The Way of Kings: A Review

20 minute read


I've never been one to write long reviews. I tend to lose track of what I want to say. I've got a little checklist of ideas I want to write about at the bottom of this post, erasing them once I've dealt with them. I'm a scatterbrain, and there's much I wanted to talk about.

A lot of the time, my opinions tend to be pretty cut and dry, I don't have much to say. I watched Creed recently, thought it was an awesome movie, but I found I didn't have much to say about it with my friends on the ride back. Plenty of riveting scenes, intriguing spins on the Rocky formula...but it didn't feel like anything we needed to dissect for too long.

I'm not terse with everything, though. Certainly not with The Way of Kings.

I realize I'm a little late to the party. Goodreads says it came out in 2010, and it's pretty well-known at this point. People have formed their opinions of it. I thought I did, too, a year ago when I gave up on it early in Part II. Yet here we are.

I'm not gonna summarize too much here. Chances are you already know about this book, or you've at least heard about it. If you haven't, read the publisher's blurb via Goodreads up above, that's about as much as you need.

There are few writers out there who confound me as much as Brandon Sanderson. I admire the hell out of him, I admire the effort he puts into his work, I sure as hell admire his dedication; Mistborn was his 13th novel, and only his second published. This was over the span of only a few years, maybe as much as a decade or so.

I haven't read everything he's put out there. So far, just the first three Mistborn novels, Legion: Skin Deep, and The Way of Kings. I've noticed a few trends he likes putting into his work, which I'll allude to as I get through this post. Not sure where to start, though.

Kings is probably the most Sanderson novel I've read. It's very emblematic of what I like about him, what keeps me reading, and also what I don't enjoy. It's what makes me put the book down for ten, twenty minutes at a time as I argue with myself about a character's choices, or their depiction in the narrative, or some setting detail that stuck out at me.

If nothing else, he makes me think. Though maybe not in the ways he intends.

He's an excellent writer, which is why I'm reading him in the first place. I should hope so, dude's teaching creative writing at BYU. At times, his style can get schlocky, spinning out an obvious idea or emotion by repeating himself with short sentences. Like this. Just like this.

He spends a little too much time detailing his characters' emotions, as if he's not confident that I can sympathize with them.

I'm also not into his dialogue some of the time; it can either be awkward and a little patronizing (Kaladin's philosophical conversations with Syl) or just painful (every time Shallan tries to be witty).

All this is pretty minor, though. He does a great job with setting description (more on that later) and especially fight descriptions; his fights are all very clear, very quick, which is super hard to do.

In terms of worldbuilding, he's easily world-class. One of the best in the business, especially in creating the strange worlds he does. Mistborn and its planet of ash and, uh, mist, and Kings with its hurricanes. I don't think I've seen such a strange planet as Roshar realized so well. He's thought the hell out of it, which makes sense given that he's spent somewhere in the realm of twenty years creating it.

Makes my two years of Salazarre seem like nothing.

Roshar is a place battered constantly by magical hurricanes, such that most of the (super?)continent the story takes place on has evolved to survive it. He gets really into it, like how all the cities are built in the shade of rock formations or chasms. How all the non-human life is crustacean for some reason, and how people get food when they can't just conjure it. He presents it all so matter-of-course that I don't even question the world when he describes it. Of course the trees and grass recede into the ground, why wouldn't they?

I get really inspired by the ways he details the little things about the world, the intricate details that really give a sense of human creativity in the way they define their world. How the main religion praises the symmetry of names, so you have like Kelek or Shallan, either perfectly symmetrical or just one syllable off. How the language has something akin to Chinese characters, and how the nobility uses these characters in their house banners, two characters artistically depicted into a sword and tower or a tower and bull.

It gives the sense that he just had a random idea one day about Roshar, wrote it down, and after compiling them, picked the ones he could really play around with. Really dug deep and figured out how to get as much mileage as he could. Which is the most fun part about worldbuilding, at least to me.

Here's a setting detail I'm not so keen about.

The genders in Kings are segregated. It's much more intricate than the real world, but in a socio-religious way that gives men and women a kind of 'true' separate but equal perception. Men do mostly physical labor: farming, fighting, carpentry, and women do mental: reading, writing, accounting.

Most men actually can't read, though there's some crossover between the two, as medicine and surgery are considered masculine professions.

It's all tied into the major religion of the setting, which is very hierarchical in and of itself. Everything and everyone has its place. Everyone adheres to it, even one character who actually doesn't believe in the religion. It's their way of life, after all.

