Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings is boring. There, I said it. No one else had the guts to. I have mixed feelings about Brandon Sanderson. On the one hand he took The Wheel of Time, a series which Robert Jordan had, until his death, been pointlessly spinning out for books upon books with overcomplicated plots, excessive characters and increasingly turgid prose, and turned it into something punchy, energetic and reinvigorated while still maintaining the original style. His own writing, on the other hand, possibly leaves something to be desired. I've read four Sanderson fantasy novels now, the three volumes of the Mistborn trilogy and The Way of Kings, the first and so far only item of an alleged ten-volume series. Mistborn was a trilogy which started reasonably strongly, only for Sanderson to kill off his most interesting character and over the remaining two novels explain some of the mystery and create a haunting apocalyptic scenario with almost every main character dying only to handwave it away by having one of the survivors literally become a god and set everything right. It seems a little inconsistent of Sandy, who loves to resolve the seemingly unwinnable scenario. Spoilers will abound for The Way of Kings in this review as well, by the way, so if you haven't read it and intend to then be warned, although you should also be warned that this novel doesn't match the hype and you might want to reconsider investing in the reading time.
I picked up The Way of Kings because people have been going on about it like the absolute blazes and it was meant to be the next best thing ever after Tolkien and Oporto chicken burgers, although practically all Fantasy is described that way these days, be it this or A Game of Thrones, which I haven't read but is being bandied about alot, or The Name of the Wind, which actually managed to live up to most of its reputation. The problem with The Way of Kings, though, as I already stated, is that it's boring. I can't sugar coat it. It comes in at a whopping one thousand pages and it's meant to be the first of ten volumes. I suggest you think about that for a second. Consider the one they're all compared to, The Lord of the Rings, where in the space of a single book (it's not a trilogy remember) and a thousand pages Tolkien composed a timeless classic which ran all the way from beginning to end and was still incredibly rich and complex. It's considered trite these days but in my opinion Tolkien is easily the best Fantasy author. Sometimes I think he's the only good Fantasy author. Sometimes I think since he accidentally more or less created the genre his work doesn't have to be labelled as Fantasy. Regardless, his is the master work. No one will ever top it. No one will ever have the subtlety and simple aestheticism of language, the sheer depth of backstory or the same totally genuine narrative and characters. It's not a criticism of other Fantasy authors, it's just a fact. So people really shouldn't talk about novels like The Way of Kings as being the next best Tolkien sort of thing, a labelled equally misapplied to The Wheel of Time. The Lord of the Rings is on a completely different plane to The Way of Kings.
"Grey" is how I would describe the novel. Sanderson presents to us the world of Roshar, a rocky and windswept landscape constantly buffeted by huge tempests called "highstorms". There are humans and horses but other than that the flora and fauna are virtually unrecognisable. Lots of emotions and situations have "spren" associated with them, insubstantial sprites which manifest in the air if you're feeling certain things or certain kinds of weather are occurring and so on. This is kind of interesting with ones like flamespren and fearspren at the beginning because it gives evidence to people's feelings and conditions and stuff but when there are abstractions personified as well like "gloryspren" and "honourspren" it just becomes weird. Hopefully this is explained eventually, as is having men and horses in with this weirdness because if not it makes the entire setting seem weak and inconsistent. He also presents us a society where people with brown eyes are the lower class and people with other colours are the aristocracy. Men do practical work while women are universally scholars and artists and are the only literate members of society. There's a weird energy called 'stormlight' which powers devices including a sort of power-armour called Shardplate. The Kingdom of Alethkar are fighting a war of vengeance against some non-human people called the Parshendi over the death of their previous king. A number of other nations are named and identified on maps but only a few are visited, and all but one fleetingly, in the course of the narrative. There's a lot of implied history about people called the Knights Radiant and a time when apparent nasties called the Voidbringers wanted to kill everyone. You can tell Sanderson's figured out a pretty detailed world with a variety of different cultures, and if anything the cultures and geography vary a bit from your standard 'Europe by any other name' setting, although the people of Alethkar, the Alethi, don't exactly push too many envelopes away from a reasonably textbook pseudo-medieval European template of feudal politics and general social organisation. The sense of originality is also hampered somewhat by the presence of the Vorin religion, a sort of straw-man Catholicism of the kind delightful hacks like David Eddings were always eager to employ. Nonetheless things feel fresh, although the image of this entirely gloomy, overcast, desolate world is a little uninspiring at times, and maybe it's meant to be but the lack of variety is a little unhelpful. Even Kharbranth, where the secondary plot takes place, feels a bit insubstantial at times even though it's meant to be a wondrous "city of bells".
