Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fantasy Sucks Episode 1 - The Way of Kings

I've decided I'm going to start doing book reviews on this blog. I figure it's a good way for me to mentally organise myself while I'm doing the first draft of the new novel - if I can figure out here what I like and what I dislike in other people's work, perhaps I can keep on track without descending into to my habitual 7-year timeline of endless plot revisions. I'm not George R.R. Martin. This isn't a new Guns N' Roses album. If I'm going to make this work for me as a job (obviously not my only job) I'm going to need to be finishing a 100,000 book every 12-18 months. Of course, I should really concentrate on selling the one I've got, but that's another story. In the meantime, my new strategy is to have a clear idea of what I'm doing before I start, and then just write it.

Which brings us to The Way of Kings, which is a phenomenally successfully fantasy novel by Brandon Sanderson. Since I'm trying to write a phenomenally successful fantasy novel, this seems like a good place to start, right?

I have to admit being a bit slow in picking up this first volume in the Stormlight Archives series. I also have to disclose this belated review is perhaps coloured by the considerable sprain in my hand from carrying this BRICK of a novel around with me everywhere for the last couple of weeks. And it is an immense book, clocking in at around 1,000 pages, acceptable for a fantasy author but damn right unforgivable for anyone else.

The length is one of the main problems I have with this book. There are three main perspective characters: Kaladin, a surgeon's son forced into slavery; Dalinar, brother to the murdered king, who is plagued by strange visions; and Shallan, an apprentice scholar trying to steal a valuable artifact. The problem is that these three stories are spread out over 1,000 pages and don't really go anywhere. Sure, Kaladin wins his freedom at the end of the book after gallantly rescuing Dalinar, but Dalinar's visions are left unresolved, and Shallan's theft - when it does come off - doesn't really lead to anything.

Any good editor would have cut half of this book. Half. 500 pages.

It's not like there's a tremendous amount of world building that goes into Sanderson's world, either. Sure, we get a sense of the different nations, different cultures - that stuff is actually very well done - but really there are only two locations we see in any depth, the warzone of the Shattered Plains and the city of Kharbranth (the former much more than the latter, since that's where two of the three protagonists are located).

My beef is that the character's arcs are unnecessarily convoluted. Kaladin - who it seems is being set up for a tropey sort of 'chosen one' arc - begins as a defiant slave, fails to escape a bunch of times, then experiences a loss of hope. Then he has a change of heart, and decides to help save his team of expendable "bridgemen". Unfortunately, then he has another change of heart and spends about a quarter of the novel moping about how it's all pointless. Somehow, the men who now follow him still look up to him, and when he finally decides to care again he throws away their escape plan to help Dalinar, who rewards them by making them his personal honour guard. Suspending disbelief for a moment that bunch of malnourished slaves who had never held a spear before could fight better than regular soldiers, there's a long wait in this story for very little in the way of payoff. Kaladin's attitude to his plight is up and down like he's riding an emotional pogo stick.

Likewise Dalinar's story. In the beginning, he's suffering from apocalyptic visions, which he doubts. Over time, he comes to believe there might be something to them. Then he abruptly changes his mind and decides to abdicate in favour of his son. Then he changes his mind again, and decides not to abdicate. Then his visions are proven to be true, but misleading. So he ends up in the same place he started, wracked with doubt. The visions aren't explained, except that they come "from the Almighty" (I didn't know that Sanderson was mega religious until I read his wikipedia page today, but it makes sense given the world he's created, and the vaguely messianic implications of Kaladin's storyline).

In addition, the plot twists (with the exception of one, which came out of nowhere) are too predictable. Although we don't see the reason for Kaladin's enslavement until the final chapters, by the time we get there the reader has likely already figured it out. The same with Shallan's "crime" that she continually alludes to. By the time she says it out loud, you've already known for quite some time.

There are bright spots though - the fight scenes, of which there are many, are an utter joy. The concept of Shardblades and Shardplate - essentially semi-corporeal mythic weapons so powerful that they can allow one warrior to literally turn the tide of a battle - is intriguing and Sanderson has a lot of fun with it. There's certainly a lot of poignancy to Dalinar's disgust at his own actions in battle, using his super-powered armour and sword - which basically turn him into a human tank - to slaughter hundreds of enemies at a time. The best though, is the gravity-flipping magic used by the assassin, Szeth. Epic fights are even more epic when they are performed on the ceiling, or when they involve flipping large boulders into your adversaries by simply persuading the rock that down is that way.

Will I come back for the second volume in the series? I have to say, I might not, and my OCD rarely allows me to neglect reading an entire series. I guess I'll have to read some reviews and see if the characterisation problems have been ironed out. What I'm really concerned is that Sanderson might have ruined the Wheel of Time, a series I genuinely do enjoy, for all its faults. Time will tell, since there are like 800 books and I'm only one book four.

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