It's interesting, to say the least, but I feel he goes too far with it. Women aren't allowed to show their non-dominant hands, unless they're wearing a glove or hiding it in an overly-long sleeve. Men, as far as I know, have no similar limitation. All that limits them is not knowing how to read, and there's no big faux-pas that prohibits them; it's just not something they're expected to do, but they can do it if they're in the right career for it or have the means.

It even goes down to the food that they eat, where men eat meat and mostly savory dishes and women eat fruit and mostly sweet dishes.

Which is where he throws me.

I don't like gender segregation. I'm willing to meet Sanderson halfway and I appreciate the ideas he has regarding gender segregation in Kings...but it's still segregation. It's well thought out and he goes at lengths to portray men and women seeing each other as equals, but there's a lot of undercurrents about it that I don't appreciate.

I don't like how only the men fight, and how it's never brought up that women don't do it. I don't like how there aren't any women who want to fight, in a novel that really obsessed with fighting and killing. As if it's like this subconscious thing that a woman would never want to pick up a sword or spear for whatever reason.

I don't like how women have to shield parts of their body, a part that's actually pretty essential to everyday life...for no reason. I don't think he ever explains why women have to do it, it's just a modesty thing. Except it's one that doesn't make any sense to me.

And, you know, I wouldn't mind this so much if there was some meta-reasoning for it. Like if it's meant to lampshade real-world female modesty, and say some things about that. doesn't. It's presented pretty honestly, and never really argued with or deconstructed. It's just something everyone does, and everyone's pretty okay with it. It's another feature of the world, like the Shards or the highstorms.

Gender perceptions are a big deal these days, with a lot of people fighting against roles they have no choice over. You can't choose what genitals you're born with, so you shouldn't be expected to act a certain way because of them.

Except in Roshar, apparently.

There's no social unrest about this system. None at all. No women who want to fight in a world constantly at war, who are always pretty okay at being in more passive roles, no matter how essential to everyday life they might be. Everyone's just dandy about being shunted into these societal roles, with little to no movement between. There aren't any roadblocks to these characters because they aren't written to want anything outside of what their genders demand of them.

I'll be the first to admit that having a fantasy world means you don't have to adhere strictly to modern day societal norms and sociopolitical thought. You get to play around.

But I guess this is where I draw the line. The fact that it's never a problem bothers me, like everyone's forced to act in a very particular way just so Sanderson doesn't have to worry too much about representing both genders in a wide variety of roles. It suits how he believes men and women should act, and I don't agree with it.

Give me a woman with a sword, Sanderson, who's had her life devastated by this world at endless war and who can only find peace in inflicting that pain upon others. God knows you love guys with that shit. And don't relegate your female fighters to mythological angels and paladins, those don't count.

I'm pretty sure one of the recurring characters is a Latino stereotype.

His name is Lopen. He's described as having a really quick manner of speech, his words clipped and falling into themselves, like how a lot of scrappy Latino characters talk. He uses a slang word, 'gancho,' all the time, which sounds like a word someone would think a Hispanic person might say.

It's the only example of a real-world racial stereotype in the setting at all. Pretty much everything else is original, but this particular character just screams 'Latino stereotype' to me. I'm wondering why he's there in the first place.

Sanderson likes throwing references to people he knows in his stories, so that's about the only explanation I have.

It's lazy writing. This character hasn't done anything of significance so far, he just showed up one day and came into the main character's crew. He's one of the 'main' members of that crew, a big help to the protagonist, Kaladin. Another fun personality to flesh them out. Pretty much his only other character trait is that he has one arm, which Sanderson doesn't really do anything with. It's mentioned that he has one arm and can't fight normally, but we never really see him or the characters around him bothered by it, so it's just a background detail.

It's a problem I noticed in his other book, Legion: Skin Deep, where one of the main characters was a wealthy, elderly Korean man who acts like a gangsta, because apparently Sanderson finds that endearing. The character is supposed to be sympathetic because of the 'elderly Korean gangster' juxtaposition. The only purpose the character serves is to be an exposition fairy. We aren't given much backstory of the guy, reasons for his actions, all we're led to believe is important about him is that he's an elderly Korean gangsta rapper.

It's the same thing here. The only thing we're led to believe matters about the character Lopen, other than having one arm, is that he acts like how a white guy would expect a Latino to act.

As a Latino myself, and as someone who cares about how race is used in fiction, fuck that.

I've been a little harsh so far. Let's switch gears for a moment.

I really like the way Sanderson describes his settings. Every scene has a strong sense of place, and for recurring places that we expect to see often, like Kaladin's war camp and Shallan's library, I feel like I know those places. He doesn't even spend much time describing them in the moment, but he always manages to find something new to detail when we revisit it, giving the area that much more life.

