The wait for Words of Radiance was a perfect opportunity to re-read The Way of Kings, a bulky, epic fantasy premiere that I remembered to be awesome, but couldn't remember why. In those thousand pages, some of which were slow and plodding, there ended up being a number of fantastically complicated and hard to remember twists and turns, and secrets worth re-discovering.
I'll divulge those secrets momentarily, because chances are if you're Googling The Way of Kings right now it’s because you're too lazy to re-read it yourself? And if not, just take this as a spoiler warning and go away :) In the meantime, there are a few other reflections that have come to me after a revisit of Brandon Sanderson’s debut to the Stormlight series.
Classic fantasy can be slow, long, boring and out of touch. Why start a traditional high fantasy these days? The question can be posed to both readers and authors — to authors, why plod over well trodden territory yet again, and to readers, what’s in it to read another Lord of the Rings-esque epic series that just isn't going to be as good as Tolkien?
That was my response to the initial announcement that Brandon Sanderson was moving away from the short, single contemporary fantasy novel that was Elantris and, after finishing another huge, epic, traditional fantasy (The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) was going to start his own damn multi-volume huge epic. I mean, come on. I just finished reading WOT, I’m not caught up on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, there are a dozen other series that have been recommended to me that I've never even touched (Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Terry Goodkind, R. A. Salvatore, the list goes on) — does this sound like any other avid fantasy reader’s life? We've got catching up to do! Why are you giving us more?!
Surprisingly, The Way of Kings has a lot to offer the genre and grapples with incredibly modern themes. Like how to turn a war-torn world into a peaceful one. Instead of trying to eradicate all of the Lannisters — sorry, enemies — characters like Dalinar Kholin, The Blackthorn for his battle prowess and mercilessness, are starting to lose the Thrill of battle and doubting the cause of revenge for the murder of the Alethi king, his brother Gavilar. Then there are the ideas that build up Sanderson’s world, like Shadesmar, the cognitive shadow world made up of signifiers that represent the signified of the physical world (sorry to descend into literary criticism-ese, that’s just the most concise way to put it). I also like how in response to Tolkien’s world of fading magic and an emphasis on legend and the past, Stormlight sees a return of long-lost abilities and the discovery of new ones, and while history features prominently, it is like the scholar and atheist heretic Jasnah Kholin puts it: the point is future-oriented, using the truth found in the past to decide present action (paraphrasing).
Also fairly modern is its treatment of religion. It’s very easy to forget that Sanderson is Mormon because he treats characters like Jasnah with such respect and gives her incredible wisdom while she tears down the idea of faith in favor of science. It’s the mark of a genius to not only be able to see the reason of the arguments made by your opponents, but to be able to represent them with dignity, with so little bias that they might as well have been written by the atheist his or herself, and not a bitter, mean one like Gregory House but the kind that might be sitting next to you in your college philosophy class. In The Way of Kings it might be Vorinism and The Almighty that Jasnah repudiates, but it’s an easy stand-in for any major religion + God.
The secrets I mentioned are key to what to look forward to in Words of Radiance, out March 4. It’s easy to forget, for example, that not only is Shallan secretly a Shardbearer, she also admitted to murdering her father (at least that's how I read it, and I'm too scared of WoR spoilers to google other interpretations). Which begs the question of whether she took the Blade from him, or from someone else. Another open mystery to recall is that Kabsal, the ardent who flirted with Shallan and eventually revealed his only purpose was to assassinate Jasnah, resulting only in his own death, is a member of a secret society called the Ghostbloods, to which Shallan’s father also belonged. We still don't know where Daddy Davar got his Soulcaster, either, and you can bet we'll learn more about how Shallan and Jasnah can Soulcast without a real fabrial.
All of this are why I've argued in the past that Shallan is a much more interesting character than Kaladin and I raced through the pages dedicated to him to get back to the lady's many mysteries. Still, keep in mind that Kaladin successfully freed all of the bridgemen from Sadeas's army, making Bridge Four Dalinar's personal guard in exchange for his Blade (holy crap, I'll never get over that.) So in addition to Kaladin learning how to become a Radiant, that’s where he is, entering book two — free.
Dalinar was betrayed by Sadeas, losing a huge portion of his army and the faith that Alethkar can ever be united. This feels like another incredibly modern theme to me as well. I don’t see Sadeas as a villain, but a product of Alethi society that, as Dalinar put it, finds rivalry justified always.
The last two humungous twists are the following: Szeth was has been sent to kill Dalinar Kholin (good luck, Dalinar, or should I say RIP?) by King Taravangian, and the Parshendi turn out to be the Voidbringers. Amazing. I love this book.
All of that’s what makes it worth reading. Plus, it’s less daunting to tackle when it’s just coming out now. You’ve only got two to read! There are fricking dozens of Discworld books.
Let me know what you think of the mysteries of The Way of Kings — did you remember them all? Did I miss any? Will you help me find and string Brandon Sanderson up in a highstorm if he doesn't answer all of our questions before book 3? Cool. Thanks.