The Way of Kings: Prelude to “The Stormlight Archive”

I picked up Sanderson’s The Way of Kings at the Harvard Coop at around 11am on release day.  It was ironic that a 1000-page (hardcover!) book was as hard to find as it was for me, but the new s.f. books are at the back of the basement level, behind the kids’ books, and who goes there?  The information desk lady looked it up for me and said, “Oh, you mean the big book?” and walked me right to it; I tried not to slink too much on the way out.

My friend Alex, who is the only one of my friends who likes these sorts of books too, openly acknowledges that he only reads them on long flights.  “They’re really great when you have a seven-hour flight across the Atlantic and then a four-hour layover in Paris on the way to Belgrade!”  We share an appreciation for the rambling nerdiness of Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which even if this blog gets going I doubt I’ll review any time soon since that would require rereading it, and I’m not sure I have the energy.  Depends if I fly to Singapore or something, I guess.

This is by way of saying that I bought The Way of Kings to read on the airplane to Israel.  My flight (booked months before without consideration for publication schedules) happened to be on September 1st, and I do appreciate Tor’s kindness in putting this book out just in time for me, since while I’m away I don’t have any intention of buying any more; my luggage is way overweight as it is.  I read it in three days, mostly after landing actually (it’s just that long), but since there’s nothing else to read here except math papers I’ve started again.  It’s fitting really, that since Sanderson is inspired by Robert Jordan in so much else, he should also have written a book that I would reread as I do Jordan.

This is a highly-promoted book, or so I gather from standing in the giant echo chamber which is Sanderson’s own blog and Twitter.  The author is very proud of it, the fans were very eager for it, and the publisher was certainly very sure of it.  Therefore, you might find the tone of this review series to skew a little bit towards the critical, since I hate to say things which everyone expects.  On the other hand, having read some of the other (timelier) reviews and found them also a little critical, I think people are expecting a bit of takedown, so I’ll be sure to give praise where I think it’s due.

Oh, right.  Spoilers.  Of course, I can’t spoil the rest of the series, but I can and will refer to the whole book at any time and you can’t stop me (if this worries you, hopefully you can stop yourself).  Knowing what I know now about how things play out, I think I can really improve the review by comparing expectations with eventualities.

I’m writing these posts to occupy myself, and there’s no better way to do that than to be thorough.  I’ll be taking this book one chapter at a time, then.  Today, we have the prelude, which is before the prologue.

I actually read the prelude months ago, since Tor put it out (along with, incrementally, something like the first ten chapters) for free as part of their promotion.  This is therefore my fourth impression of it.

The prelude is short, and there’s not much in general to say about it (yet!).  It is clear that Sanderson pored over every word to make a good first impression.  Going by his Mistborn trilogy, I’d say he has a flair for post-apocalyptic scenery, which reminds me that it’s funny for the beginning of this epic to be the end of the world.  Whatever the Oathpact is, as we find out soon that breaking it allows history to actually move forward for a few thousand years.

I am uncertain whether I like Sanderson’s writing: I like what he writes, but it is hard to extract the essence of the composed word from the larger task to which it is put in telling a story.  I can only record here that my first impression of The Gathering Storm was that the prologue had obviously been written by Sanderson rather than by Jordan because the sentences were too short.  Sanderson has a utilitarian manner to his phrasing, in which grand scenes are described incrementally in ordinary words.  I feel obligated (though it is not nice) to recall the first sentence of The Eye of the World:

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.

This is a sentence you cannot arrive at by science; it is an elegant fusion of both environmental description and characterization.  In a stroke, we identify Lews Therin (to be introduced in the next two words) with the earth itself, presaging the theme to return more and more often as the series would progress that the Dragon and the land are one.  We are given insight into that man’s state of mind by means of indirection, so that when he shows up, Jordan need not say “Lews Therin wished he could not remember” because he can’t remember; it is the earth which remembers and through it, we also get a sense of what he has lost.  The next few sentences are eerie as Lews Therin stumbles innocently around the palace and only we, the readers, are witness to its horrors.  Thus, beginning with this one line, Jordan doubles the depth of the scene by introducing the additional character of the palace.

Here is the beginning of Sanderson’s book:

Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.  The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protrusions from its chest broken and cracked….Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver.

I submit that these sentences say exactly what is written.  Kalak sees a thunderclast while walking somewhere, stops, and is afraid.  The thunderclast is a beast of living stone.  We get a sense of the setting, but Sanderson is manually inserting Kalak’s state of mind into the text.  Throughout this prelude, we see the same deliberate self-reflections from this character.  I certainly can’t imagine how to do it better, but I can imagine that it could be done.

My second issue is with the lack of tension between foreshadowing and resolution.  Kalak thinks,

When he died, he was sent back, no choice….What if he just decided…not to go?  Perilous thoughts, perhaps traitorous thoughts.

It seems significant until Jezrien reveals within a page that the plan is to do just that, and even to explain what would happen.  Sure, it could still turn out badly (indications are that it does), but now it’s off Kalak’s shoulders.  One does wonder against whom it is treacherous.

Third and last, there is a bit of indulgence in the jargon of epic fantasy even as early as the first page.  Two of the first three actions Kalak takes are to “round” something (the ridge, the thunderclast; the third action is to shiver).  Later, he hastens to the meeting place and then, after the above reflections, hastens again.  Jezrien looks like a man “in his thirtieth year”, a sort of bland construction that is a signpost in epic fantasy for “in this culture, people are not sophisticated enough to ascribe age as a characteristic, as in he is thirty,” meaning that the culture is medievalish.

This is not to say that the prelude is bad.  I am simply a bad person with a blog.  In fact, I like the imagery of the thunderclasts and Sanderson’s utilitarian sentences paint a pretty evocative scene.  Kalak’s moment remembering his eternal torture (which I presume to be the Damnation that is mentioned in the book) summons a real sense of desperation as I read it.

Having read the rest of the book, I also particularly like the allusions and concordances.  The thunderclast has an “arrowlike” face; later, the chasmfiend is described as having just such a face.  Chasmfiends are also speculated (briefly) to be Voidbringers, but in fact, Voidbringers are also later described as being stone with glowing red eyes, just as the thunderclasts.  Makes you wonder.  In the same vein, the colors of blood are telling: red, orange, purple.  Red is human and we learn eventually that orange is Parshendi, but we haven’t seen purple yet (I think).  Now I wonder which side the Parshendi were on in this battle.

It’s fun to try to compare the names of the Heralds we know with those of the characters we see.  Kalak, Jezrien, Ishar, Talenel, Shalash (mentioned in Szeth’s chapter next).  Kaladin, Jasnah, Szeth?, Dalinar?, Shallan.  Three out of five ain’t bad.

Surgebinders we know, Dustbringers we don’t.  The swords are like Shardblades but are more precious and powerful; are they the Dawnshards?  That reference to Damnation, where it seems that the Heralds (said to be prophets of the Almighty) spend most of their time suffering; huh?  What are Desolations, the Oathpact?  Why are Voidbringers not mentioned?  Who are the Heralds: men or gods or constructs?

I can quibble with the writing style, but one thing is certain about Sanderson: he sets up some good mysteries.  If Mistborn is any guide, the reveal will be even better.  So, I keep reading.

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