I struggle with it in my writing. In The Witch and the Snake, I have the characters spend most of the first half in a small mining city, which I want them to get to know, really developing this place and making it feel lived-in. But I'm not sure how to do that, certainly not with something as big as a city. I have a few set pieces, the inn the characters stay at, the army camp inside the mining quarry, but I don't know how to tie them into the city, making them parts of a larger whole.

My working theory is to describe these places enough, such that the city feels described and lifelike by the end. I don't know how to do that, but I think Sanderson does. He did it with Luthadel in Mistborn, and he's doing it with Kharbranth in Kings. We don't see everything in these cities, but we see enough that they feel like actual cities.

Maybe I just need to add more street and neighborhood names. Maybe it's a problem of characters, I don't have enough to give a wide enough view of life in this city. Maybe it's both.

I'm still trying to figure it out, but there's a lot I can learn from Sanderson in that regard.

On the other hand.

One of the more general problems I have with Sanderson is his characters. He loves using archtypes and reusing them throughout his work, to the point that it's like he plopped an existing character into Roshar and just kept writing him as normal.

Szeth, Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan all feel like the main characters of Mistborn, with some appropriate changes to distinguish them, but still very much in the same mold. As such, that colors their narrative, because their actions feel like the same actions their Mistborn counterparts would make, characters in an entirely different setting who should have different needs.

My favorite character of the novel, Jasnah Kholin, is my favorite in part because she isn't something I've seen Sanderson do much. He's averse to confident women in powerful, influential roles, I've noticed. The only female POV characters I've seen have been shy, introverted, anxious. Vin, Shallan. They're characters in very low places, relatively, and fight to essentially grow up in a system that wants nothing to do with them. One that's fighting against them.

Any powerful women in his stories are essentially either obstacles to be overcome, or villains to defeat. Shan in Mistborn, for example. Jasnah had that vibe to her as well, in the beginning.

To his credit, though, I haven't seen many women in his work serve only as love interests to the males. Usually those love interests are background characters.

I like Jasnah because he at least gives that archtype some depth. He writes Jasnah as not in touch with her emotions, and that makes her hard to talk to. It's nice he actually realizes these powerful women are still people, not these like monoliths that his scrappy girls have to overcome. Jasnah seems like she has some secrets that I kind of want to figure out.

I also just like confident, aristocratic female characters like her in general, so he also happens to be playing into my interests here.

If he wants to reuse characters, that's his choice. But he doesn't do anything unpredictable with them.

Seeing Shallan's story come to its climax didn't do anything for me. I had no sympathy because I saw it coming a mile away, there was nothing surprising or novel for me to feel interested or invested in. I have little sympathy for either her or Kaladin because almost everything they do is so dictated by their character archtype that it doesn't feel like they're making real decisions. It's more like Sanderson's going through the motions of creating characters, having them do things because that's what he thinks fantasy protagonists do in these situations.

No individuality, no cleverness on the part of their personalities. I can compare them easily, on a nearly 1:1 ratio, to other characters of his. It makes their struggles boring because I've seen them play out already. I've seen how he handles these conflicts, and I don't feel much of a need to see it again.

Really, what keeps me invested are the little ways he distinguishes the characters, like Kaladin having what is essentially a fairy companion, or Shallan's delving into lore, which I do legitimately like. Sanderson's always been great with lore, it was one of the few things carrying me through the latter two Mistborn books after Final Empire.

Speaking about fairy companions...

The spren are a neat idea...almost. They're essentially spirits/fairies that manifest with natural forces in the world, so you have like windspren, rainspren, I think there's firespren, things like that. I like the idea of spirits as these sort of extant things in the world, tied to one element and visually distinctive from each other. Adds a neat kind of liveliness to everything, very unique.

Except he goes way too far with it.

You have things like painspren, which congregate around something experiencing pain. Rotspren around infected wounds. Musicspren. Creationspren, when Shallan draws a picture or someone writes a poem. Anticipationspren. It gets ridiculous after a certain point, there seems to be a spren for everything, and it just looks like he's trying way too hard to make these things a major selling point of the world.

He's never consistent with them, either. You'll have characters feeling one strong emotion, but there isn't a spren associated with it for some reason, despite the fact that he just described a different emotion as having an accompanying spren. I never know when to expect them, and it feels random most of the time.

Besides, people often feel more than one emotion at a time, so just limiting it to one spren feels a little lackluster. Not to mention, there's a few specific things that don't have spren for whatever reason. I haven't seen a depressionspren when Kaladin or Shallan are in the depths of despair, or a hungerspren for when the bridge crews are starving. Or any other countless kinds of spren; I have no idea where the boundary's supposed to be.

