a review by Nalini Haynes
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is written with the initial focus on 3 main characters, Szeth, Kaladin and Shallan. Each of these characters is like a pebble thrown into a lake, sending out ripples into the world. As the ripples extend beyond the initial impact of these characters, the story grows, weaving in new characters and expanding the focus of the story.
Szeth is the assassin in white who murders King Gavilar, starting a war with the Parshendi. The ripples from this action encompass the extended family of the king and his court, as we follow Dalinar, Gavilar’s brother, Adolin, Dalinar’s eldest son, Elhokar, Gavilar’s son and the new king. Dalinar struggles with court intrigue whilst feeling increasingly bound by the Codes, a code of honour that is seen as out of date or irrelevant for a ‘modern’ era. Adolin is the charming rake whose dalliances are cause for gossip, who cares for his father but convinces his father that Dalinar is going mad. Elhokar is paranoid that he, too, will be assassinated, which makes him a weak and vulnerable king.
Kaladin is the individual most closely followed through the book. Kaladin began as assistant surgeon to his father, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps until spite causes the city leader to force Kaladin’s younger brother Tein into the army. Kaladin follows his brother into the army in an attempt to protect him, but fails. Kaladin tries and fails to protect others whilst struggling against apathy. Eventually Kaladin intends to commit suicide, but is challenged by a spren, a spirit, to try one more time. This final attempt to protect others has far reaching consequences, leading into a dramatic climax and life changing aftermath.
Shallan is a young woman who has led a very sheltered life up until the death of her father. Shallan then sets out on an audacious mission, to become ward to a princess so she can steal a valuable artefact that can convert matter, thus restoring Shallan’s family’s fortune. Shallan is tested time and again during her mission until her success is close. An assassination attempt changes everything for Shallan, and reveals shocking new truths.
Sanderson has developed a huge, complex world with a number of cultures, religion and even an ecology that shows great creative talent. Cultural dress is described for particular people groups that also varies for rank. Religious beliefs vary across people groups but there is a dominant religion that requires women of high rank to conceal their left ‘safe’ hands inside their sleeves, whilst women of lower rank or in cross cultural situations wear gloves on their ‘safehands’. In contrast, courtesans expose their safehands, which is considered to be provocative. Plants usually retract to protect themselves from being walked on or from storms. Symbiotic life forms are described in intriguing detail. Creatures reminiscent of giant hermit crabs inside their shells are used as beasts of burden.
Sanderson uses Dalinar’s struggles with his sanity and Shallan’s training to become a scholar to delve into matters of philosophy not as lecture but as character development. Their struggles are real, their engagement with issues are very real, making their conclusions feel like victories or ongoing dilemmas. As a reader we are not being converted or lectured, we are participating in their journey.
This book is a must read. When the lists are written, this book will be up there with Lord of the Rings. However, this book is not for the faint hearted reader, as it has 1001 pages. There are a number of illustrations of various styles, meant to be works of various persons mentioned in the story. This book should be published as a hardcover with full colour plates; if so, it would be a real collector’s treasure. As it is, with the illustrations and the beautiful paper upon which it was printed, it was a delight to begin reading, revealing a compelling story that was difficult to put down.
This review was previously published in Dark Matter issue 1, October 2010, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.