I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, a doorstopper of a first entry in a series whose express purpose is to be a very long succession of doorstoppers. I’ll admit up front that I wasn’t sure if I’d finish it. Epic fantasy really isn’t my genre, and I only decided to try it in the first place because I was curious about what fantasy fans are into these days. Still, everything was going surprisingly well when I wrote that post. Sanderson’s writing has improved markedly since last time I tried one of his books (Elantris, if I remember correctly) and he seems to be actively avoiding many of the pitfalls so many fantasy authors blunder into on a regular basis.
That was around 50 pages ago. I’ve now set The Way of Kings aside, and I seriously doubt I’ll ever pick it up again.
First of all, I should explain the problems I’ve had with epic fantasy in the past.
I read The Hobbit way back in the day and liked it quite a bit. I read The Lord of the Rings shortly after that and didn’t entirely understand what all the fuss was about. (I will freely admit that I only finished the third one because I wanted to be able to tell people that I Had Read The Lord Of The Rings.) Then someone recommended the Wheel of Time books to me, and I, in my naiveté, decided to read four of them in a row.
I started to suspect that I had made a grave mistake around the point in the second book (or maybe the third, I forget) where two of the female protagonists are captured by insidious foreign types and forced into slavery via magic collars that enable the slavers to perfectly simulate the feeling of being spanked. There are long descriptions of how humiliating the characters find all of this. There is one particularly baffling scene where a character isn’t allowed to wash herself for an entire week and her dishevelled state is lingered upon for several uncomfortable paragraphs.
But wait, I thought, I must be misinterpreting this. There’s no way a respectable publisher of mature fantasy novels would ever agree to print millions of copies of someone’s thinly-veiled wank material.
Long story short, much of the Wheel of Time franchise is indeed thinly-veiled wank material. It features a seemingly infinite number of scenes where female characters are degraded or humiliated in an uncomfortably prurient fashion. All of the women wear dresses with ‘plunging necklines’. There’s one particularly hilarious moment where the hero’s love interest (one of three) is trapped in a dream dimension where her thoughts control reality. When she thinks about Hero Guy, her dress alters itself to show more cleavage. It is every bit as ridiculous and misogynistic as it sounds.
So there’s that. My other big problem with epic fantasy is the ‘epic’ part. The world or universe must always be in grave danger from some nebulously-defined ancient evil. The heros are destined to rise up and defeat this evil – not because they’re the right people to do it, but because there must be an epic hero to strike down epic evil in an epic Final Battle. In the Wheel of Time series, this is an ontological fact – the fabric of creation itself is structured in such a way that this needs to happen or the whole thing will unravel.
I find all of this incredibly tedious. A livejournaler named limyaael refers to this as ‘fantasy of excess‘, a label she applies to both Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. Everything is cranked up to 11. Nothing is ever subtle. The bad guy in Wheel of Time is The Dark One, and he is The Most Evil. He lives inside a scary mountain and his minions make cursed swords using the blood of pregnant women. (Or something like that; it’s been a while.) His apostles are either evil, sadistic schemers if they’re women or evil, slightly-less-sadistic schemers if they’re men, sadism being a largely feminine trait in Jordan’s books for whatever reason.
In short, most epic fantasy novels tend not to take place in anything even approaching a realistic world. Well duh! you might say, but I’m not referring to magic or dragons when I use the word ‘realistic’. The last time I checked, reality does not order itself into neatly-partitioned categories labelled Good and Evil unless you’re some sort of ideological fanatic. The worlds of epic fantasy are teleological to such an absurd degree that they can only ever come across as flimsy caricatures of reality.
Or at least, that used to be the case. In recent times, fantasy authors have been throwing themselves gleefully in the opposite direction, creating worlds and characters that are intentionally devoid of inherent meaning or objective reality. They tend to do this with all the subtlety of a thirteen-year-old Nietzche fan: tons of violence, alarming amounts of rape and a general sense that heroism is pointless in the face of a bleak and meaningless reality. (One hopes their parents are appropriately shocked, or else fantasy’s gritty turn will have been a complete waste.)
The phrase ‘fantasy of excess’ still applies in all cases. It’s just a different kind of excess, that’s all.
And with that out of the way, we move on to The Way of Kings…
Three Prologues is Three Too Many
Prologues are a staple of the fantasy genre. I have no idea why.
