Brandon Sanderson writes high, epic fiction: huge worlds in which the very nature of the earth is as much a character as the creatures that he inhabits it with.
In the Mistborn trilogy, the ashen and grey polluted earth dominated the tale; here in The Stormlight Archive, his created world is one of rock and storm.
High Storms ravage the land on a vaguely predictable pattern from East to West bringing torrential rain and violent winds on a massive scale. The flora and fauna inhabiting this world are adapted to it: molluscs and crablike beasts take the place of cattle, dogs and beasts of burden; plants that burrow into the rock and retract back into it when the vibrations of a storm or an approaching footstep disturbs them. The High Storms dominate characters’ lives, shapes their buildings and influences their language.
The High Storms have a more than meteorological significance though. The Chronicle itself is named the Stormlight Chronicle and the storms provide some form of energy which can become stored within gemstones and generate light and then deployed elsewhere to power a range of devices: reed pens to communicate across distances; fantastic suits of shardplate armour; mystical soulcasters which can convert objects from one form to another.
It is a massive universe that Sanderson has created – far too huge for a review to summarise – replete with mythology, history and even a pre-history which is all a bit of a struggle to keep straight in your head. Fortunately, Sanderson seems to have woven an interpretation of his world’s legends – Heralds and Knights Radiant and Voidbringers – into the thrust of his narrative. He continually circles around them; two of his main characters, Jasnah Kholin and the point-of-view character Shallan Davar, are historians who can keep the reader abreast of the history and mythology.
Another massive feature of the world – one which seems likely to have a huge bearing on the overarching plot development – are the spren. Spren are like elemental personifications associated with fire, wind, rain and decay as well as personal emotions such as glory, fear, pain and honour. Whilst they are deemed by the inhabitants of the book as mindless, at least one becomes a meaningful rounded character in her own right: Syl whose association with Kaladin brings out his powers.
Thus far, there is no real magic system in the novel … and I say that advisedly! All supernatural powers are derived from technology: shardplates enhance the wearer’s strength and speed but are powered through the Stormlight; engineered fabrioles recreate powers that would otherwise seem mystical.
There is, however, clearly the potential for magic: characters who can recreate the power if these fabrioles through some innate ability. Kaladin and Szeth are both able to breathe in Stormlight to enhance their speed, strength and skills, known as Surgebinding; Jasnah and Shallan can both soulcast without soulcasters.
The thrust of this book – the first of ten apparently – is to introduce this universe and manoeuvre all the characters together. By the end, Kaladin has come into his powers and been promoted (from slave and bridgeman) to Dalinar Kohlin’s honour guard at The Shattered Plains; Shallan and Jasnah Kohlin (Dalinar’s niece) are shipping out to meet Dalinar there; and Szeth has also been dispatched there.
Nothing truly has happened after the end of 26 hours of audiobook: a vague sense of threat exists but no real antagonist; the rivalries between princes and noble houses seem – no doubt deliberately – rather petty against the hints of a cataclysmic threat. The pace of the book was good in the main part but Sanderson recounted six years of Kaladin’s life in flashbacks placed through the book which I found increasingly and unnecessarily slowed the pace: we didn’t need multiple flashbacks of his life in Hearthstone. I found myself glazing over a little as these came on and thinking about things like work instead. The whole point of playing these books is to avoid thinking about work!
Sanderson does a good job in creating characters: Kaladin, the natural leader who is also plagued by bouts of despair and self-doubt; Dalinar, the natural warrior, plagued by dreams and visions that make him doubt his role; Jasnah, the hawklike heretic and scholar with a hidden and devastating power within her grip; Wit, the King’s ‘Jester’ who seems to know far more than he should. They are a little two-dimensional but engaging: not as engaging as Mistborn’s Vin or Kelsier though.
Wit at one point introduces himself to Kaladin as Hoid, a recurrent character in Sanderson’s work who regularly seems to adopt the same itinerant knowing position. Apparently, he acts as informant in various places within the Mistborn universe too and Sanderson has plans for writing his story as a parallel to that on Vin!
The language used in The Way Of Kings is a little formulaic in places: the Shardblades always form after ten heartbeats with mist beading along their length; Szeth and Kaladin breathe in the Stormlight and always feel the tempest storming within them; the victims of the Shardblades have their eyes burned out. Perhaps these formulaic phrases were more apparent because I listened to it as an audiobook but I did find it irksome that these moments, which I appreciate Sanderson wants to make iconic, weren’t described with a little more variety. There also seems a lot of explanation, repetition and exposition: with just so much background to cover, I suppose Sanderson needs to do this – up to a point. But again I feel that the balance is just a little out.
Overall, however, for the sheer scale of the universe – and the variety of worlds within it which we glimpse in the interludes – and it’s mythology, for its engaging characters, for its sense of apocalypse, it is a strong book and I’ll look forward to its future instalments.