So into this setting Sanderson plops roughly four important characters and a few others who get a little attention in side passages, sort of like the maid and the butler in a stately home. The problem with them is that Sanderson's third-person narrators are almost universally of the brooding and introspective sort, who spend paragraphs and pages internally analysing their emotions and behaviour rather than presenting them through their actions. This was a problem equally true of the Mistborn series. Sanderson seems to like to roughly divide the majority of his chapters between brooding and action, and this contributes to a lack of pace and a sense of repetitiveness. Too much brooding, and you know you're about to get a long fight scene. If a fight scene's been dragging on, you know you're up for some brooding next. Sometimes characters brood while fighting, or between fights, and very little is given over to the exposition, which is usually the interesting part. Not enough time is devoted to dialogue either, which can sometimes be more engaging than the action and brooding as well. It feels like an application of the "tell don't show" philosophy and while some people might think it makes the characters well-developed to me they were shadowy and indistinct. Critic Richard Jenkyns once semi-famously described the characters of The Lord of the Rings as "anemic, and lacking in fibre", and while I certainly don't agree about that text it fits so perfectly for Sanderson's novel that I had to mention it here. His characters are rather dull and the conversations are often stilted, awkwardly phrased, unsubtly expository or constructed of attempts at casual, flirtatious and "witty" banter which come across as cack-handed and inept, like mediocre actors reading a weak script.
Ultimately it makes his characters unbelievable. They're all too stock, too mould-fitting, too perfect. They're not perfect like scary Ayn Rand characters with unfathomable motivations. They're just typical archetypes. There's the soldier, Kaladin, a former surgeon with a textbook haunted past who wants to save people but can't and is very frustrated about it. He happens to be virtually unbeatable with a spear and later develops what are for all intents and purposes magical powers involving stormlight. There's the prince, Dalinar, who is the typical grouchy, stern old leader who feels all guilty about killing and war but knows he has to do what honour demands. He also happens to wear this power armour stuff, kills hundreds of men at a time in combat and has a magic sword which lets him insta-kill people. Thirdly is Shallan, a young scholar who has gone to steal a MacGuffin from a powerful princess by becoming her ward but instead becomes enraptured by the world of scholarship and study. She too develops the ability to use magic. Fourthly there's Szeth, an assassin who sparked off the whole thing by killing the previous king of Alethkar and is now being used in fresh plots of nefariousness, much to his chagrin. He's also the greatest killer in the world and is completely untouchable in a melee. They feel like bad video game characters, their personalities secondary to their physical skills. They're just all too good at what they do to be believable, and while they all spend their time brooding even the murderous Szeth is one of these four 'tormented individuals' along parallel lines without any variety or fluctuation in their behaviour. Their big, major character traits never exhibit flaws; they are universal characteristics. The most interesting one is Shallan, who at least breaks the warrior mould and whose character arguably goes through a bit more development. Kaladin, in reverse, is somewhat more interesting in the flashback sections from before he becomes a soldier. Dalinar's sole source of variety is to be employed in the arbitrary and needless romantic subplot. However they're all rather insubstantial and never impress themselves upon the reader. It's to a significant extent the fault of Sanderson's incredibly prosaic language, which strives for the most straightforward and sufficiently-detailed account of action and thought without any real flair or aesthetic enhancement.
