“THE WAY OF KINGS” – The WAY to write epic fantasy

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You need to be a certain kind of crazy to read a thousand page novel. You’d have to be even crazier to write one. And to write one worth reading? Crazy, but as I found out, not impossible. As of yesterday, I am finished The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson’s introductory book to his Stormlight Archive series. A week from now will be the four year anniversary of its original release date. What all fantasy fans are asking, and what I asked myself post reading, is what took so long? It wasn’t the sheer size of it. I’ve read The Stand. Twice. The uncut version, too. The fact that it’s the beginning of an unfinished series didn’t bother me. A quite long one at that. I’m in deep already with ASOIAF, The Kingkiller Chronicles, and The Lightbringer Series. What it boiled down to was one, lingering thought. I’m not totally sold on Brandon Sanderson.

To be fair, I had only read The Mistborn Trilogy (plus Alloy of Law). And while I enjoyed reading them, there was just something about his books that didn’t stick with me. I’m always in favor of darker toned fantasy books. Nobody will likely top George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Their work will stick with me forever. But Sanderson had two things distinctly going in his favor.

1. The man is a magic system savant. Allomancy was a joy to read about. Sanderson introduces his magic from the get go, but subtle enough throughout his book that you don’t even realize how familiar you’re becoming with it. It’s so in-depth and thrilling that I couldn’t help but yearn to experience it in real life, or at least in video games (wish granted?).

2. I want to know what happens next. His characters may be light, the prose not on the same level as Rothfuss, and in general not as violently graphic as the grim dark group, but damn he writes a fine story. Never once have I contemplated not finishing one of his books. Not even you, The Well of Ascension.

After four years of pondering, and a trip to Loncon 3 just last week, I decided to take the plunge. I really needed an epic fantasy to read. I wanted something gargantuan. Immerse me in a world, any world. Sometimes real life bears down on you hard, and in those times, it’s nice to be able to take a journey. I decided that journey would include Kaladin Stormblessed, Dalinar Kholin, Shallan Davar, and most importantly, Brandon Sanderson.

We are introduced to Roshar, the land full stone and plains, with a beautiful assassination. Really. Read the first chapter before you die. It’s one of the best action sequences I’ve ever read, up there with the first time we meet The Bloody Nine. The Assassin in White kills the king. This has a lasting effect throughout the world. Obviously. I mean, he kills a king. It severely changes the lives of a few characters we meet. One way or another, these people are put in positions of leadership. To the core, that’s what TWOK is about. Being a leader, or what it is to be a good leader. A decent person.

Kaladin questions the leaders surrounding him. LIghteyes. The Almighty. Himself. What constitutes being able to lead people? Can everyone be saved? Can you protect while killing? Our these leaders noble? What is nobility? Why does one keep failing? Failure. I can’t remember a character failing so many times as I have Kaladin Stormblessed. Sanderson does a wonderful job at building his story. We see him at multiple times in his life, witnessing him retreat into apathy, succumbing to so many personal blows. Kaladin must overcome so much, and not a page is wasted. It’s a long road for the young darkeye, but it’s the reason I’ll be meeting him step for step.

Ah, the honorable high prince Dalinar Kholin. The brother of the murdered king from the first chapter. All his life he’s been a military leader. He’s the Blackthorn, it’s what he does. But now that his inexperienced nephew is king, everything seemed to have changed. He’s been having wild visions during high storms, leading to rumors about his mental stability. He’s been reading, a hobby mostly used by women. The one who used to wreak havoc on the battlefield now talks of peace and an end to the war on the Parshendi, those responsible for his brothers death. The question comes up, is this man fit to lead us? Has old age crippled him? Will his weakness, in mind and spirit, lead to our city’s demise? The other high princes can sniff blood and they certainly go for the kill. Can Dalinar keep his honor while fending off these predators, domestic and foreign? It’s a joy to read and I suspect none were disappointed when the time for that answer came.

