Today, we shift from the usual reads I’ve done on Monday’s for this blog. Until now, we’ve covered only female authors in my effort to balance the scales a bit as Tor’s wonderful rereads had, until then, focused only on male authors. However, ultimately, my series of reads is to entertain while delving into the lessons we can glean from masters of the craft. To completely neglect male voices in this effort would be a terrible oversight on my part. There are lessons to be learned from all voices.
So now, we turn to Brandon Sanderson, one of the rising stars of fantasy fiction, and his The Way of King, the first book in The Stormlight Archive.
I first learned of Sanderson when he took up writing The Wheel of Time upon Robert Jordan’s death. Naturally, all of us fans of The Wheel of Time were a bit nervous. How would this new guy pull it off? But I’m pleased to say that Sanderson has more than met the challenge. And, upon the few opportunities I’ve had to meet him at book signings and cons, Sanderson has proven himself as friendly, humble, and entertaining a person as he is skilled with the pen, or in this case keyboard.
Before we begin the read, let me tease you with the back cover copy as it’s exquisitely enticing, especially for me who normally finds blurb disappointing:
“I long for the days before the Last Desolation. Before the Heralds abandoned us and the Knights Radiant turned against us. When there was still magic in Roshar and honor in the hearts of men.
In the end, not war but victory proved the greater test. Did our foes see that the harder they fought, the fiercer our resistance? Fire and hammer forge a sword; time and neglect rust it away. So we won the world, yet lost it.
Now there are four whom we watch: the surgeon, forced to forsake healing and fight in the most brutal war of our time; the assassin, who weeps as he kills; the liar, who wears her scholar’s mantle over a thief’s heart; and the prince, whose eyes open to the ancient past as his thirst for battle wanes.
One of them may redeem us. One of them will destroy us.”
That is an awesome blurb. Why does it work? It’s poetic and powerful. It uses key words that trigger emotional responses: desolation, abandoned, magic, honor, war, victory, fire, rust, won, lost, forsake, weeps, kills, liar, thirst, and that last ominous line, “One of them may redeem us. One of them will destroy us.”
All that brings to the fore the other major reason this blurb works so well: contrasts. Look at the sheer number of antonyms in these few paragraphs. Too, Sanderson violates our expectations with his words. How can someone lose if they win? Why would a surgeon forsake healing to fight in the most brutal war? Why would an assassin weep? How could a liar and thief potentially save this “us”? The whole blurb is a contradiction that fascinates and begs for answers, of which we can only find by opening the book and reading.
More, the whole blurb teems with emotion: sorrow, desperation, dread and hope. We long for resolution to those emotions, which also can only be found in reading the story. That need for resolution and answers is precisely why Sanderson’s blurb works so brilliantly.
But, onto the story itself and the read where we’ll learn writing tips from Sanderson’s skilled prose. As this story is 1,252 pages in the softcover that I have and all that is broken into 75 chapters, 9 interludes, a prelude, a prologue, an epilogue, and an endnote, we’ll need to cover more ground than I usually do in these reads. We’ll do about five sections a week rather than the usual two or three.
So, with no further ado, let’s begin.
Prelude to The Stormlight Archive
Summary: The remnants of a horrendous battle lay strewn across the earth as Kalak goes to the meeting place where he and the other Heralds agreed to rendezvous after the battle. But when he gets there, he only finds seven of ten swords thrust into the rock and Jezrien, the Herald King. Instead of returning to the torturous hell where he and the other Heralds wait between Desolations, Jezrien instructs Kalak to leave his sword with the others. The Oathpact is broken. They will not return this time, and hopefully, it will be enough to contain the enemy that one of their number has returned to endure nightmarish torture. Shamed, the men leave their swords, abandon their brother, and walk away with the lie on their lips that, this time, the people won. They flee into the wider world with the burden on their hearts that they left their own to suffer while they fled because they couldn’t handle the nightmare any longer.
Reader Comments: Wow, powerful stuff. I barely have any idea who these guys are, what the Desolations are, and who the enemy is, but there’s so much emotion in this prelude that it’s drawing. I hope Kalak finds peace and redemption. He seems like a great guy, if broken. It’d be satisfying to watch him struggle with guilt and then make good choices in the end.
