Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Way of Kings

Epic fantasy authors probably hate comparisons to the Wheel of Time--and Brandon Sanderson is probably more sensitive to those comparisons than any of them as the author who had the monumental task of finishing out the Wheel of Time. But let's face it: the Wheel of Time is our generation's defining fantasy epic, and it's a testament to that series' longevity and influence that every fantasy series from 1990 through 2010 (and probably beyond) is going to be compared to it.  Sanderson's new epic series, the Stormlight Archive, is no exception.

The most striking difference when comparing the Stormlight Archive (or at least The Way of Kings) to the Wheel of Time is that the central conflicts of the two settings are designed very differently.  From halfway through the first Wheel book, we know exactly what the central conflict is: the forces of the Dragon Reborn (the good guys) against the forces of the Dark One (the bad guys).  There are a lot of characters who can rightly be considered protagonists, but it's obvious from the first chapter of the first book that the central one, the most important character to the story, is Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn.  And there are a lot of characters who can rightly be considered antagonists, but it's obvious from the flavor text to the prologue (not to mention his big-bad-guy name) that the big bad guy is the Dark One.

In contrast, after a book of Stormlight, we don't know who or what fills the role of central conflict, primary protagonist, or primary antagonist.  In that regard, Stormlight is closer to emulating George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which deliberately avoids the distinction of "main character"/"big bad guy" (or really even of protagonist/antagonist at all), and whose central conflict is basically a tapestry of a bunch of smaller conflicts that all happen to influence each other.

But that's not necessarily an apt comparison either.  Stormlight, at least after one book, seems to have a central conflict--we just can't necessarily comprehend what it is yet.  It has definite protagonists in the forms of Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar, though we don't know which (if any) of them is the "most important".  And a conflict as climactic and apocalyptic as what's been hinted at has to have an antagonist behind it, but after the first book, we have literally no idea who that is, much less what its motives and intentions are.

It's not immediately clear whether that ambiguity is a good or bad thing, but in truth it's likely a little of both.  It's nice that we don't know exactly where the book is headed, so we have to remain invested in every character and every story arc.  But it's also a little disconcerting that there's no apparent structure or destination in mind.  Worse, even high-concept epics that do have clear destinations don't exactly have great track records of completion.

To what extent does Brandon Sanderson actually intend to finish the Stormlight Archive?  It's a cynical thing to wonder, but that cynicism is unfortunately justified in comparison to other contemporary epic fantasy series.  George RR Martin hasn't made any apparent progress on A Song of Ice and Fire in the last five years.  Terry Goodkind did finish the Sword of Truth series, but only after many more books than were probably necessary and enough shifts in setting, supporting characters, antagonist, and motivating conflict to make it seem like three or four series half strung together.  And Robert Jordan actually died before he could finish the Wheel of Time.  Obviously it's a tragedy, but it serves as a reminder that even the best laid plans of fantasy authors don't always come to fruition.

That said, the Stormlight Archive has a better-than-average change of reaching its ending.  Brandon Sanderson is relatively young (middle 30s) and seems to be in good health.  The series is slated to be comprised of ten books, and ten is such an important number in the setting that I honestly believe Sanderson will end the series at ten books.  That's not to say there won't be bloat in the later books as Sanderson (inevitably) realizes he isn't telling the story as quickly as he needs to, but the promise of a logical stopping point in the series makes its finish seem more likely.

Even more convincingly, Sanderson has progressed incredibly well in his pursuit to wrap up the Wheel of Time.  The first of Sanderson's contributions to the Wheel of Time books was scheduled to release in 2009, and we got it in November 2009.  The second was supposed to release before the end of 2010, and we got it in November 2010.  The Wheel of Time books are not small undertakings--neither in terms of pages nor the expectations of demanding fans--but Sanderson's demonstrated ability to deliver a large volume of high quality work while still maintaining a schedule is the best evidence that Stormlight will eventually reach a proper and timely conclusion.

The bigger question, of course, is do we want to read the Stormlight Archive all the way to its conclusion?  At least after The Way of Kings, the answer is mostly yes.  It's obvious that Sanderson has sunk an incredible amount of time and effort into world-building, and his effort has paid off.  I'm already invested in the setting, and I definitely want to know what's going on.  The characters are mostly good too, though at this point I think I'm more invested in the mythology than the characters.  It's a dangerous road to walk--remember how many Lost fans were disappointed when they didn't realize until too late that Lost was about the characters, not the mythology--but I don't doubt the characters will grow even more interesting as the series progresses and we've spent some time with them.

The Way of Kings has only three centrally important characters, and they're all intriguing enough to keep me reading about them.  The Kaladin chapters are generally the best, as the character development in them is both believable and interesting, but Kaladin's backstory is far too lengthy compared to the insight it gives to his character.

In fact, the biggest criticism I can give The Way of Kings is that it's too long.  The one-thousand page mark in books is sort of like the three-hour mark in movies: you better have something truly extraordinary going on, or you're not holding my attention anymore.  Way probably could have cut down to two-thirds or three-quarters its size and still been all right.  And granted, it necessarily has its share of expository elements that won't need to burden future books, important if pedantic details like explaining how the monetary system works, or noting the cultural significance of a certain style of clothing.

To come full circle and close with another Wheel of Time comparison, many readers have already wondered if Sanderson will develop "Jordanitis"--with some complaining that he already has--that is, devoting so much of the book to description and detail that very little ends up happening.  Honestly, he very well may.  But part of the reason that the readers of the Wheel of Time grew so frustrated with Robert Jordan was that we had to wait indefinitely for each book, never knowing how long it was going to take to hear more of the story.  So when a new volume was released that didn't actually tell any of the story, it was more than a little disheartening.

Where Sanderson seems to have surpassed Jordan, at least so far, is in his discipline.  As long as Brandon Sanderson remains vigilant about consistently telling his story, we will read it, even if it takes ten thousand pages over fifteen years.

Currently listening: (E)vening, Mae (review to follow)

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