Brandon Sanderson, You’re Part of the Reason I Write
Well, actually it was M.R Carey’s ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ that pushed me over the edge and allowed me to slip into the catharsis that is writing fantasy and science fiction. I can’t recommend M.R Carey’s book highly enough, but that will come. There are many authors I wish to analyze and discuss in subsequent posts.
But today’s space in my heart is reserved for Mr. Sanderson and The Way of Kings (TWoK). I’ve a soft spot in my heart for honorable characters in literature, and I’ve cried thrice in my life while reading or watching a story unfold. Mr. Sanderson almost got me this time, but I’ve still got Words of Radiance waiting on my shelf. It’s a funny thing because there might have been a real tear shed for TWoK had I not been a little dried out from the Johnnie Walker I’d been drinking at the time. But Mr. Sanderson did things to my heart that showed me what
good astoundingly well-planned and executed literature can do to a person who reads it.
Our story begins with the Barnes and Noble book store which I visit sometimes on a rainy Saturday. There, I hide away in the far back corner next to the dictionaries and exam preparation section to steal into the first few chapters of a new book. It’s pretty inadequate. Toddlers and babies pilfer my attention with their squeals from aisles unseen; and I occasionally look up from the pages to consider the next person wandering into my secret space; some times a girl who’s loveliness demands the book be set down. Other times a new friend. But I digress. This is where Mr. Sanderson and I first met. I opened your cover to see what’s inside.
A Lesson in Marketing
Right away, Orson Scott Card told me you were OK to read, and then there was Jolly Saint Rothfuss, who’s opinion, for me anyway, is gold. (Being that I’d aspire to write a story a third as good as him some day.) And it’s interesting how these reviews from other authors rope me in. I suppose in the vast spectrum of marketing strategies, there’s a hook for each and every one of us. For me, it is things touched by authors which I admire. Because to me, reading something they’ve enjoyed is like stepping on the next keystone of a long and winding path to literary success. I see something through their eyes, maybe something that has influenced their recent work. I become a little more like them. A skilled author.
A Lesson in Setting the Bar
Now, what Sanderson does with the English language is no short of redefining how we think about fiction in several ways. Take a classic such as Dune (Frank Herbert) who’s elements of minutia are timeless (I still drop Spice Melange and Mentat into casual conversation at least once per year, but in my defense my girlfriend’s name is Melanie and she’s fucking smart). Yet, Mr. Herbert had no barometer for how to tie the elements of his drama in a way that Sanderson accomplishes. Herbert’s elements are lightly touched, and from treachery to character arc, never quite seem to tie into the climax in a way that is so emotionally moving. Sanderson on the other hand, can crush a reader’s heart and squeeze the blackness from it, leaving a new capacity for self-love and love for others. Let’s talk about the slow build up.
A Lesson in Pacing
And believe me it is slow. In this 1,258 page masterpiece, I found plenty of room to skim. There are side quests and characters which serve to build the world and pace the story. But I, personally, see that they were delivered with inherent flaws. They’re somewhat incongruent and awkwardly executed. Maybe I’m being greedy, but even Shallan and Jasnah could’ve gone a slightly better way. Their tension was trite compared to what is accomplished under similar circumstances elsewhere in literature. Forgivable! Believe me, absolutely, the substance of this story is all there despite its flaws. And perhaps it is these disappointments which, by contrast, make the high-points of The Way of Kings that much more savory.
Now, the build up, however paced, is ultimately one of the most rewarding works of fiction I’ve had the pleasure of reading. So let’s discuss why we are here. Mr. Sanderson, you’re the reason I write. You’ve shown me so much of what to do, and what not to do in order for me to write literature to my personal tastes. Much thanks are in order, they are due to both you and your characters.
A Lesson in Characterization
Mr. Sanderson’s Kaladin quickly seduced me in a way that no other character ever can, has, or likely will. Kaladin is the type of guy who works his ass off in difficult conditions, saves his money, and then pays his and your debts. He’s like a person you owe your life to, who can also be a best friend, and the other characters in TWoK tend to edify this. He is immediately endearing on the battle field where time and time again he is placed as the underdog and it is through Sanderson’s minutia and Kaladin’s uncompromising morals that our hero wrenched my heart. So without going too deep and spoiling the book, know that Kaladin sets the bar very high for protagonists, and authors might aspire to embody character traits in escalation to the par Sanderson accomplishes in The Way of Kings.