The plot too suffers from this. Sure, it may be part one of ten, but the novel is all just set-up. The main overarching narrative, as far as can be determined, isn't even fully established within the first novel. It's rather heavily implied that God is Dead and some other, evil god called Odium is going to destroy the world, which is so utterly bland, tired and predictable that I find it slightly insulting. If there is one thing I find tedious in Fantasy, it is the 'evil god' trope. Other than that the plot is virtually nonexistent. Dalinar tries to win the war against the Parshendi but is betrayed by his former friend and erstwhile ally Sadeas. Kaladin rises from an oppressed slave to a magic-wielding troop leader who gets his freedom in the end. Shallan tries to steal the MacGuffin, gets caught by her mentor but eventually ends up joining her anyway. All pretty standard stuff, really. That's the end of the book and the actual problem of Odium and the Voidbringers hasn't even been established yet as such. There are a lot of diversionary bits too with one-off characters where it seems like Sanderson just wants to show off the world he's invented. It's not integrated with effectiveness into the story, because too much of that is wasted on endless brooding and the action scenes which are not Sanderson's strength. Read one chapter about a guy in super armour waving a sword around and you've read them all. It's all the same: you run, trip people over, slash them with your sword or spear, occasionally an arrow grazes your helmet or whatever. There are a few moments in the flashbacks which are successful in conveying a sense of how absolutely bloody frantic, awful and terrifying it must be to participate in a real battle where lives are on the line for essentially no reason, but too much of it is just descriptions of unbelievable video game style untouchable fighting skill where Dalinar and Kaladin especially run around as blazes of boring glory. Sanderson clearly thinks these fights are extremely cool and impressive but they're tiresomely predictable and they seem amateurish and indecisive compared to the much more effective scenes which depict war as horrific, dehumanising and pointless.
Frankly what I think Sanderson needed in this one was a good editor. There's tonnes of material which could have been scrapped - overwrought descriptions, overlong brooding, unending fights - to pace the narrative better. It's almost all slog for the sake of a handful of very quickly described twists at the end, which seems to be something Sanderson likes. He also loves magic systems, and this one has 'lashing', which I think is also called "Surgebinding" or something. It basically involves manipulating gravity using stormlight. It's kind of interesting but when you've read some Sanderson like Mistborn these arbitrary magic systems start to feel a bit convoluted and like he's just reaching for the next 'out there' idea for some wacky magic. While this might sound like an immense contradiction in terms I've never liked magic in Fantasy. It only works when it's, say, the Tolkien style of magic where it's not really magic it's just great mental/artistic/spiritual potency, or the Rowling style of magic where everyone has it and it at least partially relies on words more than some special secret, because little cliques of mages and so on are generic and these 'special powers' just aren't believable when they're so alienated from real human experience.
There's not much more to say about The Way of Kings. I really don't understand why it's getting such amazingly good reviews but I guess maybe the combination of its length and the incredible dullness of its prose means that anyone can read it and feel like a clever clogs. I've got nothing against Sanderson; he seems like a good chap and his work on The Wheel of Time was a breath of fresh air but this just doesn't cut the mustard. It's too long for what actually happens, it's too generic Sanderson and the characters are lacking in depth. It's stuff like this which has me increasingly convinced that Fantasy as a genre is probably just mostly bad. I read Eddings as a kid but going back now it's ridiculously cheesy, although what makes it easier to swallow is you know that Eddings himself was finding it all just as cheesy as, if not cheesier than, the reader. Pratchett is sometimes suffocatingly smug. Brooks has good ideas but the rest of it is unengaging. Feist is similar to Sanderson - too many superheroes, dull characters and not enough plot. If you want Fantasy, stick to the reliable ones: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. If those are too mainstream, consider looking into Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. If that doesn't wet your whistle for speculative fiction, do yourself a favour and go for some good sci-fi: Philip K Dick, Asimov or Vonnegut, for instance. One thing I'll applaud Sanderson for is the lack of sex in his novels. Too many Fantasy authors try to 'sex up' their books (I'm looking at you, Rothfuss) and it's normally uncomfortable and unwieldy, and at least he avoids that. That doesn't redeem it though. I don't care what the fanboys and sycophants have been saying online; it's boring, it's too long, the characters are flat and it has nothing to say. If you can't do it in one book, I very much doubt you'll be able to do it in ten.

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