Shallan Davar is a princess who traveled to become an understudy to Jasnah, the dead kings daugther. Jasnah happens to be considered the brightest academic in all of Roshar. It would truly be an honor for Shallan to study with her as an apprentice of sorts. But is that all there is to Shallan’s story? She is torn between doing a duty for her family or actually learning from the smartest woman in the land. I’d have to admit her story arc was the least interesting to me. Although Sanderson does a wonderful job at writing women. Not that it should matter, women are people just like anyone else. You should just write PEOPLE. But far too often do I come across male writers who have trouble writing from the female point of view. Sanderson is just one of the best I’ve read at doing it.

Sanderson’s world building is in top form in TWOK. The Shattered Plains is so desolate, and so, well, epic. The creatures are described with such flourish that when pictures actually came up courtesy of drawings from the characters, they were spot on from what I had envisioned. Roshar is clearly a world hardly explored in this first book, but from what he did paint he did expertly. The cities have distinct feels, as well as the different races. It’s a dark, but beautiful world he’s created.

The only complaints I’ve read amidst the thousands of positive reviews are that it starts off incredibly slow. And well, yeah. The book is a thousand pages long. I went in knowing you need time to build up the world, acclimate to the magic, meet the characters. Just know that when you’re three quarters through the book you better have a clear schedule, because you’re not putting that book down for anything. When it kicks into high gear I couldn’t contain the goosebumps from coming. Especially a scene near the end, that had me cheering, crying, laughing, almost throwing up, all at the same time. Those who have read it know what I’m talking about.

Those moments are why I read. Especially fantasy. I love grim dark and all it has to offer. But there is a time and place for epic fantasy. Sometimes I need to throw on the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Who doesn’t get gooesbumps when Aragorn gives that speech to Legolas and Gimli? That’s why I read (and watch) fantasy. Those moments. And The Way of Kings delivers one of the all time “Goosebump Moments”.

I have a signed copy of Words of Radiance sitting in my room. It will be read. But I’m going to give it time. When I’ve read a great book I like to let it settle in for a while. This was the beginning of the journey that is The Stormlight Archives. And as they say, Journey Before Destination.

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Be True, Unbeliever

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Take me away from reality. That’s all I ask of a book. Send me to a city plagued by vampires.Dump me into an argument between a wife and husband. Or my favorite, transport me to a mythical world. A land. The Land.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant do just that. Not long after meeting Covenant himself, we (along with Covenant of course) are taken to a new world called The Land. It’s full of mystical creatures and creations I’ve never heard of (Ranyhyn, Fire-Lions, Ur-Viles, Wraiths of Andelain), combined with the familiar (Giants, High Lords). During most of the books you travel throughout The Land. At times you surpass its bounds. The Land is one of my favorite parts of Stephen R Donaldsons masterpiece, but it isn’t what separates it from other fantasy greats. Tolkien gave us Middle Earth, Frank Herbert has Arrakis, and even George R. R. Martin created a large setting in ASOIAF. No, Donaldson goes deeper than just the world he creates.

I’m not going to do a whole summary (mostly because it would sound horrible), but I’ll give you a little introduction. Thomas Covenant is a leper in the real world. The condition became so bad he lost his two fingers on his one hand. His wife and son have left his life because of his disease and he is utterly alone. The towns folk hate that he lives among them. His day to day life is filled with self-loathing. As he walks into town one day, he is suddenly hit by a police car. Covenant is mysteriously transported to the mysterious world previously described as The Land. In this reality(or unreality), he is believed to be the second coming of Berek Halfhand. A messiah.

Believe me when I tell you, Thomas Covenant is not a likeable character. In fact, most people hate him. And this is the main character! Donaldson’s version of Frodo is as despised as Joffrey from ASOIAF. It’s not entirely without merit. He commits a deplorable act in the beginning of the first book. Most readers refuse to continue after that. Yet that single act, above all others, has consequences that span throughout the rest of the series. It’s a slow burn, but my GOD is it worth it. I love Thomas Covenant. I love what he becomes. I love what he IS. Because simply put, I see a lot of myself in him. And I’d bet many others do too. It’s just the qualities we share are the ones nobody likes to acknowledge. There are times when I’m totally self loathing and pitiful. I’ve been caught in a web of despair. Thomas Covenant finds his own leprosy revolting. I don’t have leprosy myself, but I carry with me that same feeling. Whether it’s how I look (short, balding, hairy), where I am in life (single, alone, minimum wage job), letting people down (family, friends, significant others), or my own qualities (greedy, spiteful, cynical). I’m disgusted by myself. I see why certain people are out of my life and I wallow in the self hate.

