Well, I wanted my first book of the year to be Sanderson's Mistborn (because I like reading an author's books in publication order if possible, and I've already read his first novel, Elantris), but my library gave my reserved copy away to someone else (!), and then when I finally gave in and ordered a copy from Amazon, it didn't ship for almost a week and a half (!!), definitely not in time for it to be #1. But since I had my heart set on Sanderson, it must have been fate that prompted the hardcover edition of The Way of Kings to show up on the 'Recently Returned' shelf at my library. And so I dove in to the ginormous hand-hurting 1,007 page tome. (Seriously? My friggin' wrist is killing me.)
After finishing, I think I can safely say that I haven't read a piece of fantasy literature this ambitious since The Lord of the Rings. Not that The Way of Kings is anything like Tolkien -- it's nothing like Tolkien, actually, other than in Sanderson's complete dedication to worldbuilding. Both authors are/were obsessed with creating vast histories and cultures to populate their stories, but in terms of the kinds of stories Sanderson is interested in telling? Not so much with the similarities. A lot of people cite these sorts of books as derivative Tolkien copies. I'm not sure I'm one of those people, but so much of epic fantasy is just a re-working of the classic hero quest, which is fine because they can be super fun if done well, really (epic fantasy can also be known as 'door-stop fantasy,' FYI, because you can use the thick fuckers to prop open your doors, ha ha get it? shut up). I can't really judge Wheel of Time or Shannara as derivative yet, as I haven't read them, but I have read The Sword of Truth and can attest to its not-dissimilar Tolkien-esque plots. All three of those series are the ones people usually name as the standard-bearers of the epic fantasy series that not only has SUPER long books, but traditionally have 10+ volumes of door-stoppers to get through.
Brandon Sanderson belongs in this category by default -- The Way of Kings is the first book of an eventual ten in The Stormlight Archive (second book to be published late 2013), and it will be a series full of 1,000+ page books set in a fantastical world full of baddies and goodies and magic like those others I mentioned above, yes. But what's Sanderson's done with The Way of Kings is essentially attempt to reinvent the epic fantasy series as a genre. I suppose one could argue that George R.R. Martin has already done this with A Song of Ice and Fire, but I would disagree. ASoIaF is certainly a long fantasy series full of long books that each turn traditional fantasy tropes on their heads, but I actually think that what Martin's doing is so different that he's essentially created his own genre, one that the likes of Joe Abercrombie and Daniel Abraham have followed in. Martin is working in opposition to the tropes and traditions of most epic fantasy series, while Sanderson is still working within the belly of the beast.
With all of that said, this is starting to feel more like a history lesson than a book review, but I think all that context is important for what I have to say about The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings begins with two prologues, the first of which being a prologue to the entire series, supposedly. In said prologue, there's a nasty war going on, and there's ten men and women called Heralds whose job it is to fight a group called the 'Voidbringers' from destroying the world. Only, they're sick of fighting, of living and dying and living and dying in the same cyle over and over again. So they decide to abandon their calling as Heralds and leave the fight to mankind and a special order of men and women called the Knights Radiant (and to the one Herald out of nine who died in the battle, and whom they abandon to be tortured in some sort of hell-dimension, until the whole cycle starts over). I think. It's all sort of confusing, and purposely so. I kept going back and re-reading the prologue at different points in the books, and I kept getting different things out of it as the plot unlocked itself.
The second prologue takes place 4,500 years later when the main thrust of the plot begins. In the epochs since the Heralds abandoned mankind during the Last Desolation, the truth of what happened has been lost in a confusing mix of legend, religion, mysticism and political agenda. No one alive knows who the Heralds really were, who they fought, or why they abandoned mankind. No one knows anything about the Radiants, either, except that they too eventually abandoned their calling, leaving behind only their (seemingly) magical armor and weapons, known as Shardplates and Shardblades, extremely powerful weapons that are so valuable to the humans left behind that entire wars are fought over single sets of weapon and blade.
Humanity is a mess, divided and fractious, and the world they live in (called Roshar) is one plagued by frequent hurricane-like storms called highstorms that have caused the flora and fauna (and the people) of Roshar to adapt extreme protective measures. It's like the ocean threw up on dry land: plants, grass and animals are all coverd in shells, and retract for protection. Giant crabs with gems for hearts stalk vast desert plains. And a mysterious force known as stormlight, brought with each oncoming storm, powers their technology.
And so we meet our main characters: Kaladin, a beaten-down and embittered slave who is either cursed or blessed, depending on who you ask; Shallan, a young scholar who is secretly a thief seeking to steal a priceless artifact from her new teacher; and Dalinar, the King's Uncle, who has followed his dead brother into possible madness in his obsession for an old book called 'The Way of Kings,' and who has begun seeing strange visions during each highstorm. All three are caught up in a world full of pointless warfare, and something else horrific is looming on the horizon.
And with all of that, I haven't even begun to scratch the surface. It was a bit daunting at first trying to slip into this world, as dense as it is, but once I did, I was hooked. The world Sanderson has created is fresh and original (no, really), his characters are lovely, flawed people, and his plots walk the fine line of simultaneously appeasing your sensibilities and giving you that good old fantasy buzz that you crave while turning the traditional plots on their heads. You'll be reading along and you think you know where it's going, and then something happens, and you're just like, well, shit! And then you keep reading because you need to know what happens. There's also a palpable sense of mystery surrounding the whole story. Even as most of the main plots are resolved within this book, each resolution only serves to open up more story possibilities, and to reveal just how much planning and thought has gone into this series. The only thing I would caution anyone about is that some people have made the criticism that there was too much set-up in this book, both philosophically and in terms of plot. I guess that's valid, but there was a heck of a lot of plot movement as well, and the set-up we get is so rich and character/plot-informed that it was just a pleasure for me to read. But it's a long book, and that sort of thing comes with the territory, so you should know what you're getting into if you pick it up, if you ask me.
To sum up: this book is a meaty delicious treat if you're a fantasy fan, and if you're looking for a way in to the genre, this might be a good starting place, if you don't mind being patient with your books, and if you appreciate the long-game in your stories (isn't it called delayed gratification when you wait patiently for something because you know there will be a payoff later?). If you're not a fantasy fan, per se, this is probably not the book for you. Go read A Game of Thrones instead.