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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings

My review of The Way of Kings, must start with certain caveats. First, I must cop to a certain envy of Brandon Sanderson, a man younger than myself, who is incredibly prolific, and talented, and successful, and... hand picked by Harriet Jordan to complete the Wheel of Time. My own attempts to start my career in fantasy have been thwarted mostly by myself. So, it is important to view my criticisms of his writing through a slightly jealous veil.

That said, I do have certain valid criticisms, of his writing style, and his view of fantasy. Also, looking at his essay on magic, though well intentioned as a guide to young writers, it doesn't quite fit the facts of some very successful sagas.

One thing is undeniable, Sanderson is a formidable story teller. I have read several of his Mistborn series, and Elantris, and each book is a well laid out, truly engrossing story. The same must be said for Way of Kings. And though his writing may not be my cup of tea, I certainly intend to finish the series, unlike Mistborn, which I did not complete.

I think I must state outright that, I think his writing lacks the sophistication of Martin, the breadth of vision of Jordan, the complexity and sublety of Erikson, the familiarity of the Eddings team, the cohesiveness of Weiss and Hickman. Any reader should know that going in to one of his stories. But maybe, Sanderson doesn't need to do that, he's made his own place in the starry sky of modern fantasy.

Let's go to the fantasy five.

Character: this is one of the things that I think Sanderson falls down on. The hero of this epic is a young soldier/slave named Kaladin. The book is over a thousand pages, probably 20% of that is given to describing Kaladin's state of mind, chiefly his depression. As Kaladin is as deep as a teapot, this makes for some boring reading. My wife has a saying that she used to describe certain boys when she was on the market: "darkness is not depth: do not mistake depression for intelligence, charisma, wisdom, or introspection". Kaladin has some decent reasons for being down, but for whatever reason, the constant vacillating on his state of mind, really just bores. That said, I found Dostoevsky's  Underground Man similarly irritating, and Notes from the Underground is considered to be one of his seminal short stories. In Way of Kings, even on page 600, Sanderson has Kal again teetering on the brink of his boring depression. Again. I don't have anything against depression, and for all I know the writer himself may have struggled with it, but it does not for concise story telling make, and Way of Kings would be a better book if it were about 200 pages shorter.
A beautiful illustration of Kaladin with Syl, by Dixon Leavitt,

Kaladin's history is told in increments through out the novel, culminating in the secret reveal in the last 100 pages. Several secrets revealed. One of which was worth it, the other of which, the reason for his depression, was, frankly not.

However, I am an optimist, and I do like Kaladin. And it was his story, not Shallan's, not Dalinar's that made me want to complete this novel.

Shallan's story, told in a different country of the same world was almost useless. I won't waste too much breath on Shallan. Much was made of her wit, by Sanderson, but to me, her wit was a slug-like thing next to the satirical utterances of Tyrion Lannister, or even Jaime Lannister. For some reason, Sanderson's editors at Tor (I love you darling people, so don't hate me for saying this) thought it was a good idea to keep the entire length of a poorly written essay by Shallan in the text of the book. It was not. It is a bad essay, and any non creative writing professor, and a few of them as well would have reduced it, and Shallan to shreds.

One neat note: I suspect Sanderson is an artist, because he describes the process of drawing, in so far as it works for me, very well. And all of the book's illustrations are quite good, though I haven't bothered to find out if they are his or not.

The other epic hero is Dalinar, who, interestingly is a much older man than usual in fantasy. He has to be about fifty, with a 20 year old son. That's good. As a man getting older myself, I find myself frustrated by the fact that say, all of Jordan's central characters are between the ages of 18 and 22.  Rand al'Thor frequently acts impossibly mature for his tender 22 years.  However, Dalinar suffers from the same problem that all of Sanderson's characters do, he's one dimensional.

