I had the opportunity to read an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of a book a lot of people out there probably want to get their hands on, and I thought, "Hey! Here's a chance to review something in a timely fashion." So I read through all 1000 pages of said book, and I'm here today to review it for you. Aren't you lucky?
What is it?
It's the first book in a planned ten (count 'em, ten) book epic fantasy by Brandon Sanderson, fantasy author extraordinaire. He's well known for his Mistborn series, and much better known for being that guy who's finishing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. (The next book's out in November, folks! Excited much?) This isn't just any ol' epic fantasy series, either. The back of the ARC says "What Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time has been to the fantasy genre for the last two decades, The Stormlight Archives (the name of the series) will be to the next." And while Sanderson persuaded Tor to keep that wording off the final, published book, any which way you look at it, the gauntlet was thrown. Sure, some of it could be an attempt at hype, but the thing about hype is that sooner or later, you can evaluate for yourself whether it's earned or not.
I'm here to tell you that in this case, the hype is earned.
I still vividly remember seeing Jordan's Eye of the World on the shelf at the library for the first time. I was at an age where I was choosing what to read based on book thickness alone. If it was really long and heavy, and it had something remotely related to fantasy on the cover, I checked it out and read it, usually three of those a week. Jordan's book stood head and shoulders above the other stuff I was reading. It was long, but fast paced. It had fantastic characters, and even though it was the first book in a series, it had a distinct beginning, middle and end. It was a series started with an entirety in mind, and it's gone on to be the most successful fantasy series in the past two decades. It's been mimicked many times in many different ways. It redefined the genre.
For The Way of Kings to do that, it was going to have to break new ground--not just traipse along in the wake of other books. That's just what it did.
The book tells three separate stories. There's Dalinar and his son Adolin, two nobles embroiled in a six-year old war. There's Shallan, a young woman who's doing her best to save her family from ruin. There's Kaladin, the one-time war hero and current slave, battling inner demons. These are roles we've seen before in fantasy, yes, but Sanderson breathes new life into them. They're full-fleshed characters, each very well done. My personal favorite was Kaladin, and it's his storyline that takes the bulk of the book. I'd delve into more of the plot, but I read it spoiler-free, and I'd like to give you the chance to get to know it that way, too.
For me, what really made this book stand out from the crowd was the world-building. Most fantasies these days share fairly similar settings. Yes, they each of some funky animals and strange demons or mythical beasts, but the technology level's usually about the same (fairly primitive), the cities all feel like they're out of medieval Europe, and the various climates are all very Earth-based.
Sanderson's world feels more like something from a science-fiction book. It's a world ravaged by regular super-storms. Storms so strong they can pick up boulders and hurl them through the air. Storms that have had a huge effect on the ecosystem of the planet. For example, they have something they refer to as grass, but it's far different from the green stuff we know. This grass is more of a living creature, able to suck itself into the ground when danger appears, then emerge again once it's gone. And that's just one example. The animals are also almost wholly different and alien: more like land-crustaceans than mammals. It's hard to describe this just right, but it feels very natural in the book. Sanderson came up with a unique, new world, and it plays a very big role in the story.
Technology plays a role in the setting, as well. The world has scientists devoting themselves to the study of magic, putting it to new uses that have a very steam-punk feel. These people don't view themselves as primitives: they look at their lives in much the same way we do, feeling like they're living at the best of times, where technology has developed far enough to make their lives easier and give them hope for continual new developments in the future.
Another way the book stands out is in its art work. Full color maps appear in the front and end flap, each chapter gets its own illustration (similar to the beginning illustrations that start each chapter in The Wheel of Time). More fully drawn maps dot the text itself, accompanied by pages of illustrations of the various creatures and items that appear in the book. No expense was spared on the development of this novel, and it shows. You get more than your money's worth from this one. Three separate interior artists in addition to the cover artist. When's the last time you saw that in an epic fantasy? Have you ever? I haven't.
Was there anything I didn't like? Well, as the first book of a ten book series, it doesn't exactly hurl you into the full climax right off, but that's to be expected. The book has plenty of action and plot turns, but at the end of the day, it's still the first step in a long journey. It has a lot of promise for things to come, but it pays you in full upfront, too. Does that make sense? Better yet, the book's written by a man who's proven he can keep up the pace of a huge epic. Sanderson is a prolific writer. He churns out words like a machine, and he's devoted to his craft. He has a very transparent writing process, willing to communicate with his fans extensively through his Facebook and Twitter accounts and his blog. I'm not worried that we'll go through three or four (or five!) year droughts between books with him. He's not just a fantasy author, he's a fan, and he knows how frustrating that can get. So while I approach many fantasy books with caution (10 books? Really?) I don't feel that way about this one.
My only other frustration came from something typical to epic fantasy: with three separate stories to tell, I'd have to leave one plot and go to another after each chapter. Of course, I think it's a great sign when I'm upset the chapter ends--each time. There wasn't a plot line that I didn't look forward to reading. I'd get into one, then be disappointed when it ended and a new one started, but I was disappointed again when that new one ended and I got back to the old one.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can give the book is that I spent most of my Saturday reading it. I think I blazed through the last 750 pages in a day, and it's been years since I read that much that fast. In fact, the last time I remember doing it was with Robert Jordan.
The Way of Kings launches tonight at midnight. If you're a fan of epic fantasy, you owe it to yourself to buy it ASAP.