The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is nothing if not ambitious. Over a thousand pages long, attempting to read it is not for the weak of heart. Although I am a huge fantasy fan, I’d never tried anything so hardcore until about three years ago, when I picked this sucker up because it was my boyfriend’s favorite at the time. It took a while for me to get into it, but once I was in, I was in, and yes, I read the other two 1,000 page books in the series. I am nothing if not committed.
Many things stand out in this series as exceptional: the magic system, the worldbuilding, the tight plotting (yes, despite the fact that it’s a million pages long, the plot is tight), and the diversity. Brandon Sanderson not only has a spectacular imagination, but he is also very good at describing and presenting his world well. I firmly believe that he is the next Tolkien. However, I believe what really makes this series great is its characters. This makes it unique because honestly, characters are not the focus in most fantasy novels. Plot and theme usually take precedence, and characters often fall into common fantasy stereotypes, like Stoic Warrior, Dumb-but-Funny Sidekick, and Strong Independent Woman. That’s not to say that these character types don’t have quirks and I don’t enjoy them. But in general, there’s not much variety. The Way of Kings is one of the first times reading fantasy where I felt like the characters were real people.
The Stormlight Archive, which is the name of the series which The Way of Kings kicks off, has three primary point of view characters: Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. There are lots of “in-between” chapters from different, random characters we never see again, but don’t even get me started on them. So far, although all three narrate all three books, each character has their own “book” which delves more into their backstory. The Way of Kings is Kaladin’s story.
Kaladin is the classic “hero” of the series, but he is a deeply flawed one. When we meet him, he is a former warrior turned slave. He’s become angry, bitter, and cynical. He struggles to get out of bed in the morning, and at one point, he even considers suicide. I kept reading because I identified with Kaladin, and I wanted to see how his story would change.
Now, Kaladin is a bridgeman in the war, but because he has a reputation as a deserter and a rebel (and he’s honestly pretty damn sullen and unpleasant at this point), he’s assigned to Bridge Four, the crew with the worst reputation and casualty rate. Kaladin slowly becomes more and more depressed and hopeless. However, after being pushed to his very limit, although he is tempted to give up and die, Kaladin resolves instead to whip his crew into shape. It takes a lot of work, but he’s a natural-born leader, and the crew steadily improves, even saving Lord Dalinar’s army at the end of the book, raising Kaladin to the position of captain.
The reason why I believe Kaladin is such a remarkable character is that he bridges two types of characters: he is both the warrior hero and the everyman. In The Lord of the Rings, the epic hero is Aragorn. He gives dramatic speeches, he leads armies into battle, every lady falls for him, and he’s never tempted by the ring. He’s one of the most popular characters for good reason. He’s the hero that story needs. But ultimately, Aragorn isn’t a realistic human being. He’s more than human. And that’s okay, because it’s a fantasy novel, but we can’t relate to him. We’re much more likely to relate to Frodo or Sam, ordinary hobbits shoved into a great destiny, who often fail. They suffer from doubt, fear, greed, depression… the full range of human emotions. They ultimately succeed, but they aren’t warriors. Kaladin, however, is both. He feels those human emotions. He fails constantly. He’s even got that good teenage angst. But when it’s needed, he’s able to rise above it and become the inspiring warrior and leader that the story needs.
I could write a whole separate article, or even a thesis, on how masterfully Sanderson portrays Kaladin’s depression, but I’ll save that for another day. Today, we celebrate ten years of this thick, thick, beautiful book! Raise a glass to toast Kaladin and everything that is wonderful about fantasy today!