I've noticed that Sanderson has a lot of slavery in his work. If not outright slavery, then a strictly mandated lower class that is essentially the same thing, ala the skaa of Mistborn.

Now, I understand that slavery's existed since the dawn of civilization, and it persists even in the modern day. It says something about humanity that we continue to practice it. Sanderson isn't necessarily promoting slavery by including it in his novels, and he certainly isn't saying that a particular race are 'meant' to be a slave race.

But I don't think you have to have slavery in a fantasy world. Including it might be more realistic, given the expected social norms of a classical/medieval/Renaissance/etc. setting, but it's also a fantasy world. You get to have magic and fantastic creatures, different worlds and actual, interactive deities, couldn't you also just fudge it and have people realize 'hey, slavery kind of sucks, let's not do that' at some point? Couldn't you justify a world with more modern sensibilities and representation, even if it's technology is a little backwards?

Pretty sure that's the whole point of -punk movement? Steampunk, dieselpunk, cyberpunk, etc.

I plan to write an entire blog post about this sometime, but I don't buy that you have to include these pretty horrible traits about humanity just to make your world more 'authentic.' Pretty sure you can give that authenticity with characters we see ourselves recognizing, or developing a world that is interesting in different ways than how it subjugates certain people.

Now, this kind of flies in the face of what I was saying earlier, I didn't like how Sanderson added gender segregation to Roshar, to make the world more distinct from our own and to give women a more relative kind of equality. It's arguably a good thing if it gives them equality, right? It's not slavery, after all.

Well...not really. It's equality through limitation. The genders are equal because they're limited in what their genders allow them to do, it just so happens that these limitations are very complementary toward each other. Like slavery, it lessens their individual freedoms.

It's just another chain, no matter how many times he tells us that it isn't.

I promise I'm almost done.

I've never liked how Sanderson glorifies combat. Mistborn was especially bad, with Vin and Elend's half-brother whose name escapes me essentially murdering dozens of innocent guards, with absolutely no moral or legal repercussions. The third book has Elend killing hundreds of the mostly-sentient koloss just because he feels sad. That's it. That's the only reason. And I'm supposed to sympathize with him?

It's horribly unnecessary. Kings is definitely better in that regard, there's even a character who realizes that mass killing probably isn't a good thing. He's got some interesting justifications for it, as well, though explaining them would be spoilery. Suffice to say, towards the end of the novel, some of the characters realize that their entire world's constantly at war, and that's actually rather unnatural.

It remains to be seen where he goes with it, though he could do some really cool, sneaky things. Throughout the novel, Kaladin keeps realizing that the feeling of a spear in his hands is just so right to him, which I kind of think is bullshit. Except, if it's influenced by this particular spoiler, it becomes an interesting reasoning for why so many fantasy protagonists love fighting and killing, sometimes to unrealistic extremes.

He could also go the opposite way and free his characters of any guilt or moral implications because hey, it wasn't technically their fault, right?

Protagonists overly fond of fighting and killing isn't something I like much, and by no means am I judging Sanderson for having it. He's no 'worse' than anyone else who does this, he's just the most relevant example to this blog post.

I think he has the possibility to do something interesting with this reveal, and I hope he'll follow through in the ways I'm hoping. Readers of the novel hopefully already know what I'm talking about, but if not, I'll let you know privately.

So that's it. Those are my thoughts on The Way of Kings. Over four thousand words. The first draft took a few days just to hash out.

It has a lot of good and bad things, both intertwined enough that I can't find myself saying I enjoyed it, but I also can't say it was a waste of my time, either. It's emblematic of what fantasy is these days, adhering to both positive and negative stereotypes of epic fantasy, and also reinforces what I want, and what I don't want, in my own fantasy writing.

Do I recommend it? That depends. I can't give a general recommendation, because I know my expectations and likes are different than other people's. Chances are if you've read this far, that's been made more than apparent. There's a lot I like about this book, a lot I don't. The parts I don't might be insignificant to you, or might be even more important than they are to me.

So really, my recommendation is look at the publisher's blurb. Read a few other reviews, see if they grab you. See if you have people who would want to discuss it (I sure will!). Read it if you'd like, or don't.

As for me, I'm only halfway through. And I suppose that says something about me, and about Sanderson's work, that I'm gonna read another thousand pages of it.

Let's rock, Words of Radiance.

You can find Brandon at his website.

EDIT (03/13/2019): I didn't read another thousand pages. I got about 10% into Words of Radiance before dropping it. My favorite character died, and I realized I didn't care enough about the others to see what happened to them. So we have that.