The OF Blog: Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Monday, August 30, 2010

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Ever since 2005, when his first epic fantasy novel, Elantris, was released, Brandon Sanderson has been one of the more prolific authors, with three YA novels, the (for the moment) standalone Warbreaker, the Mistborn trilogy, and now the beginning of a planned ten-volume The Stormlight Archive series, The Way of Kings, not to mention his work completing the final three volumes of the late Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time.  In previous commentaries on the Mistborn novels (linked to above), I spent some time praising Sanderson for some of his narrative choices, as well as noting a few perceived deficiencies in his writing, namely that of character interactions and dialogue, although I also noted that each of those novels showed a distinct improvement over what I found to be atrocious dialogue in Elantris.  When I began reading his most ambitious work to date, The Way of Kings, I was curious to see if Sanderson had continued to improve as a writer and as a storyteller.  For the most part, The Way of Kings continues to show Sanderson's development as a writer, although there are a few qualms that I have about the story itself.

The Way of Kings follows three distinct storylines, which until the end of this sprawling novel stay separate.  There is a conflicted old warrior storyline for Dalinar, as he begins to dream of conflicts four millennia in the past that contain elements that run counter to everything that he has believed in and fought for his entire life.  A second subplot is devoted to Kaladin, who is shown in both the "present" and in flashbacks several years before.  He dreams to be a surgeon, but ends up being a slave forced to participate in the most dangerous tasks in a near-perpetual war, that of pushing bridge across narrow chasms so the military forces of his slavers can cross to attack their non-human enemies.  The third plotline deals with Shallan, a daughter of an impoverished noble house who tries to dupe a sorceress and instead learns some secrets that threaten to overturn long-held beliefs.  Unlike his previous solo efforts, where the majority of each novel was devoted to a single character arc, this tripartite division means that the setting and the characters' interactions with the the realm of Roshar are much more complex than anything seen in Sanderson's earlier work.

Speaking of Roshar, it is obvious that Sanderson has devoted a lot of time and energy to creating a fully-realized setting.  There are a plethora of cultures, at least two magic systems on display (that of the Shardblades/Stormlight and Soulcasting), and a look at this burgeoning conflict between the fractured kingdom of Alethkar and the non-human Parshendi.  Unlike his previous novels, where there was a penchant to just dump everything out into the open and subject the reader to a series of infodumps to explain what is occurring, Sanderson displays a restraint here that serves to accentuate the moments of "magic" when they occur.  Sometimes, the better epic fantasies are all about the characters and their interactions with their settings rather than about the settings and those characters placed within them in order to have an excuse for showing off these settings.  As curious as the Roshar setting may be for those "worldbuilding" junkies who want to soak up the setting and its constructed powers, The Way of Kings succeeds as an opening volume because of the better-developed situations that these three main protagonists find themselves in.

Years ago on a now-deleted thread on Westeros, Sanderson and I had a discussion about his writing and what I perceived to be flaws in his approach toward developing the characters in Elantris.  I recall Sanderson mentioning that he is more of a prose minimalist, desiring to have the plot and action fill in the "gaps" left by the paucity of description and the brevity of character dialogue.  It was a very productive discussion, one that helped me understand some of what he was attempting to do with his fiction, but it does bear noting that Sanderson has improved on utilizing vignettes to develop his characters.  One particular scene struck me as being representative of Sanderson's progress.  Here Dalinar is talking with his dead brother's widow, a woman he had loved before his brother had discovered her:

Her hand was still on his arm.  She reached out with her safehand and closed the door to the hallway.  He almost stopped her, but he hesitated.  Why?

The door clicked closed.  They were alone.  And she was so beautiful.  Those clever, excitable eyes, alight with passion.

"Navani," Dalinar said, forcing down his desire.  "You're doing it again."  Why did he let her?

"Yes, I am," she said.  "I'm a stubborn woman, Dalinar."  There didn't seem to be any playfulness in her tone.

"This is not proper.  My brother..." He reached for the door to open it again.

"Your brother," Navani spat, expression flashing with anger.  "Why must everyone always focus on him?  Everyone always worries so much about the man who died!  He's not here, Dalinar.  He's gone.  I miss him.  But not half as much as you do, it appears."

"I honor his memory," Dalinar said stiffly, hesitating, hand on the door's latch.

"That's fine!  I'm happy you do.  But it's been six years, and all anyone can see me as is the wife of a dead man.  The other women, they humor me with idle gossip, but they won't let me into their political circles.  They think I'm a relic.  You wanted to know why I came back so quickly?"

"I - "

"I returned,"  she said, "because I have no home.  I'm expected to sit out of important events because my husband is dead!  Lounge around, pampered but ignored.  I make them uncomfortable.  The queen, the other women at court."

