Hugo reading 2018: The Way of Kings, by Brian Sanderson

I’ve actually read two of the series offered in full, and one in part, so I’m saving them until last, hoping to have time to reread them in part, but knowing that I can review them regardless.

That being so, I decided to start with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer series.

Sanderson provided copies of the first three novels in this series, as well as an introductory packet for Hugo voters.  The introductory packet is an act of kindness – he talks about the series generally, but also acknowledges that not all of us want to read multiple volumes of 1,000+ pages in order to judge a Hugo category.  So he has a series of extracts as well, though he warns that they get spoilery eventually.

Because the series sounded interesting, and I wanted to reciprocate this kindness, I decided to eschew the extracts, and read the first book, The Way of Kings.

I shouldn’t have.

Look, I gave it 300 pages, and then I went back and read the extracts which were further on in the book, and I am now feeling a bit cranky, because those extracts were clearly the Good Bits, and now I sort of want to keep reading, only I’m barely a quarter of the way through and it is interminable.  Also, I’m a little disappointed, because Sanderson talks a lot in his introduction about trying to take a science fiction approach to epic fantasy – creating the flora, fauna, meteorology, etc that make sense for his world.  And… I believe that it’s all in there.  But none of it is evident in the first 300 pages.

This is the kind of epic fantasy with multiple protagonists, each carrying their own storyline, who will presumably meet each other at some climactic point at the book.  I tend to be the wrong audience for this sort of fantasy, because I am often only interested in one or two of the characters or storylines, and forget the names of the other characters, so that whenever we go back to those storylines I am confused and bored.

In this instance, there was one character, Kaladin, who I really liked and was interested in, but all the terrible things kept on happening to him, and while I’m pretty confident he will be the hero of the piece in the end, slogging through that much war and slavery and death was a bit much.  Another character, Shallan, had a really interesting storyline, and I wanted to like her, and Sanderson wanted me to like her too, but she seemed to be suffering from Male Author Is Unsure How To Write Likeable Female Characters syndrome.  At her first appearance, we discover that she is spirited and witty – but in a way that manifests itself in wittily turning any compliment anyone tries to give her into a self-deprecating insult.  I have a strong suspicion that this is meant to make her more likeable, but mostly it made me wince on her behalf.  She improves a bit after that, but she is having to carry the burden of being the only female protagonist in this book, and it’s not doing her character any good at all.

The other main thread seems to be centred around the King and the High Princes, who are constantly at war, mostly so that they can get the opportunity to hunt dangerous beasts for the magical artefacts that they harbour.  If this sounds like a D&D game to you… it did to me, too.  There is some interesting political manoevering going on, and there are characters questioning the need for endless war, and I wanted to care about this, but I didn’t.

There were some interesting things going on around the edges that I wanted more of, but lacked the patience to wait for (especially since… maybe they weren’t going to happen anyway?).  This is a culture where only the women can read and write, which of course means that they control information flow to the men.  But the men seem to be as socially and politically dominant as you would expect in a standard warlike Fantasy Land culture.  The women seem to have a bit more power, as advisors etc, but I’m frankly astonished that they don’t have more.  Also, the women button their left hands into their sleeves at puberty, and refer to them as their Safehands.  Their right hands are Freehands.  I want to know more about this!  Why do they do this? What does it mean?  And what happens if they are left handed?  Also, there is clearly some commentary about racism going on here, with the Darkeyes / Brighteyes thing.

I’m pretty sure the worldbuilding in this series is massive and thorough and interesting.  I would happily read an encyclopaedia about this world, in fact, because it’s clear that Sanderson has put a lot of time into figuring out exactly how everything works, and I bet it’s fascinating.

But I found that as a novel, the pace was interminably slow, and for me, it was a slog to read.  I am the wrong reader for this book, it seems.

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