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?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.
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 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.