You can get an idea of what I'm talking about from a casual sampling of his "extras". Sailors are crude but happy, blacksmiths are big and jolly, priests ingratiating, standard nobles are feckless, you get the picture. As I've written ad nauseum, tropes are a necessary part of writing, yet... It doesn't work for Sanderson. His characters are Saturday morning cartoon versions of what ought to be a made for HBO series.

Cliche: Sanderson is not a believer in the use of standard fantasy cliches. I don't have a problem with that necessarily. There are no dwarves or elves, and the magic, which I'll discuss in depth, seems to be original. However, as I've suggested, Sanderson's lack of character depth means that the central characters all rely on the bad sorts of cliches, the types that are unintentional and indicative of bad writing.

Sanderson breaks with standard cliches in the following ways. There seems to be no central awful evil one, not by the end of the first book at least. We know that there were, thousands of years ago, crazed beasts called the Voidbringers, which sounds a lot like the beasts that destroyed the land of the Never Ending Story, the Nothing. The races that populate this world, are nothing like the other races we have come to love, they are different colours, but carnival colours. Class and caste are determined by eye color. Size differences are slight, and poorly delineated. The biggest cliche that Sanderson dispenses with is the simple air and water his characters live on. The continent in which the action takes place, is like the ocean bed from The Little Mermaid. I kid, but Sanderson's imagination runs wild with this world. This was truly inspired. A funny example is that there are chickens in this world, but they are rare and exotic. People eat crustacheans only and grow seaweed from rock pods. Pretty neat, though it trends toward science fiction. 
A Warg from the Never Ending Story

As I wrote, Sanderson is invested in some cliches, standard story type cliches, thus sloppy writing cliches. It's one thing to call to mind a sailor with his lewd mouth and ruddy complexion, it's another thing to make him act like an after school special, version of himself. I think that's one way other writers successfully use cliches. The Belgariad's Durnik, was exactly the sort of man you'd expect to be a smith, as is Perrin from the Wheel of Time. Yet, each of these characters had a subtle sense of originality. durnik's heartbreaking devotion to Polgara, Perrin, slow to rage, yet given to his wolven nature of blood frenzy.

Speaking specifically about the story's main hero, Kaladin, SPOILER ALERT, I mentioned the Coming of Age cliche, and the Hero's Redemption, cliche. I think one of the greatest examples of the Hero's Redemption is Mad Mordigan from the film Willow, whose first appearance is having been locked in a cage and left to rot. The first time we meet Kal, he is a proud and strong soldier, a few years later he is an escaped slave, recaptured and bitter, but not broken. Gradually we see him enliven, and boy do I mean gradually.
Mad Martigan from Willow as we first see him, in chains like the scoundrel he is.

Another familiar cliche, The Am I Going Crazy cliche, is used for the story's older hero Dalinar, the old warrior who begins to have prophetic visions. I think this works rather well for Sanderson, even if it is somewhat tired, and the answer to the cliches question, is simply "no". When Jordan used the Am I Going Crazy Cliche in Lord of Chaos, it was to describe The emergence of Lews Therin Telamon in Rand Al'Thor's mind. Jordan showed his depth with that one, and the answer was much more complicated than simply yes or no. Still, the novel is already too long, and even more boring soul searching would have further dragged the novel down.

Scope: The best thing Way of Kings has going for it, are its magic and its scope. Little Mermaid with gigantic swords, is actually a great start to a story. And the book is full of interesting little details, for example, the female nobility of Alethkar, keep one hand, their "safe hand" hidden as is only proper for a lady of good breeding. Men and women have acceptable norms for behaviour. Men should study war and be fighters, women, should study music and reading and writing. In fact, men are intentionally illiterate, typically having their wives scribe for them, reading books aloud, or writing messages out for their husbands. I like this, not because I don't like equal rights in my fantasy, but because sexual dimorphism is a real thing. I am constantly surprised by the number of really powerful women fighters in Steven Erikson's novels, and he is an practicing anthropologist! I don't mind the idea of it, but if you have them, then they can't allbe thin wisps, most of them would have to be like Martin's Brienne of Tarth, big, or ugly, and literally built like a man. Swords are heavy, armour is even heavier.
The Maid of Tarth, played excellently by GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE, who happens actually to be quite pretty in real life.

