These are interesting, and in many ways perilous, times for the fantasy genre. The last decade or so has seen the passing of many of the biggest names in fantasy fiction: David Gemmell, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Holdstock, Robert Jordan and Poul Anderson. At the same time, many of the most popular fantasy series have either ended or are approaching their conclusions: The Deverry Sequence, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and even Harry Potter. It is strange to note that, at a time when it is seemingly harder than ever before for new fantasy authors to get published, there actually seem to be fewer bestselling sagas out there for an increasingly bereft audience of readers to follow. Now more than ever beleaguered fantasy fans are crying out for a new name in the field, an inheritor of the likes of Robert Jordan and George R R Martin. In any discussion on this subject, there is one name that keeps on coming up again and again: Brandon Sanderson. In many ways Sanderson is more than just the ‘next big thing’, because he has already achieved a level of success and popularity (not always the same thing) which other authors can only dream of. His debut Mistborn novels have been critically lauded, his work in completing The Wheel of Time saga after Jordan’s death has been universally praised and his latest series, The Stormlight Archive, already looks to be the defining fantasy sequence of this decade. The question that has to be asked is whether Sanderson really is as good as his publishers and fans would have the rest of us believe.
Let me get this out of the way first. I have nothing but respect for any fantasy author who gets published today, especially one that has had the success that Sanderson has had in a relatively short space of time. I am also always going to be grateful to Sanderson for doing the seemingly impossible and stepping into the breach to complete the Wheel of Time series in an extremely competent manner following Jordan’s death. Despite this, I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of Sanderson’s writing. In my view, if you are a fantasy novelist evoking another time and place in your work then your writing, especially in terms of dialogue, should reflect this. That’s why, whenever I read a Sanderson novel and come across modern slang, colloquialisms or anything else that does not belong in a fantasy setting, I cringe inwardly. Of course, this view is by no means universal and I know that there are plenty of readers who prefer Sanderson’s more modern approach to the antiquated style of Tolkien and his many disciples and imitators. Also, as you will have noted, I still read Sanderson’s novels despite this jarring tone and that says something for his other skills as a writer. There are few novelists in any genre who can compare to Sanderson when it comes to elaborate, original action sequences – take the scenes involving the assassin Szeth in The Way of Kings, for example, or any one of the Wolf Dream battles between Perrin and Slayer in Towers of Midnight. Sanderson is a profoundly visual writer and in this sense he is perhaps a perfect author for the modern age, one whose novels you can easily imagine translating to the silver screen.
So why am I not a fan? Let’s look at Sanderson’s most successful solo work as a writer, The Way of Kings, first book of the projected 10-volume series, The Stormlight Archive. Set on Roshar, a world of stone and storms, The Way of Kings is the result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building on the part of Sanderson. The novel brims over with interesting and original ideas. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain of Roshar so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Mystical swords and suits of armour called Shardblades and Shardplate transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Stormlight and crystals were once used to perform feats of superhuman martial prowess and, after thousands of years, it appears that the secrets of such arts are being rediscovered. All of this should in theory make The Stormlight Archive the next great fantasy series but the trouble is that, for me, there are a number of fundamental problems with the start of Sanderson’s magnum opus. For one thing it is massively uneven. Fast, clever bits are mixed with boring, long winded pieces of text. I understand from Sanderson’s homepage that he wrote this book many years ago, and has since dusted it off and rewritten parts. It shows: Sanderson the skilled, experienced writer is in there but he is also mixed with Sanderson the teenaged fantasy geek and Sanderson the creative writing student. Which leads me to another criticism which may be no fault of Sanderson’s: The Way of Kings is appallingly edited.
I read The Way of Kings after coming across Sanderson’s Mistborn and Wheel of Time novels. I was therefore shocked that the same author who had written those fast-paced, incident-filled books, should have also penned a 1,000 page novel where, for hundreds of pages at a time, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS. After an impressive first couple of chapters, which do a decent job of hooking you in and getting you to buy the novel in the first place, the rest of the book is so slow that it is almost impossible to maintain interest. As if that were not bad enough, and again I accept that this may not entirely be Sanderson’s fault, I have yet to come across an edition of The Way of Kings which is not loaded with typos (again, editors take note!). These overarching concerns only serve to detract attention from a number of far more serious issues with the novel. Sanderson switches between characters in every single chapter, which can be frustrating and jarring if not done properly. Both Jordan and Martin do this in their books as well, of course, but both those writers use this technique in a much more logical way than Sanderson, for example, to complete a mini story arc, to introduce an important new character or in some other way to move the story forward. Sanderson, on the other hand, fills his book with numerous flashbacks from a character’s past interwoven in an almost random order, many side-characters, flashbacks from the world’s past, and ‘interlude’ sections filled with a few chapters of throwaway characters who are instantly forgettable and never reappear again.
Worse, The Way of Kings has a number of wooden main characters and the fragmented structure does nothing to help the reader identify with them. Most fantasy writers change enough of their worlds to render them fantastic, but I cannot help feeling that in this novel Sanderson has gone slightly overboard in remaking everything from the physiology of the flora and fauna, to the way the natural forces work and even the manner in which the humans behave and interact. Given the other weaknesses in the novel, this level of detail only serves to smother Sanderson’s already thinly-sketched characters. Without sympathetic characters it becomes very hard to care during the battle scenes, which The Way of Kings certainly has no shortage of – at numerous points in the book you actually feel as if you have been pummelled by a Shardblade yourself. A number of other commentators have said that in many ways The Way of Kings feels overly derivative, even of Sanderson’s own other novels. The prologue, for example, hearkens back to Mistborn, as does the magic system and the concept of strict social hierarchies, all of which are described in laborious detail (Sanderson does have over a thousand pages to fill after all!). The fact that Sanderson actually teaches creative writing is alarming if this means that a whole generation of new fantasy authors aping his style is about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting reading public. As the old saying goes, I have a bad feeling about this…
Apologies if the above sounds unduly negative (especially in the unlikely event that you are reading this Mr Sanderson!). I have perhaps let my frustration get the better of me because I do genuinely feel that Brandon Sanderson has so much more to offer the fantasy genre. His work is full of ideas and when he does write well, he writes very very well. As stated above, I cannot help feeling that Sanderson has been let down at times by his publishers and editors. There is no doubt that vast sections of The Way of Kings could have been cut out or trimmed down and that the novel could perhaps have worked far better at half or even a third of the length. Another possibility is that Sanderson has just been working too hard over the last few years – producing the Mistborn series, the last three Wheel of Time novels and The Way of Kings all at the same time is surely too much to ask of any writer, no matter how talented. I really feel that Sanderson should take his time over the next instalment of The Stormlight Archive, concentrating on his strengths and not being afraid to ask for constructive criticism from people whom he trusts. I’m sure that his future novels, and the fantasy field as a whole, will be all the stronger for that.