Writer Comments: There’s so much I could say about this section, but for now, let’s just focus on the first few paragraphs. After all, these are crucial for a story. They decide whether or not a reader actually gives a story a real chance or tosses it aside, never to be picked up again.
Here are the first paragraphs of The Way of Kings:
“Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.”
Pause here for a moment. This is only the first sentence of the first paragraph, the First Line of the story, but compelling. Why does it work?
- It names the viewpoint character, Kalak, which immediately lets us know who to follow and devote mental and emotional energy toward.
- It has motion. Kalak is stumbling.
- It has emotion. Stumbling implies struggle and something broken. We don’t yet know exactly what this is or precisely what Kalak feels, but it hints enough to arouse curiosity.
- There is danger. A dying body. Something terrible has happened, and paired with Kalak’s stumbling, we know this terrible thing is still happening to some extent.
- It makes us ask questions. Who is Kalak? Why is he stumbling? What killed this thunderclast? What in the world is a thunderclast? And already, only one sentence into the story, the hook is planted, and Sanderson begins reeling us in.
“The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protrusions from its chest broken and cracked. The monstrosity was vaguely skeletal in shape, with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulders. The eyes were deep red spots on the arrowhead face, as if created by a fire burning deep within the stone. They faded.”
The rest of the first paragraph answers our question about what a thunderclast is, but it opens new ones. How can a creature be made of stone? What is this thing and this world? Too, this description reveals that we are not in a world we know. Rather, we now embark in a world of magic, grandeur, and monstrosities.
“Even after all these centuries, seeing a thunderclast up close made Kalak shiver. The beast’s hand was as long as a man was tall. He’d been killed by hands like those before, and it hadn’t been pleasant.
Of course, dying rarely was.”
So, as readers, we sit up here and go, “Whoa, wait. He’s died already? Multiple times?” And now, our interest is piqued even further.
Further, Sanderson gives us a lot of material to ground us, but it doesn’t feel like heavy-handed info dumping. Rather, he ties these crucial details to what Kalak is experiencing in that moment, awe and dread of the enormous thunderclast. Casually and in little drops, Sanderson slides in the fact that Kalak is centuries old, that he has died repeatedly, and that he has fought many times. All together, these three paragraphs form a gale that hurls us into the rest of the story.
Prologue: To Kill
Summary: At the celebration of a treaty between the Alethi and the Parshendi, Szeth, a Truthless who is forbidden nothing but to take his own life but who must also obey his masters, is set to assassinate the Alethi king, Gavilar Kholin. It makes no sense for the Parshendi to end their treaty after only a few hours, but Szeth asks no questions. He must only obey. So he proceeds through the palace, letting himself be seen as ordered, and killing with magic fueled by Stormlight, which allows him to Lash things, altering the direction of down and binding things together. This combined with his Shardblade, a sword which can cut any inanimate material and souls while leaving living tissue unmarked, he proves a formidable opponent, formidable enough to reach the king and kill him after an epic battle of Stormlight and blades. Upon his death, Gavilar gives Szeth a sphere that glows with black light and requests that Szeth tell his brother to find the most important words a man can say. Szeth writes the message in the king’s own blood and flees, his mission accomplished and his heart heavy with his grisly task and the fact that he remains to watch the world fall apart.
Reader Comments: Assassins have always been an iffy thing for me as a reader. I don’t tend to like them. Rather, I prefer characters with honor and bold heroism. However, Szeth is fascinating. While he’s obviously the assassin the back cover blurb refers to, he obviously loathes the work his masters require of him. He is a man with a great sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a keen perception of life. Yet he must do what’s required of him, and in that, I find tragic admiration.
Also, I can only guess that this world ending thing that Szeth references is the next Desolation, which Kalak and Jezrien hoped to avoid in the prelude, which probably means the Herald they left behind in torture is going to come back. I imagine he’ll be infuriated that he was abandoned. Ooo, I wonder if he’ll turn evil and help destroy everyone.
Writer Comments: Whenever a character is introduced, he should do things to distinguish himself, to reveal the true person he is inside. One of my favorite writing books, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, suggests finding a heroic quality in a protagonist and revealing that quality in their introductory scene. What is Szeth’s heroic quality? Honor. For all he commits great sins, knowing full well the wrongs he does, he acts with honor. Honor demands he fulfill his mission. Honor demands he fulfill the king’s dying request, so in honor, he does these things, no matter the emotional cost.
