Brandon Sanderson is an author known for his deep and complex worldbuilding, so it was only a matter of time before one of his books drifted into my sights. I chose The Way of Kings (WoK) because it’s easily the longest of his non-sequel novels, so we should have plenty to sink our teeth into. It’s a story of war and politics, of magical gemstones and devastating storms, but how does the setting hold up? Only time will tell. And me. Only time and me will tell.
Unlike certain other fantasy series I could name,* Sanderson was kind enough to give WoK’s setting a name: Roshar. It’s a pretty distinctive place. I won’t soon forget armored knights flying through the air while wielding the fantasy equivalent of lightsabers. But does that make it good? In some cases, yes!
A major feature of Roshar’s unusual ecology is the highstorms. As the name implies, these are powerful storms that originate far out at sea, then sweep across the main continent and nearby islands, battering everything in their paths. Highstorms are common and regular enough to be predicted, but never with perfect accuracy.
These storms are pretty cool on their own, providing some excellent opportunities for environmental conflict when the heroes are caught in them. Sanderson takes it much further, though, showing how life on Roshar has evolved to deal with a world constantly beset by hurricanes. Nearly everything has a hard shell, with most land animals resembling various species of crustacean. When a storm comes, these creatures hunker down and depend on their shells to protect them.
Plants are the same way, with most possessing a hard shell that their leaves, vines, and flowers can retreat into when threatened. It’s like sleeping grass but turned up to 11. This allows for a lot of very cool description, with plants rippling back into their shells as characters pass by. We also see that most animals have specialized into crushing jaws or pincers, since just about everything edible has a hard shell to get through. It’s enough to make you wonder why humans don’t also have shells, but Sanderson has an answer for that: humans are originally from another world, brought to Roshar in the distant past by poorly understood magic.
Speaking of magic, the highstorms also provide Roshar with its main source of magical energy. It’s called Stormlight,* a glowing aurora that permeates highstorms. This Stormlight can be captured in gemstones, which are then used to power the setting’s various magitech devices. Not only is this cool, but it’s also efficient. Since highstorms are already such a noticeable part of the setting, Sanderson doesn’t need to introduce some other source of magic; he just uses what he already has.
The majority of WoK’s plot takes place on the Shattered Plains, an evocative name for a battlefield where human kingdoms make war against their enemies. These plains are actually thousands of mesas clustered together: high plateaus with deep chasms between them. This is very cool to imagine, but it adds a lot to the story beyond aesthetics.
Most noticeably, Sanderson uses the Shattered Plains to shape how the story’s big war is conducted. Moving soldiers between plateaus is a big challenge, especially in hostile territory where permanent bridges are impossible to maintain. Portable bridges are a huge part of warfare, and the speed with which they can be deployed is often the deciding factor in a battle. Naturally, one of the main characters is a bridgeman, and his hardships provide the story’s most compelling drama.
The chasms between plateaus also provide a cool environment for the protagonists to explore. Most of these chasms run so deep that there’s very little light unless the sun is directly overhead, and the whole place is scattered with the bodies of soldiers who’ve fallen to their deaths from the mesas above. That’s pretty creepy, and there’s the added danger of encountering one of the setting’s many monsters, raising tension considerably whenever a character has to venture down into the dark.
The war in WoK is supposedly fought in the name of justice for an assassinated king, but it’s quickly apparent that something else is at play: money. You see, the Shattered Plains are home to a special variety of monster that contains valuable gemstones within its body. These monsters pupate on the mesas,* and in that state they can be easily killed for their valuable innards.
By the time the story starts, the war’s original purpose has mostly given way to battling over these gems. So long as the recovered gems are worth more than the costs in soldiers and material, the ruling princes earn a profit. This is a fascinating way to portray the idea that war is a game the upper classes play to enrich themselves, to everyone else’s detriment. Sanderson makes it a literal aspect of his world and, therefore, much easier to explain than if it were just an abstract political concept.
This idea plays a big role in the story of Kaladin, the bridgeman I mentioned earlier. His main source of conflict is that the ruling princes are happy to let bridgemen be killed by the enemy if it means a better gemstone return. The princes can always find more warm bodies to carry the bridges, and they grow ever richer even as Kaladin’s comrades die around him. The ratios are a bit off, as it’s difficult to believe that any amount of money could replace bridgemen at the rate described, but the concept is incredibly compelling.
Fantasy Lightsabers and Powered Armor
WoK has several different types of magic, but the most common are powerful artifacts called Shards. These come in two forms: Shardblades and Shardplate. The blades are basically lightsabers – weightless weapons that can cut through almost anything without effort. Meanwhile, the plate is a kind of powered armor, both protecting the wearer and enhancing their physical abilities with the energy of Stormlight-infused gemstones.
This kind of tech is common in space-opera scifi settings, but it actually works much better in fantasy. Even the most powerful magic swords can’t compete with modern firearms, so the only way to justify their use is with a healthy dose of handwavium. Powered armor is more believable, but even so, it doesn’t quite make for an unstoppable juggernaut, since anti-tank weapons probably exist.
