the highstorms fades to the west, to the extent that the westernmost country does resemble our world (considered highly exotic by the rest of Roshar).
The Way of Kings follows three main characters: Kaladin, a surgeon turned soldier turned slave; Dalinar, an Alethi Highprince; and Shallan, a young noble seeking to study under Dalinar’s niece in a desperate attempt to save her family. Kaladin is given particular attention through numerous flashbacks. Interims to the main parts follow a variety of other characters, including a deadly assassin with a mysterious past and a tortured present.
Sanderson also builds a rich history and mythology—almost too rich. I spent much of the first third of the book and the final few chapters trying very hard to figure out what was going on (and frequently consulting the map). But much like in The Wheel of Time, the history and mythology of Roshar promises to be central to the story.
The plot itself hardly breaks new ground, but it’s all well done. Writing brooding, tortured characters is extremely difficult for authors not named Dostoyevsky, but Sanderson does it very well here. The Way of Kings climaxes with a large battle deftly featuring two of protagonists and follows it with a series of twists managing to both bring things into greater focus and break them wide open.
On the downside, while the magic system and shardblades/shardplate are very inventive, they are also very video game-esque. Which I think detracts somewhat from a world, mythology, and story that appear to be incredibly rich and complex and from Sanderson very astutely and subtly exploring human nature. But I can forgive a lot of that because it makes for some really great action sequences.