But i digress, the scope of this planet is large, and you get the feeling that Sanderson spent considerable time developing it. that said, it isn't deliverd particularly skillfully. One of the things that made the world of the Wheel of Time so compelling, was that it started out small, in a small village called Emond's Field, far from anywhere else. But Jordan didn't declaim as Author, "the people of this subcontinent eat fillet of fish," or "the people of this continent only eat fried bugs," what we learned, we learned through the omniscient story telling voice of whatever characters were central at that time. The villagers of Emond's Field knew that far to the south, a city named Tear existed, but they wouldn't have been able to tell much more than that. Jordan made damn clear, almost annoyingly so by page 7000, that people learn by rumor, by word of mouth, and even the omniscient voice was frequently wrong about the facts.
Emond's Field, the cover of the Wheel of Time's first installment, The Eye of The World
All of which to say, Sanderson throws a lot at you at once. It is nice that the action takes place in several kingdoms at once (though I would have nixed Shallan as a character altogether) but, at this early early stage of the game, it's sort of unnecessary and distracting. The main story is about Kaladin, and that takes place on the Shattered Plains, where Chasm Fiends roam like giant lobsters. With flashbacks to his homeland, just over the border. Kaladins fellow slaves are from all over the world, and are thus incredibly diverse, showing just how much Sanderson has in store for us. And yet--I don't buy in.
A beautiful rendering of a Chasm Fiend, by Mighty5cent, and courtesy of
It takes a singular talent to make new races, new peoples, and to introduce them in such a way as to hold to the reality of the world. Because that is what we are talking about ultimately with fantasy. The world bends or breaks the laws of Earth, and the Galaxy in general, but it must adhere to its own rules. Sanderson knows this, indeed a portion of essay on magic systems stems from observations bout internal consistencies. Sanderson is rigid about making sure his system works, and I commend his outstanding creativity.

The world of Way of Kings is truly ground breaking. Still, it might have been nice for him to explain some of its intricacies through the characters, and not through bland references to far away kingdoms and customs. A good example of this idiot tactic, is Kaladin's blithe reference to Corinne's slave rules.  I guess there is some nation named Corinne, or person, or state, where they've established laws that govern slavery.  While it is absolutely fascinating, and a worthy endeavor to detail such laws, that's not what Sanderson did, he threw this supposedly obscure reference in to add depth, I know its bad writing because I do it myself.  It just comes off as amateurish.  When Jordan does the same thing, a good example would be Birgitte Silverbow, who has lived countless lives as she is attached to the Wheel of Time as one of its greatest heroes.  She makes fun passing analogies, like, "Elayne's always looking down her nose like some Tovan Councilor."  But the context for Birgitte has been established, she has lived dozens of times, and each time she was born and died a member of a different nation, in a different land, it's only natural for her to mention names we've never heard of.  And, even better, Jordan will bring up those references, miniscule as they are, later when we find out hundreds of pages further along that a Tovan Councilor is a really snooty elder from a nation that died during the Trolloc Wars.  I sincerely doubt that we will ever see reference to the Corinne Rules again.  That is not to say he doesn't always get it right.  He did do a neat job with describing chicken. Naturally, these crustacean devouring Alethkari, think it the most exotic food, and, he even includes a random trading scene where chickens are acquired (somehow relevant to the plot, but I can't say how.)
image by quargon

Magic: not to be out done by his own system of allomancy in the Mistborn saga, the Stormlight Archive, the proposed name for the saga Sanderson hopes will be his opus, uses several systems of magic. There are Sheardbearers, men who wield gigantic swords reminiscent of he blades from manga comics. The swords are magic and weigh little to their owners. I must say I enjoy this particular brand of magic, a child of Dungeon and Dragons, and Final Fantasy video games, I am much enamoured of magic swords, and they are not as common as you might think in contemporary fantasy. It was the openings scene of this novel, which I read in a Tor newsletter sample over two years ago that made me want to purchase this novel two begin with. That opening scene featured a dozen of these gigantic blades rammed into the ground after a megalithic battle. That opening had real promise, sadly, the book itself has not measured up to its glorious beginning.

