Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moderately Belated Book Review: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings is this century's first great epic fantasy.

A bold statement, yes, but I'm not the first to make bold statements of praise about this book. Howard Tayler, creator of the webcomic Schlock Mercenary, made some far bolder ones in his brief review of it when he received an Advanced Reader Copy.

This book was my biggest purchase during a recent shopping trip to Borders. I considered it to be a mild gamble purchasing it instead of waiting to see if the library would pick it up, but only a mild one. While I respect Tayler's opinion greatly, nobody agrees all the time. Lucky for me, the book immediately dug in its hooks, and while it took almost a week, snatched mostly from random moments in my day, for me to read (it's just over a thousand pages), it was time well spent.

To say that The Way of Kings is this generation's The Lord of the Rings is a comparison many will likely make, but I'll rather presumptuously say that it's rather more than that. Huge books can often afford to be split apart into smaller pieces or reduced in length for economic reasons, but this one couldn't (although its sheer length clearly was a lot of work for whoever edited it-while the number of typos and mangled sentences was admirably low, a number of them were within the space of two pages).

Why not?

Because the world it's set in is a construct that is crucial to the story, and blazing through it would only confuse the readers. If time wasn't taken to allow people to absorb it, its uniqueness would be lost.

And it is unique. The world is wracked by storms, which have apparently stripped away nearly all the world's soil. (One region has soil because it's been sheltered by mountains from this weather, and it generally more closely resembles Earth.) Plants somehow obtain all their moisture and nutrients from those storms and the rock of the ground. Animals as we know them couldn't survive in such a world, so the animals of most regions are arthropods and tough amphibians and reptiles, using shelter or tough carapaces to escape harm. The largest land animals are crablike creatures called greatshells, which somehow grow precious gems inside their bodies.

These gems are important, because gemstones are the only thing that allow people to harvest magical energy from the great highstorms that wrack the world. Without magic, there would be no way to build the durable stone structures necessary to endure the regular hurricane force winds. Magically powered transmutation drives much of the economy-stone structures will often be constructed through the carving of wood into the desired forms, and then transforming the wood. Ironically, wood is scarce, so it is common to get wood by transmuting stone. Magic is so important that gemstones, the only things that can hold it for an extended period, are the primary form of currency.

There's plenty more to like about the world, but consider what I just explained: In this world, magic is money. All things considered, this seems to be the logical conclusion if magic has economically viable uses.

(There's another aspect to the world-there are spirit-beings called spren which are something like Shintoism's kami, in that they pervade everything. Interestingly, they are often visible, appearing in response to things such as extreme fear or pain, and they come in numerous varieties. I fail to mention them above because I couldn't figure out how to work a mention into the above paragraphs.)

To actually talk about how well constructed the plot is, to go into the journey of each character, and to talk about the brilliance of the revelations in the later part of the book would be epic spoilers, and I'm not going there.

Oh, yes, and it's also important that the book introduce the world as well as it does because it's only the first book in a series which, according to some, may run for ten books in all.

If this book gets the acclaim it deserves, in thirty years or so, we can look forward to its themes and ideas seeing a huge amount of bleed into the general pop culture in a way to rival The Lord of the Rings. If it doesn't, well, I'll be sad. I mean, I like the LOTR-derivative paradigms as much as anybody, but the old formulas need some spice mixed in, and this series is definitely an original, new creation which is truly distinct from it.

You should read this book. Just be sure to set aside a lot of time, and don't start in on it late at night, because you'll realize it's almost morning far too often.

-Signing off.

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