Sanderson's novels are characterised by extraordinary worlds and an unabashed desire to ask hard questions about religion and morality. Sanderson's greatest gift is his worldbuilding: he usually creates worlds which are unique and exciting, well-founded and thorough. His other books truly break the mold of the typical fantasy plot and escape the Lord of the Rings-clone quest plot and usually contain so many plot twists that they are difficult to summarize.The Way of Kings is a more traditional epic fantasy, and for me, that was a bit of a disappointment. I felt the book does not function as a standalone novel; rather, it appears to be a plot-light introduction to his new 10-book epic series: it introduces the characters, begins (in the last ~40 pages) to introduce the conflict, and resolves...well, not much at all. I think this book is perfect for epic fantasy aficionados: it contains an incredibly creative and complex world, numerous battle scenes, and a great deal of "self-discovery." As someone who tends to prefer tightly plotted mysteries, however, I found the battle scenes repetitive, the "self-discovery" all too often devolving into moping and inner thoughts, and the plot's coherence overwhelmed by the author's self-conscious construction of an epic struggle for world survival.
The story takes place in a bleak world of harsh storms and treacherous terrain, and is told through the viewpoints of three characters: Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. Five years before the story starts, the Alethkar king is assassinated by the mysterious and savage Parshendi people on the very night a treaty is signed between their peoples. The high princes of the Alethkar people promptly agree to a vengeance pact against the Parshendi. But rather than, say, attacking the Parshendi, their war campaign proceeds in a manner that feels suspiciously like a quest-style video game: they camp out on the Shattered Plains and wait for sightings of "chasm fiends", then compete with one another to reach and do battle with the beasts and capture the magic "gemhearts" from their bodies. Since the Parshendi appear to have the same goal in mind, this inevitably leads to a battle, with the winner defeating the chasm fiend (which seems suspiciously similar to a "boss" in a video game) and taking home the treasure. Sometimes, defeating enemies can lead to the characters gaining improved weaponry and armour (+10 hitpoints!) Just to make sure the video game atmosphere is complete, the Alethkar king actually keeps track of their points in terms of a chart of rankings--but even when they "level up", the enemies they fight remain unchanged.
I tend to find Sanderson's main characters one-dimensional, but this book's egregious length and focus on "inner discovery" made the failing more obvious. Yet despite the book's length, the characters' subplots felt oddly unresolved, as though Sanderson's goal of creating an "epic" stifles the plot and spontaneity of this starting novel. Kaladin and Dalinar's stories take up most of the bulk of the book. Kaladin is a typical one-dimensional fantasy hero/warrior: young, handsome, impossibly strong, and with a saviour complex and a charismatic personality. Due to his (painfully obvious) "mysterious past" (which, in case readers are incapable of inference, is thoroughly and painstakingly revealed via flashbacks throughout the book), he is forced to live in semi-slavery as a member of a "bridge crew", carrying bridges in extraordinarily deadly conditions so that an Alethkar prince's army can cross the plains in their pointless war against video game beasts. His entire plot line, throughout the whole book, could be summarised in a couple of sentences, but instead, a great deal of the book is spent on his repetitive agonizing and self-analysis. Like Kaladin, Dalinar is painfully upright, noble, humorless, and boring. Brother to the assassinated king, he spends his time pacifying his paranoid nephew, listening to his immature and irritating son, worrying about his prophetic dreams, and agonizing over his conflicting concepts of duty. The conclusion (or lack thereof) of his plotline is also patently obvious from the introduction of his character, and despite the time spent in his thoughts and struggles and learning his entire backstory, I felt his personality was woefully free of dimensionality.Despite (or perhaps because of) the author's disiniterest in giving us every detail of her pasts, Shallan is more interesting. Shallan, a young woman seeking to be the ward of the heretic-scholar Jasnah, though for dubious reasons, actually has some dimension to her character and some twists in her story. Her personality type is a familiar one in Sanderson's work. Other incarnations of her appear in Warbreaker and Elantris, but her attitude, humour, and lack of strict morality was refreshing.
Sanderson's worldbuilding is, as usual, the gem of the book: the world is original, filled with a harsh new climate, several complex cultures, and various alien creatures. I would have enjoyed more detail in the descriptions--what do the various creatures, such as sky eels, axehounds, or chasm fiends, look like? However, as always, he takes the time to flesh out and explore the details--especially the religions--of the various cultures. We catch glimpses of people who worship stone, mysterious figures who grant wishes and dispense curses, and spirits (spren) which embody emotions and states. People brush their long eyebrows to resemble antenna, modest women hide their "safe hands", and money does double service as a light source. In an apparently self-conscious attempt to adjust gender roles, Sanderson makes science, reading, and writing the domain of women, while men focus on war and ruling. Yet he appears unconscious of the gender roles that none of his books break: in all of his books, women wear dresses and are dominant in the world of fashion and art, are responsible for the home, and must obey stricter codes of modesty and propriety. War is the domain of men, and--even in Mistborn--men are always the ultimate rulers and wielders of power.
Overall, the world is fascinating, but for me, the story lacked the character development that would excuse its egregious length. If the next book introduces more of an underlying plot, then I'll definitely keep on with the series. However, for me at least, The Way of Kings' length and lack of character development and predictable inner struggles make Elantris and the Mistborn books far superior reads.