The Way of Kings starts off with what is referred to as a ‘Prelude to The Stormlight Archive’. A prelude, then, is distinct from a prologue, and is presumably meant to act as the starting point for the entire series as opposed to just this book. (‘The Stormlight Archive’, remember, is the name of the epic ten-book cycle of which The Way of Kings is merely the first volume.)
I’m not buying it. Call it what you want, this is a prologue, and it serves the same function as most fantasy prologues: pointless window dressing. We are introduced to an ancient cyclical ritual in which powerful beings come into existence, fight in a battle, die, and wait for it all to happen again. There is no context for any of it; we don’t know who these people are, what they’re trying to accomplish or how their odd struggle is going to tie into the main plotline.
The real prologue comes next. Worryingly, it is set 4,500 years after the events of the Prelude.
It starts with this:
The love of men is a frigid thing, a mountain stream only three steps from the ice. We are his. Oh Stormfather…we are his. It is but a thousand days, and the Everstorm comes.”
–Collected on the first day of the week of Palah of the month Shash of the year 1171, thirty-one seconds before death. Subject was a darkeyed pregnant woman of middle years. The child did not survive.
Every chapter begins with one of these. They form a kind of miniature plotline in their own right, recounting the dying words of various people who speak a lot of prophetic nonsense just before they bite it. I started to skip them after the fourth chapter, mostly because I figured out what they’re doing but also because they can be a bit cringe-inducing. (‘WE ARE HIS. THE EVERSTORM COMES!’)
We’re then introduced to Szeth-son-son-Vallano, who is basically a cross between Altair of Assassin’s Creed fame and the guy from Dishonored. I didn’t choose videogame references randomly, by the way. The book invites them: Szeth is a superpowered assassin who wields magic that seems purpose-built to translate well into a gameplay mechanic.
Here’s a good example:
This was a Basic Lashing, first of his three kinds of Lashings. It gave him the ability to manipulate whatever force, spren or god it was that held men to the ground. With this Lashing, he could bind people or objects to different surfaces or in different directions.
A Full Lashing bound objects together, holding them fast until the Stormlight ran out. It took longer to create – and drained Stormlight far more quickly – than a Basic Lashing.
You can almost hear the mana bar depleting.
This is a particular quirk of Sanderson’s, one that he is alternatly praised and criticised for. For what it’s worth, I don’t have a problem with highly mechanistic magic systems, but I think we can all agree that the opening chapters of your book are not the best point at which to rob your setting of a lot of its mystery. The chapters immediately after this will treat magic as something wondrous and awe-inspiring, which doesn’t entirely work if you’re picturing ‘Shardbearers’ spending talent points to earn a 3% reduction in Stormlight drain every time they use a Full Lashing.
Szeth goes on to assassinate a king, which kicks off the main plot. At the point where I stopped reading, there was still no reason why all of this had to be described to the reader in such detail. ‘They killed our king, now we’re at war’ would have worked just fine.
Immediately after the prologue comes a page saying ‘Part One – Above Silence’, along with two names: Kaladin and Shallan. They must be our main characters, right?
But wait, the first chapter – set six years after the Prologue – stars a generic fantasy Callow Youth named Cenn. He’s in the army and is afraid of dying. Kaladin shows up (ah, there he is) and assures him that he will not die, because Kaladin is one of the good guys and never sends his men to certain death.
Then another magic-wielding Shardbearer shows up and Cenn dies anyway. Wonderful.
So there you have it: three prologues, only one of which calls itself a prologue. I have trouble justifying any of them. I guess you could argue that the first chapter/third prologue gets across Kaladin’s habit of trying to right the wrongs of the world, but I’m not sure it’s necessary given that he spends the next few chapters angsting about it.
I’ve just spent the last thousand words nitpicking The Way of Kings to death, so here are a few things I quite liked about the first five or six (real) chapters.
Passing the Bechdel Test
So there’s Kaladin, who goes from being shrouded in a protective cloak of good luck to being weighed down by doom and ill fortune after a nasty betrayal. He’s interesting enough, I guess, although I was disappointed when it turned out that he isn’t gay despite the book going out of its way to make it seem like he is. (In short: he obsesses over the death of a boy he knew when he was a teenager. It’s written exactly the way most people would write someone grieving over the murder of their first love, but we find out around page 130 or so that it was his brother. I have no idea why Sanderson holds off on revealing this for so long.)
