I did not expect to enjoy this book as much I did. Sanderson completely shifted all my expectations with Mistborn and I loved the following books that he has written in that world. Elantris and Warbreaker seemed only mediocre in many ways and felt like they were trying too hard. The Wheel of Time ends on a note that feels very rushed — understandably — and left so many things unsaid, unresolved or undeveloped that it felt like Sanderson couldn’t fit it all in so he just didn’t try.
I found his recent short stories to be something similar. Legion is entertaining in a silly kind of way but lacks any depth or strength to the story and makes little to no sense when the premise gets examined too closely. The Emperor’s Soul, however, was brilliant and one of the best things I read last year.
With that in mind I told myself that I just didn’t want to get into another Sanderson world. He always has long explanations about how the magic works, detailed information that takes work to remember. I enjoy the creativity on display but I sometimes want things more ambiguous.
1000 pages is a lot of words to get through.
I finally built up my courage to give it a try. Sanderson is always good for at least a fun adventure.
Almost immediately I got swept into a world filled with wonder, history and magic, led by a character who had passed through his worst imagined hell and was only getting started. I found every page kept my heart gripped firmly between grimy fingers of depression and wonder.
Kaladin is a soldier, the son of a surgeon who goes to war to save his little brother. The war tears his soul apart leaving him bitter and depressed. Then the world piles on top of him, burying him beneath the weight of hopelessness and despair. Kaladin struggles for much of the book with feelings of inadequacy followed by almost manic bouts of creative effort. This suicidal willingness to throw his life into a deep black chasm or place himself in harms way just to draw attention away from others gives this book a stronger emotional hook than any of Sanderson’s books have had before.
Kaladin is a good person but he’s been through suffering that many of us can not comprehend. That suffering has affected him in ways that make him struggle with his own morals. Is it right to kill people to save others? Is it right to let another die by following orders?
Kaladin’s father lays a moral at his feet early in the book, “There are two kinds of people in this world… Those who save lives and those who take lives.” Kaladin will spend the entire book trying to decide which one he is. Or if it is possible to fit into a third category: those who save lives by taking lives. But what makes the lives saved worth more than the ones taken to save them?
I don’t know if these kinds of questions have answers. Sanderson certainly doesn’t provide any. But they are important questions to think about and Sanderson provides a milieu where these questions are part of the narrative.
At what point does a soldier stop following orders? What is a single life worth?
In fact I would argue that the entirety of this book is about maintaining morals and honor in the face of adversity. It is also about redemption.
Kaladin is on a journey. Physically he doesn’t travel very far in this book but emotionally and mentally he is on a quest to redeem himself of a self-proscribed crime, one that there is no redemption for. In coming to terms with that he has to also come to terms with his own weaknesses and in some ways the arrogance that his failures are about him. This is a powerful message for people struggling with depression and one that is powerfully hard to admit. He gets there by making the right choices — not easy choices by any means, many times his choices made me want to cry and scream at him not to, just this once don’t do the right thing.
On the other end of the spectrum is Dalinar, brother of the assassinated King of Alethkar. Dalinar has been having seizures accompanied with hallucinations that he believes are sent from the Almighty to warn him of something. They’ve inspired him to adopt a moral code that is in opposition to all of his peers.
He tells his son, “Sometimes the prize is not worth the costs. The means by which we achieve victory are as important as the victory itself.”
Dalinar believes that his morals are right but those around him think they make him weak — including his two sons. Dalinar used to be known as The Blackthorn, the most ruthless warmonger in all of Alethkar. He and his brother slaughtered their way to a united kingdom, carving out unity among scattered princedoms in blood and severed flesh. Now Dalinar believes that he should not ask his soldiers to do anything that he, himself, would not do. He believes that officers should remain in uniform and should refrain from drinking strong drink when in a time of war (when they’re ability to command may be called upon at a moments notice). He believes that his morals are necessary to make his country great… and they will likely get him killed.
In contrast to the two characters determined to uphold their morals no matter the cost are two other characters.
Szeth, a Shin who culturally abhors violence and weapons of any kind, is forced to continually, brutally slay and murder his way across a continent, betraying every moral belief he has because he is commanded by one who holds his soulstone. Szeth hates himself and the acts he commits but the fact remains, he is very good at what he does and is almost an unstoppable force of violence.
Shallan is a young woman who has sailed across oceans in the hopes of gaining an opportunity to study as a Ward of the great scholar Jasnah Kholin. But Shallan has a dark purpose behind her endeavors and an even darker secret about her past. Shallan was raised by an abusive father and four psychologically damaged brothers. Those circumstances leave little room for healthy decisions.
One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Brandon Sanderson’s books is that he treats religion seriously. Whether the beliefs of the people in his world are based on completely fictional beings or events or are absolutely true they are treated with respect. This is an interesting thing to me because I find it difficult to believe in other books that religion would not be an integral part of every world. Throughout history nearly every event and decision has been influenced, at least in part, by religious belief.
Sanderson even goes so far as to prevent a heretic, an agnostic who does not follow the beliefs of the state sanctioned church. More importantly, Jasnah Kholin — who does not believe — and Shallan — who does — have several discussions about their beliefs and both present rational thoughts on the matter. It is unbelievable how rare this is in fantasy (and fiction in general). Most stories portray the religious as zealots who will not listen to reason while spreading lies and torture in the name of their god across the land. The few that present religion in a positive light feel the need to make nonbelievers sound like idiots who can’t string together two coherent sentences.
One of Sanderson’s other great skills as a writer is his ability to impart mystery. His narratives are threaded with mysteries and hidden clues that the observant can pick up on and piece together. The Way of Kings has no shortage of mystery. Sanderson pulled out all the stops for this one. Best of all he did it without once making a character learn how to do magic from a mentor. In fact, while we see a great deal of magic in this book little of it is explained in detail so that much of it is part of the mystery of the world.
The world itself is unbelievably fascinating. I read descriptions beforehand about the high storms that strip the soil from the bare rock of the planet and how everything growing has developed a kind armor to protect it from the powerful winds. What I didn’t understand was how beautiful Sanderson could make it feel. It’s a world blasted constantly by hurricane force winds where the flora and fauna have learned to adapt so that beauty and life flows all around, hidden and armored but alive and vibrant.
Finally I need to mention the format for this book. The most noticeable is that this book — the hardcover — is one of the most beautiful books I have ever owned. It has a colored map on the inside cover and illustrations throughout. The illustrations act to pull the world into reality, allowing the reader to see pages of Shallan’s sketchbook or pieces of texts mentioned in the narrative.
The second formatting choice is the narrative style. Sanderson chose to interrupt the story on occasion with something that he calls interludes. These are short chapters about characters that we never see again. Usually they take place in far distant locations. This serves to break up the story into digestible chunks. It should be a bad idea to make a natural stopping place for the reader but Sanderson pulls it off brilliantly and perhaps gives a much needed place to take a break. He also peppers the story with flashbacks, which, as anybody who has taken a writing course knows, are problematic.
This is probably the darkest thing, emotionally that Sanderson has written. There are depths explored here that are difficult, even for those who have felt them, to describe. What continues to impress me is that Sanderson can write such dark and horrific events without once turning to the gore, profanity and sexual violence that many of his contemporaries seem to fall back on. There is a severe lack of imagination in much modern fiction where writers fall back on rape and profanity to portray the morally wrong or evil. Sanderson, probably because of his LDS heritage shies away from that trope. Sanderson, here, is taking Kaladin’s route and upholding his morals and I, for one, find his story to be all the more powerful for it.
This is a hefty book. It will take a lot of your time. You owe it to yourself to read it. It just might surprise you.