I have moved away from reading fantasy fiction since my high school days, often viewing that period sentimentally as the gateway that really got me into reading, but perhaps also a little condescendingly as of “lesser” worth. Look what I’ve become– a literary snob. This book was recommended to me by a fellow graduate student who had liked my review of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I had commented on how much I appreciated it’s complex portrayal of religion. Readers will remember that Parable centers around Lauren’s struggle for survival in a crumbling world, including the founding of her own religion, which she calls Earthseed.
Sanderson’s book The Way of Kings also fleshes out the details of a whole religious system and history, but it is centered more fully in the world of fantasy rather than science fiction or dystopian fiction. And it does so in a very complex manner, dealing with difficulties of faith, doubt, and morality that are very relevant today. As I began reading of gods, a cycle of Desolations, and a distant past involving mysterious figures called Radiants, Voidbringers, and Heralds, I couldn’t help but conjure up the religious lore in a favorite game I used to play, Runescape, which involves the feud between the righteous Sarodomin, the traitorous Zamorak, and the now-dead god of balance Guthix. But I feel that while Runescape’s lore was detailed and fun, Sanderson engages it on a more serious level that a video game usually isn’t fit to present.
The book explores the complexities of faith through four very well-developed characters. First, Shallan, a young woman confronted with a terrible moral dilemma despite growing up with a strong dedication to her faith. In order to save the status of her family, she must commit herself to a terrible theft. Second, Jasnah, a renowned scholar and member of the royal household, but also an atheist and heretic. Dedicated to truth, but also considered with suspicion by those around her for her very public rejection of organized religion, Jasnah appears at best cold, at worst wicked, but is actually a very endearing character. Third, Kaladin, a young man seemingly plagued by the gods, he keeps on living while those he seeks to protect keep on dying. Endowed with a gift that he can’t comprehend, he has a hard time deciding if it is a gift or a curse from the gods, and wrestles with his feelings of guilt and responsibility for the bad that happens around him. Finally, Dalinar, highprince of Kholin and uncle to the king, bears a reputation for bravery, but has recently began experiencing visions that cause others to question his sanity. He comes off as old-fashioned for attempting to adhere to a religious code of conduct that is at best old-fashioned and at worst heretical, but he is determined to live by them for both his honor and the memory of his dead brother.
I was impressed with the depth of not the religious history of the book, but the entire world Sanderson has created. It is unique in many respect to much of the fantasy I have read (which is, admittedly, a small sample. I consider unique when you avoid elves and dwarves and create your own uniquely themed world). Many of the religious themes will seem familiar to anyone believer or otherwise. The Hierocracy, a period in the distant past when the priests seized power seems oddly resonant of periods in our own religious past when the Catholic Church held sway over kings and princes. And this passage sounded oddly reflective of my own experience as a Mormon:
They worship Jezrien, though they don’t accept him as a figure from the Vorin religion. They name him the only god.”
“The Heralds aren’t gods,” Teft scoffed.
“To you they aren’t,” Sigzil said. “Others regard them differently. The Emuli have what your scholars like to call a splinter religion—containing some Vorin ideas. But to the Emuli, you would be the splinter religion.” Sigzil seemed to find that amusing, though Teft just scowled.
This is an excellent book, but by starting the series I have committed myself to two equally lengthy sequels and another seven books that are yet to be published. Perhaps I am too weak for fantasy!
Here’s a link to my highlights on Goodreads.