Book One: Above Silence
Chapter 1: Stormblessed
Five years later.
Summary: Cenn, a fifteen-year-old, barely trained soldier stares at the enemy forming ranks across the battlefield and knows he’s about to die. It’s his first battle, but the man beside him, Dallet, offers hope. He’s in Kaladin Stormblessed’s squad, and Kaladin is lucky.
Though it makes no sense, Kaladin has spent a lot of money to get Cenn transferred to his squad. Confused and terrified, Cenn follows as best he can as Kaladin leads his squad contrary to what most others do once the battle begins. Kaladin’s squad is far better organized and actually holds formation. They fight off all opponents and take some wounds, but no one dies.
Then they begin to move, and Cenn loses track of things and gets attacked. Kaladin leaps in at the last moment and saves his life, taking down six men. However, Cenn is gravely wounded and losing blood fast. Kaladin bandages the wound himself, then leaves Cenn in Dallet’s care while he leads part of the squad to take down a brightlord, one of the lighteyed officers of the enemy army.
The battle appears near an end, and there’s hope that Cenn might survive after all since Kaladin bribes the runners to take his wounded off the battlefield before other lowly darkeyes, but something terrible happens. Against all logic, as the truly important battles on the Shattered Plains are far from them, a Shardbearer rides onto the battlefield and begins to slay.
Reader Comments: I love how visceral Sanderson is. He gives lots of description, but it’s so intertwined with Cenn’s terror and the chaos and motion of the battle that it works really well.
Writer Comments: It’s only implied at this point, but in actuality, Cenn dies at the end of this chapter. So why does Sanderson write his first chapter from the POV (point of view) of a character who isn’t the main character of the story and doesn’t even live to appear in later scenes?
I can’t tell you exactly Sanderson’s logic, but I can tell you what it accomplishes. This chapter is not really about Cenn. It’s about Kaladin. However, at this point, Kaladin is so awesome and accomplished that a chapter from his perspective would lack tension. Sure, he’d fight in a battle, but his successes would probably feel cheap, and if Sanderson’s intent is to highlight Kaladin in this moment, he can’t do it from Kaladin’s perspective. Either Kaladin would come off as arrogant, or Kaladin would be so wrapped up in other things that the reader would miss how awesome he is.
Plus, we wouldn’t get the feeling of how others respond to Kaladin, which I have a feeling will be important later. Kaladin is a leader, a hero, unusual in his accomplishments, especially for a darkeyes, and truly heroic. There are occasional exceptions to break the general rule that the first chapter should begin in the perspective of the protagonist, and in this instance, Sanderson has used one.
Chapter 2: Honor Is Dead
Eight months later.
Summary: Kaladin sits in a cage traveling as part of the ill-kept lot Tvlakv the slaver intends to sell in some distant land beyond the Unclaimed Hills. Eight months, he’s been a slave. Ten escape attempts, he’s survived but failed, and now, he sees little point left to fighting anymore. But, in his belt, he hides a few blackbane leaves. When he pulls them out, a windspren--a wind spirit--who dons the form of a miniature young woman takes notice. At first, Kaladin ignores her, but then, she calls him by name, something spren never do as they are unintelligent and have no memories. Yet she is different, recalling what he did weeks before, trying to converse with him, and calling his name. She asks why he doesn’t fight anymore. What’s the point, he thinks, when everyone he tries to save end up dead and, somehow in some twisted and ironic torment, he survives?
One of the other slaves in the wagon has a bad cough. Though Kaladin is resolved to stop getting involved, he can’t help but hear his father’s voice in his head murmuring instructions on how to treat the illness. That night, when Tvlakv stops, he has the coughing slave dragged out of the cage. Kaladin finally stirs, hearing in his mind his father’s challenge. How can you stand by and let this man die? He protests, frightening everyone as he alone has a glyph branded on his forehead declaring him dangerous, the shash. But they appear to listen as he instructs Tvlakv how to care for the slave so he will heal. Instead, Tvlakv has the slaves head beaten in.
