In earlier days, I used to read a lot of “epic fantasy” – multi-volume, 1000 page monsters. I became a little disillusioned with the genre when I concluded that often these novels are written in such lengthy manner simply to sell more copy. The worst offender in my mind was The Wheel of Time. I starting reading that series shortly after it came out, so I had to frequently wait for the next installment. Eventually, at about book 6 or 7, I decided I had lost track of everything so I reread from the beginning, taking notes by hand (this was before the days of Internet wikis…). Through this process I realized that for several books, almost no plot movement occurred whatsoever. The characters were pretty much in the same state as they were at the end as they were at the start.
So that turned me off of the Wheel of Time (still haven’t finished it; only mildly curious at what happens — but I’ll probably troll the wikis rather than read) and I guess the genre in general. I would compare these fantasy epics to an episodic TV show rather than a concise movie. I prefer good movies to TV shows too, for the same reason – shows just seem so drawn out, and the interesting points could easily be consolidated into a shorter format. Quality, not quantity!
Anyway, I didn’t really know anything about The Way of Kings except that it reviewed well, and that I enjoyed Sanderson’s Elantris, which was a good, concise, single-volume fantasy novel. But lo and behold, Sanderson apparently caught Wheel of Time fever while finishing off the series after Robert Jordan’s death. The Way of Kings clocks in at 1000 pages, and “The Stormlight Archive” is planned for 10 volumes (of which 2 are written). Yikes. I’m not sure I can commit to that, Brandon!
For the record, I did think it was an entertaining bit of world-building and a decent plot. (A bit long of course; Kaladin’s story arc in particular repetitively flogged an expired equus.) The armies of the kingdom of Alethkar are besieging the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains, an expanse of plateaus separated by deep chasms. Six years earlier, a mysterious assassin in white killed King Gavilar of Alethkar for unknown reasons, but the Parshendi took credit (even though they were friendly or neutral towards Alethkar up to that point) without revealing a motive. The Parshendi are only vaguely similar to humans; they have dark red-marbled skin, have a connected consciousness and appear to have a tribal, primitive culture.
Kaladin – Most of the chapters are devoted to Kaladin, a slave who is forced to work as a bridgeman, carrying long bridges across the Plains so that the army can cross to the next plateau. The life expectancy of a bridgeman is pretty short due to the arrow-equipped Parshendi not caring to let them cross over. Kaladin rallies his bridge crew, intent on proving to himself that he can protect them, despite failures in shielding his dead brother, squad mates in the regular army, and fellow slaves during an escape attempt (these incidents are related only briefly in flashbacks).
Dalinar – Gets the next largest chunk of chapters. A highprince of Alethkar, and brother to the dead king. Obsessed with honor and uprightness, which is not such a bad thing. Gets visions during highstorms, which teach him about the past but also provide plenty of mystery.
Shallan – young woman, talented in sketching, apprenticed to the scholar Jasnah (daughter of Gavilar). She and Jasnah spend the book in Kharbranth, researchin’ stuff. And she tries to steal Jasnah’s Soulcaster. Shallan has some shadowy family backstory that isn’t covered in much depth – next book, probably.
Szeth – the assassin in white. He only gets a handful of short chapters, peppered throughout the book. But interesting. He’s Shin which is kind of like Chinese. He is an expert surgebinder and possesses a shardblade, so is pretty deadly. However, he feels incredibly guilty about killing and just wishes someone would kill him. He is bound by an oathstone to do whatever his master asks (his master being whoever holds the oathstone), and is forbidden from taking his own life. He calls himself “Truthless”; the meaning of this title is not explained.
Voidbringers – evil shadowy creatures, bent on destroying mankind. Their assaults are termed Desolations, which occur cyclically throughout history and typically wipe out most of the human population. In past Desolations, the Voidbringers have always been beaten back by the Heralds and/or the Radiants. Might be minions of someone called Odium.
Heralds – small group of semi-divine beings who led the early fights for humanity against the Voidbringers. The got tired of the fighting and gave up, apparently. Later their role was replaced by the Radiants.
Radiants – heroic knights, armed with shardblades, shardplate, and surgebinding powers. Defended humanity against the Voidbringers. Something made them give up the fight (luckily after the Voidbringers were defeated, I think?) — they abandoned their shard-stuff and walked away. I think this event happened at the end of the last Desolation . . . so now humanity is unprotected, and the next one is coming.
Shardblades and Shardplate – super powerful swords and armor, passed down from Radiants. Only about 100 exist; hoarded mainly by kings and princes. A single shardbearer is an army unto himself.
Soulcasting – a means of transmuting substances, by artifact or other means. Has something to do with an inverted parallel world to Roshar called Shadesmar.
Surgebinding – techniques used by Radiants to change the direction of gravity for themselves or other objects, and also move super-humanly fast (maybe they really are slowing down time?)
Stormlight – magical essence created by the violent storms which frequently pass over the whole of Roshar (with more effect towards the epicenter in the East). Stormlight is stored in gems, which are used mainly as currency but also as light sources and sometimes as a kind of battery for Radiant powers.
Spren – spirits which reside in pretty much everything. Different emotions, or physical phenomena have their own distinct species of spren, eg. “windspren” or “fearspren.”
The “reveals” at the end all seemed a bit rushed:
- Parsheni/Parshmen are enslaved Voidbringers
- The king of Kharbranth is killing innocents in an attempt to divine the future. So far, he’s determined that the Last Desolation is very near. He’s the latest master of Szeth’s oathstone, using him to destroy kings and rulersso that he can rebuild a strong society, prepared for the horrors to come.
- Kaladin has Radiant powers, which have something to do with Syl, a windspren(?) which follows him around and seems much more sentient than normal spren.
- Dalinar’s visions are warnings “recorded” from the Almighty, the god of Roshar, who reports that he has been killed by Odium (I guess the Almightly didn’t really die, but somehow became “one” with the storm but is not longer as powerful as he once was.)