(Also yes, I am aware that Sanderson has not been great about homosexuality in the past – see for example that infamous Dumbledore blog post of his. However, I’ve always gotten the impression that he’s a bit more open-minded than you might think at first glance and would probably be a lot more progressive if he could just untangle himself from whatever belief system it is that made him say homophobic things even though his heart clearly wasn’t in it. But that’s getting into the territory of psychoanalysing authors, so let’s move on.)
Kaladin gets sold into slavery and eventually ends up on a Bridge Crew, which is a lot more unpleasant than it sounds. He comes close to throwing himself off a cliff in a fit of despair, but pulls himself back from the edge both figuratively and literally so that he can be a hero again.
Shallan is much, much more interesting than Kaladin – so much so that I would have happily read an entire book about her and nobody else. Her first viewpoint chapter opens with her tracking down Jasnah Kholin, the princess of some nation or another (I lost track of the various countries and empires fairly quickly) and also the world’s most respected scholar. Shallan wants to be this woman’s ‘ward’, which basically entails becoming her apprentice and benefiting from her vast knowledge and experience.
This would have been interesting enough on its own (I will happily accept more fantasy novels about academics), but it becomes even more compelling when we learn that Shallan has an ulterior motive. She genuinely respects and admires Jasnah, and is obviously torn over the fact that her true reason for wanting to become her ward involves screwing her over royally. Er, no pun intended.
If you’ve been watching the genre for any length of time, you’ll probably have noticed a resurgence in critiques of how fantasy authors handle female characters in their books. As I said in the beginning of this post, a disturbing number of authors choose to join the Cult of Grit by writing lurid rape scenes. “But it’s realistic!‘ they will cry, even as their teenage killing-machine protagonists become cyclones of flashing steel and dismembered limbs five times per chapter. Sanderson appears to be making a conscious effort to avoid that with Shallan. She isn’t motivated by some past trauma, sexual or otherwise (at least not in the part I read), and is given a huge amount of agency by the text. Her conversations with Jasnah also pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, which is nice.
The prose in these chapters is also much better than what I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. I remember reading on his blog once that he works on two or three books at a time, and boy does it show. There are still some rough spots here and there, paragraphs or scenes that read like unpolished first draft material, but in general I didn’t have a problem with the writing.
Let’s go back to where I was in my previous blog post: 100 pages in and quite enjoying myself. I had every hope of actually finishing this thing and leaving open the possibility that I might check out the sequel when it comes out. Then I finished Part One and moved on to Part Two, and promptly lost all interest.
This Fantasy Cycle is Spinning Its Wheels
Here is a chronological summary of everything that happens to Kaladin, starting from his first POV chapter and ending with the final chapter of Part One of the book:
Betrayed and Enslaved –> Sits in a wagon and angsts about his departed optimism –> Sits in a wagon –> Sits in a wagon –> Arrives in hellish military camp –> Angsts about his departed optimism in a hellish military camp –> Decides to commit suicide –> Regains sense of optimism
His character arc for Part One isn’t difficult to spot: he is betrayed, becomes bitter and nihilistic, hits rock bottom and then rises from the ashes of his despair intent on saving himself and the other slaves at the military camp. The first part happens between chapters: we do not see the betrayal. Nor do we see his faith in the inherent goodness of the world slowly fall apart. What we’re left with, then, is an awful lot of the middle stuff: angsting, despair, more angsting, and some frankly silly ‘I AM CURSED WOE BETIDE ME’ inner monologues. By the time he finally rallies himself and decides to fight back, I had mostly stopped caring, because it was always obvious that that was going to happen. I don’t usually like to tell authors exactly how they should write their books, but Kaladin’s entire arc could have been handled with far fewer pages than it actually gets.
