The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

ImageI really really dislike the American cover for Way of Kings. Like, really really. It looks, to my English sensibilities, cheesy and old-fashioned (in the worst way) and just… really naff. Which isn’t fair, because the book is amazing – I’ll get to that in a minute. But I think this about a lot of American covers. I mean the Harry Potter USA versions are just dire. Which is really weird. Because obviously those books appeal to both British and US sensibilities (to be fair, Harry Potter seems to appeal to everyone, even if it needs to be tweaked a bit for some), and yet our tastes concerning the covers are vastly different. It bothers me, because I know if I went a-wandering in a bookshop full of fantasy books with American covers, I wouldn’t be tempted to pick them up and read them like I would in Waterstones, because my brain tells me all sorts of things about them that aren’t true, based on their covers. ImageSo where did this come from? I only own one book I can currently think of with an art style at all reminiscent of the US cover of Way of Kings – which looks like this:
and it’s Terry Goodkind’s… uh… I think it’s Blood of the Fold, but I can’t currently get to my bookcase to check. Not that it matters, really. The art style of his books is faaaairly consistent. Anyway, from what I can remember, the book is also awful. And cheesy. And just so… ugh. Maybe this is why I judge this style of cover, but that can’t be all of it, surely. I mean, I judge the font because it looks like someone spent ten minutes googling fonts to get there and that was that, but that’s not what puts me off this style. It’s the full picture thing. Something about it just makes me go “ugh no”. I look at covers like The City’s Son or Chosen and I go “yes, I really want to read that, it looks excellent”, and for the most part, I judge correctly. When people have bought me books in the past with covers I’ve gone “nyrk” to, I have quite often been proved correct (cf the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson). So I obviously have some logic going on in the background that I haven’t fully twigged to… but then this. It’s annoying me, because I can’t help it or make it go away, but it’s obviously wrong. Ugh.

Apologies for the lengthy aside there, but this has been bugging me for days. On to the book!

I’ve read Way of Kings before, years ago. It must have been at least two years ago now, because it’s not in this blog, and I know I’d have mentioned it here if I’d read it when I’d started already. I already loved it. It was by far my favourite Brandon Sanderson novel, and reading more of his work has not budged it from its coveted spot. I knew it was all the excellent adjectives. And yet… I had kind of completely forgotten the entire plot. I could remember it was sort of pseudo-medieval, war-and-political-scheming, generic fantasy style stuff, but amazing, and that was kind of it. Sometimes, I’d take this reaction as telling that the book wasn’t worth remembering, but I think this time it’s just that my mind is a bit rubbish. In order to remember what the heck is going on, I thus reread it at high speed so I can read the newly-published sequel, Words of Radiance.

The reread tallies perfectly with my memory of the book’s quality. It has everything I could possibly want from a fantasy novel (except dragons), and more besides. The characters are fantastic and beautifully varied. The world is stunning and incredibly well thought out. The interlocking narratives come together so beautifully it makes me grin. The plot manages to go on over 1000 pages and not feel like it has been dragged out or padded at all, and it’s not a burden to go on reading.

Basically, I have no criticism… which makes this a terribly boring post. It is just Brandon Sanderson being Brandon Sanderson on top form, and that’s marvellous. Thank god he writes quickly, though. If he produced books at the pace Rothfuss does (and his are comparable in size), we’d all be hurting from the anticipation.

Possibly the thing I love the most about Way of Kings, if I have to pick, is Jasnah Kholin. She’s a scholar, an atheist and a kick-ass woman… who never actually kicks any ass, which makes her all the better. Fighty female characters are great, but I can much more easily get behind someone like Jasnah. She has strength, but Sanderson hasn’t made the mistake of thinking that strength needs to be physical. He’s set the story primarily in a country where the spheres of activity of men and women are strictly delineated, and within that setting, he manages to have a pair of characters who exemplify strength, while being completely set within their gender’s sphere – Jasnah and Dalinar. Dalinar fights, and goes on fighting, for all the best reasons. I choose him rather than Kaladin, because Kaladin is not so much strong as he is at his limits. He’s come to a point where there is nothing to do but press on or die, and while it takes strength to choose the option he did, it’s not quite the same as Dalinar’s. Both Dalinar and Jasnah are mocked, derided, disliked and dismissed by those around them, but they both work for the greater good of their people and seem to lose nothing of their desire to do good when suffering the ill will (sometimes extreme) of others. While I love Dalinar quite a bit, it is Jasnah whose strength pleases me most. She just… she manages to be strong and brave and utterly astonishing… while being a historian. What’s not to love about that?

Sanderson’s characters haven’t always enthralled me in the past, but he manages in Way of Kings. Pretty much every person you see gives you something new, and something very real. No one is perfect, and no one is simple and no one is boring. Even the walk-on, bit-part villains have other aspects to their character. Gaz, portrayed as a simple bully, who uses the tiny bit of power he has as cruelly as he can, gets given a few moments in the limelight, where we see how he is driven by fear, and by secret, paranoid, almost delusional waking nightmares. The heroes have darkness, as a lot of books manage, but Sanderson makes their darkness so much part of who they are that it is the most endearing thing about them. And he leaves it mysterious. There’s so much we still have to learn, especially about Shallan. Innocent Shallan. Who may or may not be a murderer.

It’s just too good. It isn’t just the characters, of course, but it’s they who shine through the most for me. I love the story so much too, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going in the next book, but again and again, I just keep coming back in my head to how much I enjoy reading about the people he’s created.

And now I’m going to stop jabbering about them so I can go read some more.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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6 Responses to The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

  1. Alex G says:

    Wheel of Time is probably the best example of British vs. American covers. The British ones are wonderfully understated, the US ones are standard fantasy art by someone who can’t draw…

  2. Rabindranauth says:

    Jasnah’s one of my favorites also! I didn’t really like Shallan in this book, but then Words of Radiance happened. So excited to read the next one; Sanderson’s currently planning to write Rithmatist part 2, and then it’s straight into Stormlight 3 :D

    By the way, you’re pretty close to the mark with your comments about the US artwork. Those are the paintings of Michael Whelan, a guy that’s been doing fantasy cover art for maybe 4 decades or something like that. Sanderson wants the Stormlight Archive to be his masterwork, and Whelan’s his favorite fantasy artist. So that’s the reason for the US covers :)

  3. readerofelse says:

    I liked Shallan in Words of Radiance… :P

    This must just be a UK/US thing. Obviously both countries have their respective styles and it becomes so ingrained that that’s the style of book cover that is Normal and Good that seeing the other just doesn’t fit in. And I can appreciate the artistry of the cover, I must add. I just don’t see it as a tasteful and artistically sound choice for a book cover… probably because I associate it with the sort of books that have that style of cover (admittedly with less good art) that I’ve seen around. Generally this means old (and quite trashy) fantasy, probably from the seventies, where it’s a burly man and a scantily clad woman and some generic landscape in the background. I have read some of those books and I have very little good to say about them.

    I think us Brits are just used to the covers being very understated, stylised and non-pictorial. I see why someone would want that as a cover for their book, but… no, I can’t bring myself to like it. Sorry.

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