"I'm sorry," Dalinar said.  "But I don't - "

She raised her freehand, tapping him on the chest.  "I won't take it from you, Dalinar.  We were friends before I even met Gavilar!  You still know me as me, not some shadow of a dynasty that crumbled years ago.  Don't you?"  She looked at him, pleading.

Blood of my fathers, Dalinar thought with shock.  She's crying.  Two small tears.

He had rarely seen her so sincere.

And so he kissed her. (pp. 861-862)

This scene illustrates Sanderson's development nicely.  Whereas in earlier novels he might have had this just in dialogue and not inserted those small, subtle paralingual clues as to the characters' conflicted emotions, here in The Way of Kings he utilizes them to add depth to the characters.  No longer do the characters feel as though they are sketchy figures blurting out lines that ring hollow because of the lack of character development and scene "color."  The characters on the whole here display a "maturity" of development that was largely lacking in Sanderson's earlier stories and the three main plot arcs benefit tremendously here from this improvement in character sketching and development.

This is not to say that there are not weaknesses in The Way of Kings.  Due to the tripartite plot arcs, these arcs sometimes take hundreds of pages to develop toward anything approaching action.  Each requires its own setting and character development and as a result of the scene switching that takes place every few chapters, the narrative flow at times can feel a bit sluggish, particularly for the first half of this 1000 page novel.  This, however, is largely unavoidable due to the nature of the story and by the 3/4 mark, there is a lot more plot and character movement that makes for a comparatively faster-paced conclusion.  Although considering that this is an opening to a planned ten volume series, perhaps "conclusion" is not the best of words, as there are several intriguing developments that await further exposition and development in future volumes.  In addition, as improved as the characterizations are as a whole, there were still a few places where the character depictions felt a bit false.  I particularly noticed this with Kaladin's arc, as a few of his comments and reactions to events felt a bit too shallow and unsuitable for his character.  Perhaps Sanderson was aiming for more of a Spartacus or Ben-Hur vibe with his "well-to-do youth falls captive, is enslaved, and manages to rise up to fight for dignity" approach to Kaladin's character, but I was unconvinced a few of the times that Kaladin had interactions with others outside of his troop.  There was nothing spectacularly "wrong" with those few scenes, but rather this vague sense that something was "off" in the character and his interactions with his former "superiors."

The Way of Kings is a good, solid epic fantasy opener.  It will not wow its readers with spectacular battle scenes nor with its roguish characters, for that is not the intent of the tale.  It is a fine example of a conventional epic fantasy tale of discovery,  with characters becoming more aware of themselves and their environs.  It does not aim to be anything more than a well-told narrative and for the most part, it succeeds at reminding its readers of the better epic fantasies of the past thirty years or so.  Sometimes, all one wants to read is just a non-experimental tale that presents its conventional elements in an attractive format.  The Way of Kings succeeds at that and it will be an enjoyable read for those readers who desire a well-written "more of the same" rather than something completely novel to them.

P.S.  That is not a limited-edition cover for the novel.  It is a tribute to the sadly-deleted former Amazon page for the book, created years ago due to a miscommunication.  The fake reviews were a riot, and I preserved two here.

8 comments:

Matt Denault said...

Your comments on the characterization are interesting. Sanderson has always received some criticism in past works for telling rather than showing when it came to character--and indeed in that Westeros thread you mention, I remember he wrote about doing this intentionally. I suppose unsurprisingly then, I see that's still the case here. If Dalinar reaches for a just-closed door, do we truly need to be told he reaches to open it again? If Navani spits out a phrase, do we need to be told she is angry? If Navani pleads with Dalinar, do we need to be told that she looked at him pleadingly? If Dalinar mentally utters a surprised oath due to a rarity, do we need to be told he does so in shock? No wonder the book is 1,000 pages.

In other words, I have the opposite reaction as you did to the "small, subtle paralingual clues": they don't strike me as resulting in something I'd call "well-written." It isn't that they're a bad idea in theory, it's that Sanderson appears to use them in a way that, rather than adding shadings of character to the storytelling by modifying what the story has already shown us, instead just reinforces the most basic elements of characterization we've been shown. The angry character is angry, the pleading character pleads, the hesitating character hesitates. At each point there's a singular element of characterization that gets put in boldface by the redundancy. Likewise emotions and gestures tend to be basic and blunt, yet vague and imprecise: Dalinar is shocked rather than merely surprised; Navani raises her hand and then (note: not simultaneously, as is implied by the grammar) taps Dalinar on the chest--with what, her whole hand? (And had her other hand, that had been on his arm at the start of this passage, remained there unremarkably through her whole angry speech, his reaching toward the door?) For me at least, this lack of human nuance in the details tends to result in characters that read as rather cartoonishly flat; like watching a B-movie in which actors who haven't fully inhabited their characters are quite earnestly overacting to compensate.

