Review: The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings

A friend who is also a big fantasy reader had been raving about — and trying to get me to read — the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series for some time. I was a bit skeptical because I’d tried Mistborn, also by Sanderson, a few years back and been unimpressed, but my friend was insistent. Eventually I realized it was in the best interests of my ongoing health to simply acquiesce and let her lend me the damn book.

Cover art for The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonAfter all her raving, I was expecting The Way of Kings to be something really different and original.

Certainly the setting is unusual. Way of Kings takes place in a world that is constantly lashed by titanic “Highstorms,” and all of the plant and animal life has evolved along strange, exotic lines to survive this brutal environment.

However, when you get down to the bones of the story, Way of Kings is a very classical, almost generic, high fantasy epic.

And I could not be happier about that.

Way of Kings feels just like the books I grew up reading and loving: Lord of the Rings, Shannara, Obsidian, and the like. Ancient evils return to swallow the world, and heroes rise to fight them.

The characters all feel very familiar, almost cliche — a nobleman chosen by the divine to redeem his people, a slave fighting to survive against brutal oppression — but you know what? Some things are cliches for a reason. It works. They’re characters that I want to cheer for. They’re characters I want to see succeed.

Similarly, the meta-plot thus far feels like the sort of thing I’ve seen before, but it’s a story that I like. It feels epic. It feels meaningful. The fate of the world is on the line, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is exactly what I look for in fantasy: big ideas, big threats, epic conflicts with mighty heroes standing to save what they hold dear.

It’s not a perfect book. It does inherit one sin from the old school fantasy it’s clearly emulating: It has a very slow start. For those with the patience to persevere, Way of Kings eventually becomes very exciting, but it does take its time getting there.

I think the author could have spaced out the big reveals a little better such that there isn’t more happening in the last hundred pages than in the first six hundred.

And sometimes he gets a bit too bogged down in details. He has an odd obsession with describing every article of clothing worn by every character in excruciating detail, and it gets wearing after a while.

Finally, one of the main characters — a scholarly girl named Shallan — has thus far failed to capture my interest. Her story is as cliche as the others, but her cliches aren’t cliches that I ever liked in the first place. I’ve kind of had my fill of “tough but fair” mentor characters, among other eye-rollingly predictable choices that are too spoilery to get into.

That said, I wasn’t immediately impressed by the other characters, either, so there may be hope for Shallan to redeem herself later in the series.

And don’t let my complaints detract from the fact that this is a strong book. Considering it’s twelve hundred pages long, the pacing is actually a lot better than you’d expect, and again, it does eventually become very gripping. Those of us who are fantasy fans are used to slow starts, so I don’t think anyone in this book’s target audience will consider this an unforgivable sin.

If you are a fan of traditional high fantasy, I definitely think that The Way of Kings belongs on your reading list.

Overall rating: 8/10

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Tales of the Apt Thoughts

When Adrian Tchaikovsky’s massive Shadows of the Apt saga at last came to an end, I left it with very mixed feelings, having disagreed with some of the story-telling choices he had made toward the end. Nonetheless, I cannot deny he is an objectively good writer, and that Shadows of the Apt boasts one of the most intricate and impressive settings in the entire fantasy genre.

Cover art for Tales of the Apt: Spoils of War by Adrian TchaikovskyThus, I did eventually find myself compelled to look into the short fiction collections set in that universe he has released since the end of the main series, titled Tales of the Apt. So far, there are three installments in this series: Spoils of War, A Time for Grief, and For Love of Distant Shores.

The first collection somewhat disappointed me. It mainly dealt with locations, cultures, and themes that were already well-explored in the main series, which seemed a waste of potential. We get it; Wasps are dicks.

The only highlight was the story of a disgraced Mantis-kinden Weaponmaster searching for her warrior’s death, a story perfectly calculated to appeal to my interests.

A Time for Grief was more impressive, though. It features a lot of new material surrounding settings and concepts that were not explored by the novels, including a very interesting delve into pre-history and the true origins of the insect-kinden. The title story also delves into the birth of the city-state of Princep Salmae, and feels important enough that I think it really should have been included in the main books somehow.

The third book, For Love of Distant Shores, was my favourite. It feels more like a full new novel, because while it is still technically a short story collection, it follows the same characters throughout.

For Love of Distant Shores tells of the travels of the absent-minded Beetle explorer Doctor Ludweg Phinagler (seriously) as he uncovers new knowledge, and mortal peril. Mostly peril. This serves as an opportunity to visit a number of areas and stories mostly or entirely new to the series, some of it truly fascinating.

However, Phinagler himself isn’t necessarily the focus. The stories are told via the notes of Fosse, his assistant, an acerbic and debaucherous Fly-kinden woman. More than anything else, Fosse is what makes For Love of Distant Shores worth reading. Her wry, cutting commentary is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

All of these stories seemed to be written with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the setting, so unfortunately I’m not sure I’d recommend the collections to those who haven’t already read Shadows of the Apt.

For those who have read the novels, I definitely recommend A Time for Grief and For Love of Distant Shores. Spoils of War is less memorable and probably only worth it for super fans, if that.