REVIEW: THE WAY OF KINGS (THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE #1)
Stormfather, this was good!...
I've wanted to get into Brandon Sanderson's STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE for a while now, but found myself very intimidated by the size of these novels (which tend to come in at a massive 1,000 pages each). Finally, I decided to try to give the audiobook a try even though I haven't had much success with that format before.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 This absolute tome of a book delivers on some amazing character arcs and an intriguing through line that takes a bit longer to develop than I would have wanted it to, but still offered an enjoyable adventure with tons of great world building.
The characters are really what take center stage in this sweeping epic fantasy. There aren't an overwhelming number of them, but there are several key perspectives that the main story is told from as well as numerous side characters within each arc. In addition to all of that, the book features a number of preludes and interludes that are told from entirely different perspectives though only one of them really seems to play a part in the final act. Kalladin, Shallan, and Dalinar all made for compelling protagonists in their own ways. I very much enjoyed getting to know them and discover what makes them extraordinary. I also really liked Szeth a lot although he doesn't get quite at much page time as the rest of the cast. Members of the supporting cast are varied and sometimes just as interesting as the main cast with Jasnah and Wit being particular standouts for me.
In Sanderson's typical fashion, these characters are all very deeply flawed, but are still good people at their core. I think this balance between people who want to do good but sometimes make mistakes or simply get bogged down by their own flaws makes them feel so genuine and so easy to route for. Even the "bad guys" often seem to just be people who think they are doing what's best which makes for a nuanced sort of characterization that doesn't indulge in cynicism.
Another major facet of this story is the fantastical world of Roshar that the events take place in. I was surprised by how alien it ended up being. The geography, the animal life, the fauna, non-human peoples, and even the races of humans in this world all felt distinctly different from anything I had ever read before which gave this an awesome blend of science fiction and fantasy even though the Rosharans are in a decidedly medieval period. Exploring this world is part of the joy of reading through the book, so I don't want to go into details, but the various kingdoms and locations visited all felt very alive and the mysterious "high storms" alongside the different varieties of "spren" offered a more celestial level of intrigue. While Sanderson does not strike me as a particularly religious or political person, I do think he is very good at crafting interesting belief systems and social structures. These elements went a long way towards making this world feel authentic in spite of it being so alien. The idea of social status being not only based on wealth but also eye color was quite fascinating as well and I enjoyed linguistic touches that were used like using "Brightness" as a term of reverence and subservience to someone of a higher station.
As per usual, the magic in Sanderson's work is always very intricate and detailed with clear limits set on what is or isn't possible at any given moment. Those familiar with the MISTBORN trilogy will know what I am talking about, but I would say the magic is handled with a bit more mystery than in the MISTBORN universe. While the prologue(s) might make it seem like the magic will be painstakingly detailed throughout, it's actually very slowly detailed after Szeth's action-packed intro sequence. There's definitely still a "hard magic" system at play, it just feels a little softer than in some of Sanderson's other works because many of the rules aren't immediately laid out. I also liked that the magic extended to more than just the inherent abilities of human beings, largely in the form of "fabrials" which have different functions and allow for this otherwise medieval world to have some semblance of technological advancement.
As much as I deeply enjoyed spending so much time getting to know all the characters and intimately understand them, I am definitely a plot-driven reader more so than a character-driven reader. There were multiple times where I wanted more action and more story and I think this is the one thing that holds this novel back for me. Realistically, this is probably not a book I would have picked up in the first place, but I have read enough Sanderson at this point where I trusted him to weave a satisfying web of characters, worldbuilding, and conflict. I felt as though he had a better balance of these elements in other works, but I have no regrets about reading through this (mostly on audiobook) and am excited to start the next installment in the series. One last gripe I had was that the ending of this book felt like a very clear lead-in to the next. I think the main arcs are all wrapped up in a satisfying way, but there are a series of big reveals right at the end of the story that bordered on being cliffhanger material (in reality, it was more like watching a finale for a television show where the writers want to keep you hooked for the next season).
I read through this via both the Kindle and Audible editions, though I primarily stuck to the audio format. As someone who's never been a huge fan of audiobooks, I have to say that I really enjoyed this one. I thought it was very cool that there are actually two narrators and I appreciated how they dramatized the dialogue, even going as far as making distinct voices and accents for some of the characters. I felt like this enriched my experience with this book and I thought that Sanderson's style actually lent itself really well to the audio format. The one thing that I somewhat missed out on was that the eBook came with some illustrations and other graphics. I was able to go back and look at them in retrospect, of course, but it's something to consider if you like seeing that kind of thing in the moment.
While I found that this book really challenged my strong plot-driven preferences, I still happily carried on to the end because of Sanderson's masterful characters and intricate plotting (most of which doesn't manifest fully until the end). I've generally steered away from epic fantasy for how large books in this subgenre tend to be and it honestly did take me about two months to read through this, even on audiobook, but I don't regret the time spent at all. I am excited to continue this series, though I am hoping that more of the storyline gets balanced in with all the character development in the next installments.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as your first introduction to Sanderson unless you are a very advanced reader in the epic fantasy subgenre (if you're not sure what that is, I'd class it as a sweeping, intricate story that takes place across multiple parts of a wholly fantasy world, has a large cast of characters that the POV often switches between, and tend to run at a high page count, BUT, I am no expert on this). If you are just looking to give Sanderson a try and are not an avid reader of series like THE WHEEL OF TIME, then I would consider trying Sanderson's original MISTBORN trilogy since that offers a much tighter reading experience and the trilogy itself is kind of a nice "training" of sorts for THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, since the scope of the narrative scales over the course of those books and there are a greater number of POVs used as the series goes on. If you are already a big fan of Sanderson and/or epic fantasy, then definitely dive on in, especially if you are a character-driven reader. If you're like me and just intimidated by the sheer size of this book, then definitely go with the audio book as I think that will make it far more manageable.