The Way of Kings
Length: 1252 pages, standard paperback page size/font
Here's another Brandon Sanderson book, and sadly, my opinion of his work continues to erode as I read more of his novels. It's not that I want to disparage the guy. I'd much rather finish a long book feeling like it was a great story than that it was a huge block of my life that I wasted. I don't like being negative, but if the criticism is warranted, I'm not going to hold back on it.
The structure of this book felt similar to Elantris, in that it had multiple protagonists that it kept switching between. There with three primary ones (Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar), and there were also a few other chapters thrown in with someone else taking the lead in events removed from those three. Talking too much about those others would step into some spoiler territory, though, and the ones for which it wouldn't don't do anything of real note within the scope of this book, so I'll just focus on the big three.
Up first is Kaladin, who definitely took the main share of the spotlight. Kaladin was the son of a surgeon, but unfortunately for him, he lives in a world where the majority of people (in the nation of Alethkar, at any rate) believe that the best job for a man is to be a soldier and that the second-best is to be a farmer. He's introduced to the reader as a squad leader in an army, so we know which path he ultimately took, but the frequent flashbacks to his earlier life fill in the gaps of how he got there over the course of the book. Sanderson uses that technique to add some drama for the reader, as we see snippets of his regrets and of his life prior to those events several times before learning about what actually happened.
On the other hand, that drama is rather sorely needed because Kaladin is really not a compelling character on his own. He suffers from depression and has a problem of seeing himself as being cursed. I can relate to both of those problems, and neither one was depicted in a way that made me care until after the character had been established in my mind negatively. It's basically the same problem as I'd had with Sarene in Elantris, where I came to dislike the character so much during the early parts of the book that the well's been poisoned long before the character gets a chance to develop further. Wanting to save some interesting details for the later parts of the book is all well and good, but you need to give the reader something early on to at least tip them off about the character's redeeming aspects. Instead, we're left with little indication that Kaladin is anything but an overconfident gloryhound who couldn't handle it when things didn't go his way. It didn't take long for me to mostly tune out the parts where Kaladin was in focus, and since he's the most featured of the protagonists, this lead to a lot of boring stretches that I was just enduring to get back to someone else.
Shallan, on the other hand, is done far better. She's almost like the anti-Sarene. While Sarene was an annoying bitch for far too long before starting to show what was under the facade, Shallan practically starts out by telling the reader that she's a charlatan intent on stealing from a princess, but she's doing it because her dead father was an even worse charlatan and she's desperate to get some funds to tide over the rest of her family. That goes a long way towards earning the reader's patience. I didn't honestly care much about her family (what we see of them is closer to abusive than loving), but that's not what matters. The point is to show something about Shallan to cultivate some emotional bond with the reader in order to build a desire to see her further development.
As Shallan spends time as an apprentice for Princess Jasnah Kholin, she starts to enjoy her freedom and education, and she shows gradual yet steady growth from a naive adult-child to a competent and clever woman. Her part of the plot doesn't actually lead to much in this book (which is something I'll get back to in a moment), but it was tolerably unoffensive, at least.
Lastly, there's Dalinar Kholin, uncle of King Elhokar Kholin, known as the Blackthorn from his lifetime of battlefield brilliance as soldier and warlord both. He's a different man now than he was in his youth, though, and much of his plot is built around trying to manage his new sense of priorities in a society that doesn't mesh with them. There really isn't much that I can say about it, at least not without getting into spoilers. Of the three protagonists, he was the most interesting. Had he been the sole protagonist (and really, given the page count for the book, it could've easily been split into three separate novels, had it actually been complete in and of itself), his book would've probably been a B-. While both of his big plot twists were easy enough to predict, they weren't any less satisfying for it, recapturing the magic that Sanderson had found in Mistborn of letting the reader feel smart without reducing their enjoyment.
Speaking of things that I've seen Sanderson do before, the general plot is really more of the same that he always gives. The world is in a state of decline due to the machinations of some embodiment of an ideal or a natural process. People have twisted the reality of their history into a set of myths that feed into that decline. Magic operates within a rigid set of rules, which one of the protagonists has to rediscover by experimenting because they don't have access to anyone capable of teaching them. Hoid makes an appearance to spew some cryptic nonsense at one of the protagonists during a moment of need. Sanderson doesn't really do anything to break into new ground, but he doesn't really have to, since the structure works well enough to deliver the story.
At least, that's what I would assume. The fact of the matter is that Sanderson doesn't actually give the reader a complete story here. Instead, the whole book just ends abruptly. It was planned as the first part of a series, and it shows. At least the likes of Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, Jordan's The Eye of the World, and Carey's Kushiel's Dart have the decency to be complete stories that also lay the groundwork for further sequels. This book is unabashedly just a prelude.
Ultimately, that's my biggest complaint about it. By the end, it felt like I'd read 1200+ pages to get something that should've been maybe 100 pages at the start of a real book. I'm usually forgiving of authors feeling so passionate about what they've put into a work that they can't help spurting in some extra details about their creations. I've been there and done the same myself. I get that it's coming from a good place. However, there's no excuse for spending hundreds of thousands of words on basically just three or four noteworthy plot points, all of which are just meant to serve the story of an entirely separate book (two separate books, actually, if not more, but I digress).
When I buy a book, I expect it to be a complete work in and of itself. If it can also serve as a foundation for a series, that's a nice extra, but it needs to deliver on that minimum expectation. The Way of Kings doesn't, and it ended up feeling like Sanderson was so disrespectful of the worth of my time that he expected me to be fulfilled with a glorified history book meant to accompany the real story. This has made me lose all faith in him, and I won't read anything else that he's written. Past experience has shown that I already know the plots he's going to come up with for himself, anyway.
Length: 1252 pages, standard paperback page size/font