High Fantasy and Ska Do Not Necessarily Mix (Twofer Book Review)

I had never heard of Brandon Sanderson before he did what I thought was a good job finishing Robert Jordan’s massive (and massively loved) Wheel of Time series. And I say that partly so you’ll understand I am not turned off by big books. I love big books. A big thick book, with a big, thick, juicy plot and a fully realized world that I would like to wake up in after I die, that I can dive into and hide inside for days, nay months, because there are 17 sequels…I live for books like that. I also say that so you’ll understand what I expect out of epic high fantasy. I was jonesing for a brand-new-to-me awesome fantasy, and was interested to see what Sanderson can do on his own, and got a free download from Amazon, the first parts of both The Way of Kings and Mistborn.

Well, I gave him an honest shot.*

Bookshelves: abandoned, epic, fantasy, magic, ugh, was-the-editor-drunk, wannabe, you’re-trying-too-hard
The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1)The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Some things I liked, but more things I didn’t like, unfortunately.

Other reviewers are put off by the spren. I think they are a cool concept, visual bits of energy attracted to or created by the physical or emotional environment. Who hasn’t felt the vibe around a garden (lifespren), or walking into a room where people have just broken off arguing (angerspren)? But the execution was lacking.The windspren that has attached itself to Kaladin has taken on the appearance of Tinkerbell, for me. That’s not working well.

Sanderson has a bad way of using the same world-specific term over and over and over and over (“highstorm” or “safehand,” for example, and I’m sorry, but “oathpact” is stupid…why not also have “trouserpants” and “flowerblooms” and “oceanseas”) without ever telling you anything about what it is. Infodumps are annoying, but when you’re dropping us into a completely alien world, some exposition is a good thing. I was impressed when “Oathstone” was more or less explained after only its second use.

And now for my gripes about prologues and preludes. Stop calling a prologue a prelude to make it sound loftier or something. Pieces of music have preludes; books have prologues. I would expect a professor of literature to know this. That’s gripe one. Gripe two is that 99.99999998% of the time, prologues are not necessary. After many years of useless prologues, I stopped reading them unless they’re less than a page long. (If you get anxious about skipping any part of a book, pretend it’s an epilogue and read it after you finish. It might actually make sense then.) For The Way of Kings, I did go back and read the “prelude” after getting to the end of the sample material proper. It was grindingly long and didn’t add a thing to what I’d already read, especially considering everything else. (A good bit on the use of prologues is here.)

The narration flips back and forth between two people, with intermissions for some other people who don’t appear to have anything to do with each other or anyone else in the book, and what story there is just creeps along. A lot of vines and grass pull themselves back into the rock as people pass, and “highstorms” (whatever those are) come and make people miserable and go away again, and Miss Cleverboots draws some pretty sketches and counts her spheres/broams/whatever those things are that are apparently used as both money and a source of light (and that concept is actually pretty cool), while the Fallen Hero manages to survive the unsurvivable on a daily basis, and both of them indulge in various levels of refusing to think about the past while of course thinking about the past, because concentrating on not thinking about it is, actually, thinking about it. I have deduced this is allusion to backstory that will probably be delivered in–well, I see this is planned out for a ten-book series, so…book four? What I don’t see, amidst the endless descriptions of landscape and weird animals, is a plot. I think that almost a fifth of the way into the book, a plot should be in evidence.

But the biggest question I have is…why? Because as far as I can tell, no one has a reason to do anything. This world is dismal. Barren and rocky and full of war and treachery and death. Nothing beautiful, nothing sacred. No relationships between the characters. Why do I want to read about people and a world I wouldn’t even be interested to visit and, as far as I can tell, holds nothing worth fighting for?

Sanderson is capable of patches of brilliance. The part with Nan Balat, who soothes his rioting emotions by pulling the legs off of live crabs, had me squirming. I have no idea what he has to do with the actual story, because I have no idea what the story was, but this character portrait was outstanding. Unfortunately, the really good writing is only in patches; the bulk is ham-handed.

