Just lifting The Way of Kingsis an indication of its ambition. It comes in at more than 1,000 pages, and Brandon Sanderson claims it's only the first part of a much bigger saga that will end up 10 books long. Add in all the maps, illustrations and special features that come with this book's gorgeous design, and it's enough to make a fantasy fan drool with anticipation.
But the number of pages a fantasy author is willing to take to tell his story isn't a true measure of the story's scope. A long tale can go a very little way, as readers of some of the longer fantasy sagas out there will no doubt remember. The Way of Kings is a massive display of its author's imaginative powers and his often staggering knack for worldbuilding. But does it deliver on story?
Set in a world wracked by storms and touched by ancient powers, The Way of Kings follows four principal characters on journeys that link in ways none of them can yet imagine. At the center of the story's mythos are ancient and massively powerful weapons - Shardplate (a kind of armor) and Shardlbades - left behind by a kind of master race of defenders that forsook the world long ago. Now these weapons are sought after by every nation, fought for by every army, and the result is a world forever in a state of flux.
Sanderson focuses this chaos through the stories of an unwilling assassin, a reluctant warrior turned slave, a young woman plotting to steal a powerful piece of magic and a nobleman whose grasp on the warlike ways of his people is beginning to unravel. Their stories each reveal a different portion of a larger story, one that's still taking shape as the novel ends. Change is coming to this ravaged world, and somehow each of these people have a part to play.
It's in these characters - and a scattering of others that star in interwoven chapters - that The Way of Kings finds its heart. Sanderson has a knack for infusing the people that fill his story with a complex life that few genre authors (other than, say, George R. R. Martin) ever achieve. His characterization infuses the story with the kind of earnestness that both drives it forward and makes it the kind of book real fans will want to keep reading over and over again.
But in that depth, the novel also finds its principal (and perhaps only) flaw. At times Sanderson descends so deeply into the heads of his characters, or the clothing, or the locale, or some other aspect of his worldbuilding, that the story is almost lost. The world is rich and well-hewn, but sometimes it seems Sanderson is afraid to let go of detail in favor of saving his pacing. If you're patient, the way ahead is rewarding, but it's often hard to press on. Fantasy fans who read as much for the imaginative detail as for the plotting might love it, but a good story can quickly be lessened by bloated prose.
The Way of Kings is not a masterpiece, but it does manage to be a fulfilling piece of fantasy fiction, and a primer for a world and an overarching narrative that could prove to be among the most ambitious and far-reaching series in the genre. Sanderson didn't nail this book, but he has hit upon something big, and that makes The Way of Kings worth it.