An assassin in white murders the King of Alethkar, an act commissioned by the enigmatic Parshendi tribesmen of the east. In response the Alethi armies meet those of the Parshendi in battle on the Shattered Plains, a vast landscape of plateaus separated by dark chasms. Progress is slow and gruelling, and Dalinar, the murdered king's brother, adopts a siege strategy to wear down the enemy through attrition.
Meanwhile, Kaladin, a former soldier disgraced and sold into slavery, arrives on the Shattered Plains as a bridgeman, a role designed to help carry and place the immense mobile bridges which carry the Alethi army into battle. Mistreated by his masters, Kaladin begins to burn with the need for freedom and vengeance, and finds like-minded men amongst his fellows.
In distant Kharbranth a woman named Shallan seeks a missing princess, hoping to become her protege and study under the most famous heretic on all of Roshar. But Shallan's quest disguises another, less honourable cause.
These three stories become entwined with the ancient legends of the Knights Radiant and the Voidbringers they fought against. The world of Roshar and the wider cosmere beyond lie in danger from an ancient force, and the key to understanding the nature of that threat lies with a man who can walk amongst the worlds...
There's no faulting the ambition of this novel. The publisher and the author have set out their stall quite clearly: they want the ten-volume Stormlight Archive series to be the next dominant epic fantasy series, replacing the soon-to-finish Wheel of Time sequence. The publishing marketing spiel has cranked up to support this effort, drawing comparisons with Tolkien and Frank Herbert which are more than slightly hyperbolic. Yet The Way of Kings manages to weather these pronouncements to stand on its own merits as one of the best epic fantasy releases of this year.
The Way of Kings is Brandon Sanderson's finest novel to date, showing a remarkable and satisfying maturing and evolution of his craft. Sanderson is a student of epic fantasy who's made it his business to test the limits of the subgenre and take a mass audience with him, and The Way of Kings raises this skill to new heights. Roshar isn't another generic fantasyland, but a dangerous and alien world wracked by devastating tempests which the normal business of humanity takes place in the lulls between the storms. In his previous books Sanderson has used his worlds as effective background locations, but in The Way of Kings the world itself comes to life satisfyingly, becoming a vivid location which the reader ends up wanting to know more about.
Characterisation is an area where Sanderson takes a significant step forward in quality. His characters in The Way of Kings are considerably more flawed and more real than those in Mistborn or Elantris, but he also avoids turning them into grim, grey ciphers. These characters are given motivations and rationales for what they do which make sense, and then evolve satisfyingly over the course of the book. It has to be said that of the three major protagonists Shallan is the one who is not developed very satisfyingly in this way until the very end of the book, when her last three or four chapters transform the reader's understanding of her character and motives in a very impressive manner.
Sanderson has a strong reputation as the creator of impressive magic systems, so it's rather surprising that The Way of Kings pulls back on the magical side of things. There's an excellent opening sequence depicting the assassination which is slightly reminiscent of Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in X2 and is as impressive, but otherwise actual feats of magic are somewhat few and far between in the book (although there is a fair amount of use of magical artifacts such as fabrials and Shardblades), although with plenty of hints that these will form a bigger part of the story in subsequent volumes.
Another surprise is that Sanderson makes a bold move in this volume by putting some of the common mythology of his universe into the centre of the plot: Hoid, the Shards of Adonalsium, the Shadesmar and other elements which have been hinted at in Elantris, Warbreaker and the Mistborn series are here brought into somewhat sharper relief (although foreknowledge of those earlier novels is not required) and followers of this shared-universe element of Sanderson's work will have plenty more to chew on as a result of this book.
On the downside, Sanderson does adopt an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach with the book, and uses some side-plots purely to establish elements which will have no resolution until much later, and as a result there are a few side-stories which simply have no apparent reason for being in this novel (most notably the scenes set on the Purelake). In addition, to achieve greater resonance and carry out more impressive worldbuilding, Sanderson has had to sacrifice the thunderous pace that made the first Mistborn novel very enjoyable, the result being a book which is a good 150-200 pages longer than it strictly needs to be with some repetition of ideas and some action sequences (the chasm battles, whilst very impressive and atmospheric, do start blurring together after a while).
The Way of Kings (****½) has some minor issues, but overall is a deeper, darker and more satisfying novel than anything Sanderson has produced to date. The book will be published on 31 August 2010 in the USA and on 30 December in the UK.