This isn't to say that Sanderson doesn't have many fine qualities as a storyteller, and I like the idea that here he's given himself space to slowly reveal his latest creation rather than going the infodump route. But I don't know if this is the book that will silence the critics of his writing; not all of them, at any rate. Cheers.

Chad Hull said...

I've joked with friends about a super wussy weight cagematch to the death featuring literature's most insubstantial characters as created by John Grisham and Brandon Sanderson. Having said that your commentary here has done more to sway me to the book than any other I've read.

Character development and improved dialogue over Elantris is good to hear. And if the plot continually moves forward toward some recognizable 'endgame' ( something I didn't feel was readily happening in Mistborn; rather there were long stream of conciseness passages of "Let me tell you about some stuff..." ) then the only thing that scares me is the need for ten books; which for reasons that are beyond me just seem to be the way of fantasy.

Matt, I'm curious and not trying to pick a fight, but have you read the whole book or just the quoted section in the review?

Larry said...

Matt,

If I still had a copy of Elantris, I would have quoted from it as a counter-example. Sanderson still needs to develop his characterizations and dialogue more, but compared to the interactions between the two main leads in that novel, the scene I quoted here was better in many regards. Improvement doesn't mean perfection and if you read what I said toward the beginning, I'm just acknowledging that he's improved to the level of most epic fantasists these days. Read into that what you will.

Chad,

There are still problem areas in regards to how the plot develops. I'm being charitable in some places because it is an opening volume and I was left curious enough by the end to want to read the second. Some of what you note still happens, but is just fewer in number than in his previous works.

redhead said...

Larry,

I've read a handful of reviews for The Way of Kings, and so far yours in the only one that's got me at all insterested in reading this book. Flaws aside, I really appreciated that you noted how Sanderson has evolved over the years. When I find an author I like, I try to read everything by them, and it's always interesting to see how they change (hopefully improve!) over the years.

Larry said...

Glad it was of some help to you. I rarely ever have effusive praise for a book and that certainly was not the case here, but finding some enjoyment and relating it is better than hyping it up, as I've seen in some reviews as well.

Matt Denault said...

Chad, no worries. I have read a couple of the introductory chapters posted on tor.com (and have read Sanderson's other works of adult fantasy, so am familiar with his past methods of characterization), but no, I have not read all or even most of WoK. My comments should not be taken as by someone who has read the whole book. My feeling was that if Larry selected this extract as representative, and indeed as highlighting the improvement in characterization he saw, then its qualities made for an appropriate point of discussion here. But I was trying to engage with his conception of "well written"--trying to see how much overlap there was with my own tastes--more than making any definitive statement about the book itself.

Larry, Elantris was definitely differently written--I know what you mean there--but I'm not sure this, at least as exemplified by the extract you chose, is really better writing in any way other than personal preference for one set of flaws over another. So be it. I do appreciate you providing such an extract to judge by; not to mention appreciating in general how careful one has to be when reviewing a first volume of what you know will be a long series.

Larry said...

Yeah, it's personal preference in one regard to his writing. Mind you, when I say "better" or "improved" here, I am thinking only in regard to his earlier fictions and am not making qualitative comments comparing this book to my favorite authors, or to the ones that'll make my year-end list. WoK is better, but it's far from being discussed in those December posts I have planned.

Anonymous said...

Like most, I first heard Sanderson's name when he was announced as the completer of the Wheel of Time. Effusive praise was lavished but it seemed his ability to churn out novels quickly was the main draw, which surprised me. The claim by Harriet (RJ's widow) that she found Sanderson's work so impressive is in retrospect pretty suspect.

In any event, I read Elantris to see what he was about and found it competent, but not much more. The reviews for the Mistborn trilogy seemed so positive I thought I'd give him one more shot, so I picked up the first of that series. I actively disliked it and didn't bother completing the series, the first time I haven't done that in a long time. I just didn't care what happened to the characters, at all.

So consider my surprise yet again upon reading Gathering Storm. I thought it was great, better than the last several RJ WoT books. Maybe GS was mostly written by RJ before he passed, maybe Sanderson had greatly improved again, who knows, but it was really good. Whatever the cause, Sanderson is somewhat redeemed in my eyes and I do look forward to reading tWoK, but my expectations are of course tempered by my past experiences with his writing.

After what GRRM and Erikson have done to the genre in the past decade, I approach all new fantasy with trepidation as the bar has not simply been raised by their efforts, it has been elevated to heights behind the reach of the majority of fantasy authors currently writing.

 
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