Book Review: “The Way of Kings”

My apologies for the lack of posts lately — there are several in the works right now, including the second part of my gluten-free Thanksgiving post, but I’ve found myself rather busy in the past few weeks, as well as being embroiled in a rather nasty manic phase (artistically productive as they may be, I’ve barely slept in weeks, and haven’t had much luck focusing on things like sitting still and writing).  Bipolar disorder is manageable, but at times only barely.

In any case, I did manage to spend a bit of my recent insomnia on trekking through Brandon Sanderson’s latest offering to the fantasy world: “The Way of Kings”, book one in his new series, “The Stormlight Archive”.  And “trek” is definitely the right word here — it’s a long haul, 1000 pages in total.  Hard to believe it’s only book one, when it took as long to read as the entirety of “Lord of the Rings”.

That’s not to say that it was an unpleasant read.  I’ve been a fan of Sanderson’s since first reading “Elantris” back in 2005 or 2006, and I find his writing style very appealing.  He writes excellent characters, and creates very detailed worlds for them to populate.  It’s easy to get lost in his prose and spend hours at a stretch in reading his work.  Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that he may be running out of ideas.

This latest offering is definitely no “Elantris” or “Mistborn”.  Instead of being thrown immediately into a world that seems fresh and new, something unseen before in modern fantasy writing, the world of “The Stormlight Archive” seems somehow familiar.  It in many ways echoes the worlds created in his previous novels (not an entirely surprising thing, since he’s apparently been working on this magnum opus of his since long before “Elantris” was first published, and the world of “Stormlight” was probably an inspiring factor in his other works, rather than the other way around).  More disappointing to me, though, it also seems strangely familiar to some of the worlds I loved as a child: the childhood archetypes created for me by “The Neverending Story” and “The Book of Swords” — even the Terry Brooks novels I devoured as a teenager seem very present here.  This is a place I’ve been before, and familiarity apparently breeds contempt (or perhaps I was just spoiled by Sanderson’s earlier works, and was simply expecting something truly novel and new to jump out at me).

There are lovely details, of course.  The plants that can move and are clearly inspired by sea life, for example: they’re lovely, and I would happily read a biology textbook about them (and from the amount of detail that Sanderson gives, one could probably be written — he’s clearly thought this through).  But the world shattered by an ancient evil that looms close again (sooo cliche!), the class system that could have been lifted almost directly from “Elantris”, and the magic system that seems ever so similar to Allomancy … these things are somewhat disappointing.  Especially annoying to me, as a student of feminist critique, is the way that the gender difference functions within the class system — from a purely idealist point of view, it seems lovely and functional, but even the most basic knowledge of feminist and post-feminist literature starts pulling out some huge flaws.  Childbirth and pregnancy, for example, are completely ignored in the structure he’s created, and when you’re working with humans that simply can’t happen.  We’re obsessed with sex and the results thereof, and every social structure on the planet revolves largely around the fact that girls can get pregnant and boys cannot.  A social structure that ignores such complications is a nice thought exercise, but it begins to seem pretty contrived after only a few chapters.  It worked in “Elantris” because the main characters were essentially dead for most of the novel, and thus not particularly concerned with their biological drives.  Here the flaws show up pretty early, especially when the narrative switches to the point of view of one of the female characters.

If you’re interested in fantasy literature, though, I still suggest that you read this book.  Despite the flaws, the writing is beautiful.  There are reasons why Sanderson has risen so quickly to become an absolute giant in the literary world, and his work is worth the time it takes.

Just don’t make this your first Sanderson book.  Start with “Elantris”, which in my opinion is definitely his bet work to date.  Also, it’s much shorter, so even if you hate it, there’s not so much to get through.  It takes a lot of self-confidence to write 1000 pages (not to mention the extra self-confidence it takes to call that 1000 pages “book one” in a series that’s likely going to take the next decade to finish).  I think that in this case it’s confidence rightly deserved, but don’t expect glories right away here.

I am holding out lots of hope for how this series will continue, though.  Without giving away too much, I think it can be said that there are lots of places for these characters to go.  While the magic system seems simplistic and too similar to Allomancy now, it has yet to be fully fleshed out (heck it takes a good 800 pages for just one of the main characters to figure out the simplest parts of it).  And the cliffhanger ending, while just as infuriating as all cliffhanger endings are (especially when you know the next book isn’t coming out for a good year or so), gives lots of room for speculation.  I won’t be re-reading this book any time soon (I at least have to give my wrists time to recover from holding up such a heavy tome for so many hours), but I’ll be eagerly awaiting book two.

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