But I digress again, there are other forms of magic: Stormlight, soul casting (which is creating matter out of thin air) and some power called Lashing, that uses Stormlight (Sanderson's source of Magic are these massive high storms that pass through every week or so. The power gathers in gems, which powerful people use to power their magic items). Lashing uses some of the facets of Allomancy, namely, the push me pull you method of moving. It is a singularly scientific manner of creating a system of magic, people who are flying aren't defying gravity, so much as using methods of force and trajectory, with the allocations of various elements. In Mistborn, allomancers use different kinds of metals to perform different actions, and the metal "burns" during use, such that it disappears. Because magic always has to have limits. Similarly, gems lose their light after infusing the caster with Stormlight.  Interesting that Sanderson's opus uses such a similar method of magic, Stormlight, as his last trilogy. It harkens to another fantasy cliche, Fire and Ice. In all final fantasy games, and in many manga epics, including Naruto, the earth is divided into elements that complement each other: fire and ice, earth and wind, lightning and water (much as that ancient Greek philosopher Thales did). I don't think this was intentional, but the magic system of Mistborn clearly was "earth" while the magic of Way of Kings, is "lightning". As I've said dozens of times, I see nothing wrong with the use of cliche. It enhances a story, it says without saying, implies without utterance.  In this case, I think it novel.

One of the things at which Sanderson excels, is his technical treatments of magic and battles. The second prologue in Way of Kings, (I call it a prologue, because it proceeds the main action of the story by five years, not because Sanderson designates it as such) has a fantastic scene during which a minor but pivotal character, the Assassin in White, is introduced. It is a phenomenal battle scene, and reminds me about of some of the battles in the science fiction epic, Enders Game, where gravity and perspective are thrown to the four winds. Good work Sanderson, good work.

Last...we have Theme. As usual it is the hardest to define, and the most important piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes, We know what we like, the second we see it. Sometimes, we have to do a thing, or see a thing many times before we know that. What is the difference? Does it matter? I knew I liked the Wheel of Time immediately. A song of Ice and Fire, (Game of Thrones) I hated at first, because I was young, and having my favourite characters killed was awful. But successive rereads over the years have made me love Game of Thrones dearly. I did not like Harry Potter at first,  I thought the writing childish and simplistic (and its teenie bopper lit, so that's not wrong) but the cleverness, and growth of the characters in successive books made it well worth it. I knew the second I cracked the cover of The Black Company that it was awesome.

 But where does Way of Kings fit in all of that? I look forward to the second book, published in a matter of days I believe. But... as you may have guessed, I'm not a Sanderson groupie. There is just something about the writing that puts me off. In Fires of Heaven, when Rand al'Thor stares off into the mountains and asks Asmodean if he knew what those distant ruins were, Asmodean shrugs and says he doesn't know, that the world has changed too much. But I believe Jordan knew. Or, if he did not, he could have fit those nameless ruins into his epic without upsetting the story, or world history. I do not have that same confidence with Sanderson. Nor did I with Goodkind.  If I had to define Sanderson's theme, it might be, I see him as a fantasy cover artist who had a gift with words, who can visualize and depict incredibly intricate worlds, but does not have the depth of a great game changing writer. And he definitely tries, there's enough, faux pholosophy and character analysis to indicate that if he could do it, he would have.  He is the John Grisham of his genre, that's not too cold I don't think. Grishams novels are vastly entertaining, and they will keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happens next, but they won't educate you, they won't enlarge your experience, and they won't make you a better person. And sadly, I think that must be true of Way of Kings as well. Which is sad, because the title of the book is named after a book that was aimed at doing precisely that.

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