The first big books I read as a kid were sword-and-magic fantasy books. I remember lying on the bed in the back bedroom, finishing Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. I believe my copy was 726 pages, and I felt accomplished when I finished it (a quick search says that, after something like 25 – 30 years, I remember correctly; the book is 726 pages long, and that was obviously quite a milestone for me). I went on to read loads of this type of fantasy books through the 1990s, imbibing Brooks and David Eddings, checking out the fantasy section in the B. Dalton bookstore. And here’s a fact I actually barely remember: my first attempt at a website in the early days of the world wide web, created with some Netscape tool, I believe, was a fantasy book review site. I think my enthusiastic teen-age self gave everything ten stars.
But something happened to my love for this kind of fantasy, something I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. I lost the thrill of imagination these books had inspired. I started seeing more of their faults than virtues. After consuming as much high fantasy as I could over a decade’s worth of formative years, after loving so many worlds and characters, the magic died. While I’ve read other kinds of fantasy — Harry Potter, Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series (and I loved them) — it’s been around two decades since I last read the type of fantasy novel you’d find on the adult fantasy shelf at the bookstore, these books set in other worlds filled with magic and maps.
In a way, I have missed it. My tastes may have changed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the thrill I used to feel. I’ve wanted the magic to return. In various attempts to get it back, I have started a few, only to put them down after a hundred pages or so. I’m not the same person I was once. I’ve grown and perhaps matured, though I feel I’ve also lost some of that youthful acceptance. But there’s hope. If you read my 2018 Reading Intentions post, you’ll know that I am reading (and am truly enjoying) Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and, well, I just finished another bona fide fantasy epic that I thought was fantastic: Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings is a giant of a book, weighing in at over 1,000 pages, and it’s the first in a giant of a series that might not come to a conclusion in my lifetime. I don’t care, though; it was great. I’ve actually tried Sanderson before, stalling in the first 100 or so pages of Misborn and I even, yes, failed to get far into The Way of Kings a few times prior to this recent success. That’s right, I loved the book this time around, but I’d already attempted to read it three times, each time stalling out after about 100 to 150 pages. I obviously kept trying. The book was always working on me. When Tor sent me a copy of Oathbringer, book three, though, and many of my passionate friends started planning their holidays around reading that book they’d been waiting for for a few years, I decided to double down and do finish The Way of Kings this time. I’m so glad I did.
Now, if only I knew how to write about it . . .
The Way of Kings opens with an exciting, divine betrayal over 5,000 years in the past. This being my fourth time reading that betrayal, I can say I’ve loved it four times and will probably read this section again soon. It’s dug into my imagination, which loves a sense of ancient lore. Without giving it all away, suffice it to say that we begin after a terrible war that has threatened to destroy the entire world. This is not the first time this war has occurred, but fortunately, through some even deeper pit of lore I don’t yet know much about, ten powerful heralds have vowed to show up each time and fight off the voidbringers that threaten to banish humankind from existence on this planet. After millennia of this apparently eternal round, the heralds have decided to abandon their oaths. They decide to lie and say they won absolutely this time, leaving humans to their own fate and also leaving one of their own to suffer for their betrayal. This is a big problem over 5,000 years later, but by then the heralds, the voidbringers, oaths, any magical abilities are all barely myths and children’s tales. No one these days has the faintest idea what the voidbringers were and most doubt they ever existed. Scholars have a paucity of even the most remotely credible sources to scour. It’s almost as if we discovered something from 3000 B.C. that seemed to record an ancient struggle. Most men and women are concerned with other, more temporal, things.
Again, I love this opening scene. Sanderson imbues it with a sense of magnitude appropriate for what’s going on. Sanderson also trusts us, wisely, I’d say, since he’s doing just fine with this series, to move away from this event and, essentially, not hear about it again, except in barely audible whispers, through the rest of the book. This book is, it turns out, just setting the stage. Readers need to be okay with long deferrals.
Fortunately, while we wait for things to slowly come to light and come together, there are plenty of other good stories going on. This brief introduction gives way to the assassination of a king that leads to a major war. That was six years ago when the book proper begins and we begin to, finally, meet our central characters.
Seemingly endless deferrals was my main problem the first, err, three times I tried to get into the book. By the time we come back to any of the characters we’ve met, it’s been dozens of pages. It takes some patience to figure out how things relate to one another. But this time around I learned that deferring the satisfaction of knowing just what’s going on is one of the book’s strengths, and it feels organic to the story. The characters we are following don’t know much either, so we are all learning together, stumbling on a bit more knowledge that removes another corner of the larger mystery from the shadows . . . often only to reveal more questions.
I may not get a thrill out of the magical fantasy books as I once did. Dragons and magic just don’t grab me. But inject deep mysteries, take me to some hidden corner of the world, on the verge of being completely forgotten, and give me a sense of vast time and space and mystery, and I’m in. That sense of old, forgotten wisdom is, in fact, one of the things I most love about the Harry Potter books and the Fablehaven books. And it’s one of the things I’m most loving about Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.
Do any of you read fantasy? If so, do you have recommendations for folks like me?