Listen, I’m not on suicide watch here. I just openly acknowledge these things about me. And they drew me to the character of Covenant. So where others found him whiny and immature, I found him incredibly relate able. See,  I want a character with flaws. I’m not just talking about a character who sometimes bends the law to get the job done. I mean real, up close and personal flaws. Thomas Covenant is as bleak as they come. In his mind there is no hope, for him or this world. He attempts to push any and all help away from him. I’ve been there. Repeatedly. And I’d bet I’m not the only one.

The characters in this series aren’t all like Covenant. As I said, Covenant has plenty of people trying to help. I don’t think many readers continue long enough to see this. The Giants are a people full of hope. I personally wish I had a Saltheart Foamfollwer as a life long friend. All my troubled times wouldn’t seem so dark. Allow me to post one of my favorite quotes from the series, courtesy of Foamfollower and Covenant:

“Are you a storyteller, Thomas Covenant?”
Absently he replied, “I was, once.”
“And you gave it up? Ah, that is as sad a tale in three words as any you might have told me. But a life without a tale is like a sea without salt. How do you live?”
… Unconsciously, he clenched his fist over his ring. “I live.”
“Another?” Foamfollower returned. “In two words, a story sadder than the first. Say no more — with one word you will make me weep.”

Saltheart_Foamfollower2

This quote makes me reflect every time I read it. Because despite what Covenant (and myself) think, there is hope in this world. And love. And friendship.

A critique that does have some justification to it: Donaldsons writing. It isn’t bad. I think he writes prose wonderfully. He just has a taste for ten cent words. I guarantee you know what “succor” and “roynish” mean after reading the books. Personally I enjoyed the challenge. Did I stop and look up what every word I didn’t recognize meant? No. Mostly because I used a Kindle. Even still, you can pick up the meaning. It’s just frustrating when you know a lesser word would work just as well. The author also tends to be a bit descriptive. This leads to the books being a bit of a chore to get through. But for me, the story and the character of Thomas Covenant were too appealing. When it comes to plot, Stephen R Donaldson is one of the best.

This is also not the series to read if you are looking for battles and fighting. There are, however, some bad ass characters. The Haruchai (such as Bannor, Brinn, Ceer), the aforementioned Giants (they take no pleasure in killing but when they must, look out), and of course the wild magic that comes from White Gold. I don’t want to spoil much, but White Gold has had such an effect on me that I’ve contemplated getting a tattoo of it somehow (and immediately regretting it of course. But still). I know someone who was a kid when this series began and he said ” when my friends were playing with The Force, I was wielding wild magic with my White Gold ring”. Well come friend, well come.

Favorite Quote

“Impotence is freedom. When you’re incapable of anything, no one can expect anything from you. Power has its own limits—even ultimate power. Only the impotent are free.”

For whatever reason, this rang especially true to me. It’s a trap many fall into. If people have low expectations for you, you never end up letting them down. The same goes for having low expectations for yourself. I’ve told myself ” If I went blind, my parents would never expect anything from me”. Not that I would ever blind myself, but I really connect with this quote. In my life, I’m always trying to make myself “impotent”. Trying to put myself in situations that are no win. For when I lose, I can go “well look at what I was up against!”. In reality I have as much opportunity than anyone else (and probably more so than most). I could be way off base. It’s dialogue that’s stuck with me. And that’s why I love reading.

This isn’t meant to be a book review. Not even a plead to read the series. I don’t know what I meant to do. I just wanted to write about books that changed me. It’s not for everyone. Yet it sold over six million copies when it was first released. I guess I just want people to know it’s out there (And that one person in Alaska who reads this blog will know). And that I believe. Not in much. But in this author. In these books. In Thomas Covenant.