I understand that the beginning of an epic may be slow, because character introduction and worldbuilding take a little time. This, though, is just tedious. It reads like a whole bunch of typing, not writing, from someone whose goal appears to be not telling a good story, but producing an epic fantasy series. Other reviewers assure me the whole thing picks up about 700-800 pages in. Sorry, but I am not slogging through another 500-600 pages to get to a couple hundred pages worth of payoff at the end. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit.

~deep breath and a break for some Robert B. Parker popcorn reading~

Okay. Many reviewers who didn’t like this book did enjoy Mistborn. I gave Mistborn a chance because it’s considerably shorter, the series is only a trilogy, the sample is already on my Kindle, and dammit, all I want is a decent fantasy. Is that so much to ask?

Apparently so:

The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Thank you for getting right into the story. Sincerely. Thank you.

As far as I read, this seems to be a ginormous quest combined with a ginormous heist, kinda like Lord of the Rings meets Ocean’s Eleven. There is a goal: A band of skaa trying to overthrow the oppressive rulership. (And that is “band of skaa,” not “ska band,” and “skaa” are “peasants”, and every time I read the word “skaa” I could hear “She Has a Girlfriend Now,” don’t ask me why, and I like Reel Big Fish but not as a soundtrack to what is supposed to be high fantasy, I mean, why not at least Streetlight Manifesto’s “The Hands That Thieve”?)** I like this goal. I love a righteous rebellion. I like books where the protagonists are a band of thieves. Fun.

The main character is so cliched…the poor little waif who doesn’t know her vast powers until the wise adept hunts her down and rescues her…really? Again? And I could still hang with that, because tropes are tropes because they work, but if Sanderson had hit me over the head one more time with little Vin’s fear of betrayal because she’s been betrayed before and isn’t it horribly wrenchingly awful, I’d have screamed. I get it already.

Another grim world, like in The Way of Kings. Does Sanderson have something against beauty?

The one fight scene I read was plodding. The description of every little spin and kick and turn and grunt took the momentum out of it. It read like a series of D&D moves.

The magical system seems pretty cool: Allomancy, the ability to “burn” different metals in the bloodstream, resulting in different powers, determined by whether one is a Misting or full-on Mistborn. Original. I like it.

My gripes about prologues are on record. For Mistborn I read the sample chapters, then went back to the (correctly labeled) prologue. I did not need it to understand what came after. It could have been Chapter One or left out entirely.

This book is ostensibly for adults but reads much younger. And that’s okay, nothing wrong with simple language and simple structure, some of the best books I’ve ever read are YA, but this kept trying to be something more, like a three-year-old lurching and scraping around in Mommy’s high heels. We’re cruising along with YA-level language when all of a sudden someone is drinking a glass of “rubicund wine” or has “landed maladroitly.” Dude, come on. It’s red wine. He landed clumsily. Stick with your idiom. Similar bitch for attempts at giving the writing complexity while effectively muddling it: “[Their willingness to trust and accept Vin after a relatively short time]…couldn’t be genuine. Still, their friendliness was disconcerting.” That still jerked me right out the narrative. Sanderson does that a lot. Writing is supposed to pull me into the story and keep me there, not make me lose the momentum while I try to figure out why that word is there. And I am aware that a great many storytellers are not experts at the technical aspects of writing, and I maintain that is what editors are for. A well-written book does take a village.

Final verdict: Some good elements, but the things I’m displeased with are pervasive and offputting enough that I’m not going to the massive effort required to get it from the library and finish. Sanderson’s finalization of The Wheel of Time after its creator’s death was decent. I appreciate him for that. But when it comes to creating and writing his own from scratch…sorry, but he’s no Robert Jordan.

*It remains that these books have very high reader ratings and many fantasy fans consider Sanderson the New Messiah of Fantasy Fiction. Your mileage may vary.

**These reviews were written to the accompaniment of the band of skaa ska band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, which may not have helped the process but almost certainly didn’t hurt it either, but is not my fault in any case.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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