A Two Part Conclusion to Today’s Story
In one particular country, I did not have cash for the shuttle to the air port. The driver and I arranged that I would withdraw some cash from the ATM once we reached the airport. There, we arrived, and standing before me were two options: 1) The ATM and 2) The concierge desk for the shuttle company. I looked in the driver’s eyes, read his anticipation. There was no hiding his tell. I made the withdrawal from the ATM and watched him pocket the cash, he was grateful I hadn’t gone to the concierge. Call it embezzlement, but we can’t be certain. He may have paid his dues after we parted ways. At any rate, the point is I mistakenly added a zero and had withdrawn ten times the cash he requested. Then, as I attempted to exchange currency back to USD, the clerk informed me that the USD exchange was upstairs. No problem, I thought. Plenty of time before my flight. Thank you for your timely delivery, Mr. Shuttle Man.
Now, in this particular airport, the gates are protected by a winding maze of a department store. Not IKEA, but the idea was the same. One way in, one way out. As I, like all passengers, was digested by this cash trap, I perused the food and liquor section for gifts. There, we found the bin of mini-bottles. One product held a birch twig suspended in liqueur; an excellent gift. ‘Buy 5 get 6 free’ the sign read. Melanie (she’s fucking smart) jumped at the occasion to obtain 11 bottles for the price of 5. I too would be delighted to take this deal. Easy, economical, discrete, perfect for stoking a buzz while I enjoy a little Sanderson on a Plane. But alas, as to be expected we walked out of there with 12 for the price of 10 and a little less to take to the USD exchange. So I chomped through the middle half of that book and a few experimental cocktails before we landed in America and Sanderson had me thirsty for more.
There is a Bass Pro Shop in San Jose, California. It’s a bit of a theme park, the interior so astoundingly adorned with log cabin finish, walls of taxidermy, waterfall, fish tank, and a massive fire hearth perhaps 12 feet high in a foyer at the entrance. This is where I chose to make my final stand, and crunch the last 458 pages of the story with the furnace ablaze. (And despite the high traffic of the entrance near this particular lounge chair, I find the silence of huntsmen and outdoorsy compatriots to be particularly less unsettling than the screaming childfolk of Barnes and Noble)
I can’t sit still. I shift, change corners, try a rocking chair, leather chair, different cushions of a couch. This book has me anxious. There happens to be a bar and bowling alley attached to this Bass Pro Shop. I recommend you try it. They serve Fried Alligator. Now, you know a nerd when you see one reading a book at an entertainment venue. (Hello Mr. King) But there are three final magic tricks to this story which make reading a book in a bar scene perfectly acceptable. First, by miracle alone, the bartender had read your book, Mr. Sanderson! All of them in fact. This was beneficial for his tip, and the potency of the beverages he served me. But it also forged a sense of kinship as I delved into the last chapters of your book. Here we were, two bros with an instant connection of mutual interest. And that in itself may have been a strange, worldly catalyst for my growing connection with Kaladin.
Secondly, I never did hear a bowling ball roll or strike a pin. It wasn’t even white noise. There were 6 lanes on either side of me, this was a family night, there were gutters, strikes, and spares a plenty. The cheers and fist pumps which resound therein. But it was your book, Mr. Sanderson, which calmed the storm around me, drew me in, and held my immersion with such influence.
Lastly, the bar tender (who’s body mass may be double my own) prescribed drink after drink. But I had hit the sweet spot. I cashed out, went back to the fire place, and sat in that lounge chair. By the gentle warmth of the hearth, and the warmth of my scotch I was layered and prepared for your words to shape me, Mr. Sanderson, and shape me they did. It was like a flashback to the Boy Scout Law. It was the posture of As A Gentleman Would Say. The Way of Kings is a cousin of The Book of Virtues. And so much more, so much else. Herein lies a lesson, not just in being a better writer. But a lesson in courage, sacrifice, temperance, and heroism. Where else?
A Lesson in Sending a Message
How did you do it, Mr. Sanderson? You gentle man with a giant’s heart and a secret skill for manipulating the emotions of others. Yet, you fight on the side of good. So who greater a champion for virtue than you, sir? I would shake your hand, not just because you are excellent at story telling. But because you have proven that we are moved to care about real world concepts through fiction; and even fantasy can be a device for leaving a lasting impression on a reader’s moral compass. This is important to understand, because it gives Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors the opportunity to mend hearts and fire imaginations. It changes playing with matches to naming stars in the sky.