But that’s nothing compared to the amount of padding in Shallan’s initial chapters. Here’s a summary of what happens:
Arrives in Fantasy City –> Finds Jasnah and is rebuffed –> Decides to petition Jasnah again –> Petitions Jasnah again and is once again rebuffed –> Goes off to brood –> Is inspired to petition Jasnah a third time–> Puts in motion a plan to convince Jasnah to accept her –> Plan goes nowhere, but Jasnah accepts her anyway
Most of those sentences summarise an entire chapter. The first time Jasnah tells Shallan to take a hike, I assumed she’d probably try again. The second time, I looked forward to seeing how Shallan would achieve her goals without becoming Jasnah’s ward. When she decided to take a third stab at convincing Jasnah, I wondered why the hell she couldn’t have just become her ward the first time around.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of description and worldbuilding and all the rest of it happening between those action summaries, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that Sanderson has Shallan take such an incredibly circuitous route to the conclusion of her initial arc. Nothing in the story would have changed if Jasnah had simply accepted her the first time – or, I guess, the second time, since I can at least see the value in delaying the acceptance once so we get to see more of Fantasy City.
Even feeling like the book had led me around in circles for no good reason, I was willing to push on to Part Two. I wanted to see more of Shallan, and I was interested in reading about Kaladin freeing himself from slavery and (I’m guessing) gaining magical Stormlight powers.
Part Two opens with a completely new viewpoint character, in a completely new location, talking to people who have no discernible connection to anything that happened in Part One. Well, all right, that’s not too bad. It’s probably just a single chapter.
Part Two, Chapter One stars Shallan’s brother, who is far less interesting than her. He probably has his own plotlines and motivations and character arc. It doesn’t matter; I was done.
This right here is why ‘scope’ is not an inherent virtue. Fantasy authors and fans have this tendency to behave as though making a book massive in every sense of the word is in itself an achievement. ‘Look at this book,’ they will say. ‘Look at how many characters it has! Look at how many nations and cultures and generations its plot encompasses. This is a towering achievement, a monumental work. How can you be anything but impressed?’
Very easily, as it turns out. Part One of The Way of Kings is perfectly readable and entertaining, but that’s all. The writing is just okay. The characters are interesting enough, but they’re not likely to stay with you once you close the book. The worldbuilding, while intriguing, consists largely of a succession of stereotypes: men from this country are identifiable by their coats (they all wear the same style, I guess), women from this country are taught these particular ‘feminine arts’, these guys all have weird eyebrows, and so on. It is massively broad but shallow as a puddle.
There is nothing challenging in the first 150 pages of The Way of Kings. It is bog standard fantasy writing, notable only for the fact that it goes on for quite some time and promises to continue going on for an even longer time. To belabour the point slightly, a mediocre song does not become an achievement just because it happens to be an hour long; it may be notable, certainly, because hour-long songs are quite rare and must take a while to make, but that doesn’t mean that they have the same inherent worth as a four-minute song that completely rewrites the rules of its genre.
Or, to use a real example: this might be worth discussing and even putting in a museum, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great work of art.
So I’ve given up on The Way of Kings, mostly because I really don’t want to read 900 pages of it. If it was a third of its current length I’d probably have kept going, but another three book’s worth of content is too much if it’s all going to be decompressed to the same point as the first 150 pages.
I did have something of an epiphany while writing this blog post, though. (And I’d like to point out now that this post is, somewhat ironically, far longer than it needs to be. Whoops.) I’d always wondered why people were drawn to massive fantasy novels, and now I feel like I know: it’s because they represent an absurdly good return on investment if you like them. Had I been completely enamoured of The Way of Kings (and I sort of was, at least in the beginning) I would now be looking forward to hundreds more pages of it and then a new book of equal length every few years. For Sanderson’s fans, The Stormlight Archive is a safe bet – potentially for decades, assuming it doen’t go off the rails and that he doesn’t stop writing it for whatever reason.
I’m certainly not immune to the appeal of being given lots and lots of what I like. It’s the reason why I marathoned my way through several seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad when I first discovered them. (And, uh, True Blood, but let’s not talk about that.) It’s the reason why I read the first Wheel of Time book and then immediately got three more rather than playing it safe and just getting the second volume – because there was so much of it, and I had every reason to expect that I’d enjoy it all.
In the end, reading a small fraction of The Way of Kings gave me more respect for its genre. It’s still very much Not For Me, but I can now see the appeal where I couldn’t before. Maybe that’s enough to say that I’ve given the genre a fair chance.
…or maybe I should go to the opposite end of the grittiness spectrum by reading this. Let’s see how I feel next time I turn on my e-reader.