Raging, Kaladin leaps up, cursing Tvlakv and slamming his hands into the cage’s bars. But there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He realizes that, during his fury, he lost the blackbane leaves, his one hope of poisoning Tvlakv and at least taking vengeance. He sinks down, defeated, and the windspren circles round him in confusion.
Reader Comments: Kaladin is deliciously heroic and tragic, just the sort of protagonist I adore. Also, the windspren is hilarious. She goes so far as to accuse Kaladin of being “impolite.”
Sanderson paints a lovely and strange world full of plants that grow from the rocks themselves and withdraw into the stone when anything comes close, to a night with more than one moon, including a violet one which cast almost no light. Too, he has spren, spirits of a sort, that are drawn to all sorts of things: fearspren, rotspren, hungerspren, and, of course, windspren which play tricks on people. It’s all very different and very vivid.
Writer Comments: This chapter gives another reason why Sanderson must include the first chapter as he does. Had he begun with Kaladin so defeated, the story might feel too depressing and pointless. However, we’ve seen Kaladin shine. We know he’s capable of great feats. The contrast here is what makes this chapter so compelling. How did a man so full of potential, life, and greatness fall to such a defeated state? How can he be pulled from it again and accomplish those same things as before?
Too, we see his other side, his healer’s side. He is a man accomplished in war and equally in healing. The contrast is fascinating. His plight and losses make us yearn for resolution and release. He deserves better, and we want to see that happen for him. Then, just when he seems truly defeated, we see him rise once more to do what’s right and save a life. Though he fails, we now know there is still hope and that, someday, he will become something great again.
Be mindful of the impression you make when you introduce a character, especially a protagonist. Undoubtedly, Sanderson spent a great deal of effort selecting the best way to first portray Kaladin. He had to make him defeated and tragic, but he also had to show readers that there was more to him than that, that Kaladin had within him greatness. Without that revelation, what would we readers root for?
Chapter 3: City of Bells
Summary: Shallan arrives at Kharbranth, a coastal city upon a steep stone hill and full of bells. There, she seeks Jasnah, the Alethi king’s brilliant, heretical sister, to whom she hopes to become a ward and learn the scholar’s art.
However, Shallan comes with many secrets. Her father is dead, a fact that, once known, will cause all his creditors to pounce on her family, claim all they possess, and work to the bone or kill or enslave her and her brothers. Though she is the youngest, the only girl, and timid, her whole family’s hope rests on her young shoulders. If she can become Jasnah’s ward, they stand a chance, but there’s clearly more to Shallan’s plan than that. She goes to Kharbranth’s conclave and requests an audience with Jasnah, a request which is accepted.
Reader comments: Shallan is an interesting character. I like how feminine she is while still being witty, artistic with her sketches, and intelligent with her keen observation of the world and her fascination with study and natural history. She’s not the sort of brash female too often portrayed in fantasy, and for that, I like her more.
Writer Comments: This chapter is a great study in dialogue. Sanderson doesn’t weigh his dialogue down with nearly unpronounceable or muddy efforts to make it sound regional. Instead, he plays with sentence structure, phrasing, word choice, and allowing the character’s personality and outlook to come through in their choice of spoken topics.
Shallan, for instance, speaks in more complex and lengthy sentences than anyone else in this chapter. She alternates from demure politeness to playfully bold observation.
Captain Tozbek fits a speech role midway between Shallan and courser characters. He’s far more direct than Shallan, and his sentences more brash, such as, “Spit it out.” However, he’s also full of optimism, complements, and a bit of poetry that flatter his cheerful manner.
Then, we have Yalb, the sailor Tozbek sends to escort Shallan into the city. Yalb’s speech is similar to Tozbek, as it should be since they come from the same class and profession. However, he uses phrases such as “not right sure” and “I reckon,” giving him the sound of a lower class than Shallan’s nobility. While he compliments like Tozbek, he’s also far more honest in his speech, not unkindly so, but still directly honest.
Characters should come through in their dialogue, not just in sentence structure and colloquialisms, but in their choices of phrase and subjects, their tendency toward bluntness, flattery, or simply concealing their actually meaning behind a mask of flowery sentences. Readers should be able to identify, or at least have a good idea, who a character is via their speech without dialogue tags always giving it away.