I just finished reading a 1000 page prologue.
That was my first thought when I completed The Way of Kings last night. It took a long time for me to get into the book and to start liking it, but by the end I was not only hooked, I was deeply invested. The best fantasy fiction is not just entertaining, it is also enlightening, and Sanderson’s first novel in The Stormlight Archive is a perfect treatise on deontology. I don’t use that word lightly, but after finishing the novel last night, I went back through each character’s story and reflected on their internal and external struggles, their decisions, and how each character was balanced against one another. Sanderson does not employ the heavy-handed philosophizing and sermonizing that has come to define Terry Goodkind, but still manages to guide the reader in engaging the complex subjects of duty, honor, loyalty, sacrifice, and utilitarianism.
Even better, he makes no final judgments and gives no conclusion to the argument. Different characters reach different conclusions, and two of my favourite characters end the book conflicted. To save many lives, they had to take many lives, and they are not certain their actions were just.
There are a number of wonderful philosophical questions raised by this novel, such as the nature of victimization and responsibility, the ideal of pacifism versus the reality of violent conflict, and the role of government and how it is formed. These themes are hard to reach, however, because the book is so obtusely written. It begins by dropping you into the middle of a world with unique nations and vocabulary that go undefined and unexplained, and it is set in the midst of a historical mystery that stretches back eons. The plot was good and the characters were grand, but I had trouble visualizing and understanding the action. Sanderson has written a brilliant fantasy novel, but he needs to write a dictionary or maybe an encyclopedia to go with it. A glossary at the back of the book might help, but it doesn’t do much good if you’re reading on Kindle like I was. Also, there was no glossary.
As we read further, we learn that the words aren’t just throw-away fantastical-sounding placeholders either. Sanderson knows what he is doing and he has mapped out, developed, and built extensive histories and cultures. But he requires that you pick them up as you go along and mentally map that understanding back to what you read several hundred pages ago. This is not a book for someone who dislikes reading, and if you have trouble holding facts and names and dates in your head, you may struggle to get the most out of his prose. I was tempted to take notes as I read it, and if it wasn’t over 1000 pages long, I’d read it again right away to make sure I got everything.
What Sanderson is doing here isn’t really new, though. The DragonLance Saga did the same thing decades ago, but it was organized very differently and in a manner that made it much more readable. Rather than trying to follow half a dozen characters over the course of months or years with flashbacks that spanned decades while exposing historical facts from past millennia, there would be a book following a character, and a different book following a different character. History would be explained from one character to another, and the characters we followed would be as dumb and naive as us, so vocabulary and politics would be explained to them in sufficient detail for the reader to play along. That sort of writing is now defined as juvenile and simplistic, but it’s a helluva lot more readable too.
That said, if you can stick with it, The Way of Kings is quite simply brilliant. It is, in regards to its philosophical undertakings, perfect. I cannot wait for the second novel to hit the Kindle store in March 2014, because now that I’ve read this prologue and finally have a rudimentary grasp on that world and how it works, I look forward to reading more about what comes next.