In a fantasy setting, Sanderson doesn’t need to worry about any of that. Most combat happens at close range anyway, where Shardblades are brutally efficient. And since no one has invented a rocket launcher yet, Shardplate works to its full effect. That doesn’t mean the plate is quite invincible, though, and I really like the way it shows damage: by an ever-increasing number of cracks that leak Stormlight from the armor’s gemstones. The image is cool to imagine, and it gives readers an easy way to keep track of how much trouble a Shardplated character is in.
As a bonus, Sanderson even has a cool answer for the age-old question of why Jedi don’t just briefly turn off their lightsabers to get past an enemy’s guard. Shardblades can be summoned out of the ether at their wielder’s command, which is a lot like turning on a lightsaber, but the process takes about ten heartbeats. Long enough that, in most cases, a Shardbearer wouldn’t want to dismiss their weapon and then resummon it, though Sanderson does show us occasional exceptions.
The war I keep mentioning is primarily fought between the human country of Alethkar and a fantasy species called the Parshendi. While the Parshendi aren’t always handled well in the plot,* there’s a lot to like about them. Most importantly, they don’t appear to be an inherently evil species. They did murder the human king for mysterious reasons,* but WoK is very clear that, individually, the Parshendi are just as morally varied as humans. That’s admittedly a low bar to clear, but as we’ve seen in past worldbuilding posts, fantasy stories don’t always manage it.
Beyond not being orcs, the Parshendi are well situated to oppose humanity on the Shattered Plains. They’re bigger and stronger than a typical human, which makes them difficult opponents, but their numbers are limited. Battles between humans and Parshendi often come down to large formations of human soldiers taking on small groups of the enemy, which creates a strong contrast. The Parshendi also grow their own armored carapaces and pass commands through song, which is just cool.
But the Parshendi’s most interesting feature is their ability to jump. Across long distances, humans are actually faster, but the Parshendi’s heavily muscled legs allow them to leap dozens of feet at a time. This adds a new dimension to fighting them, literally – they can easily leap over their human enemies for a flanking attack. Such attacks raise the Parshendi’s threat level and also let Sanderson keep his fight scenes dynamic and action-packed.
As much as I praise WoK’s worldbuilding, not everything is sunshine and roses. The book just keeps going, revealing more and more new setting elements that should have been left out.
Conceptually speaking, there’s no reason a fantasy world has to use something akin to the Gregorian calendar for measuring time. Practically speaking, most fantasy worlds should anyway, and WoK is a great example of why.
Every unit of time on Roshar is different from what we use in the real world. Days have a different number of hours, weeks have a different number of days, months have a different number of weeks, etc. I honestly couldn’t get any kind of useful conversion rate from reading the book, so I’m depending on fan research instead.
All these unusual timescales do is create confusion. We’re told Kaladin has been a slave for eight months, which is an important plot point. But to figure out how long that actually is, you have to do some complicated math that I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around. As best I can tell, it’s about ten and a half real months, but don’t quote me on that.
At the same time, Rosharan years are a little longer than real-life years, so every character is about two to four years older than their stated ages. This often doesn’t matter, but for the younger characters, it can make a big difference. Roshar also has “seasons” that last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, which really don’t sound like seasons anymore. If the temperature rises for a week in March, we don’t call that “summer” except as a joke.
None of these unusual time measurements ever add anything to the story; they’re just confusing. It’s possible Sanderson has plans for them later on, but it’s probably not worth the cost of readers having to Google how old each character is.
Abundant Spirits With Little Impact
One odd facet of Roshar are the spren: magical spirits that seem to come in every form you can imagine. Some spren are themed around nature, like rainspren and rockspren. Others are tied to emotions or abstract concepts, like fearspren and gloryspren. There’s effectively a spren for everything, and they appear when that thing is happening. Mostly. Sometimes Sanderson doesn’t feel like describing the spren, so they don’t appear. The characters talk about it being a mystery why spren appear sometimes and not other times, but it mostly feels arbitrary.
Beyond when they appear, the main problem with spren is that they’ve barely affected the setting, despite being everywhere. Everyone on Roshar is constantly surrounded by glowing magic spirits, and yet human society is almost entirely unchanged. As far as I can find, the only spren-inspired change is that surgeons know to disinfect wounds, as they can see rotspren retreat from antiseptic.
That’s better than nothing, but it’s small potatoes for such an intrusive aspect of the world. It just seems like ever-present supernatural beings should cause more changes than that. Instead, you could take the vast majority of spren out of the story, and nothing on Roshar would change. In later books, we do discover other important types of spren,* but with books as long as this one, that’s a long time to wait.
It feels very strange to critique a Sanderson book for having arbitrary magic, but here we are nevertheless. The magic in this setting is all over the place, with little rhyme or reason. Shardplate is superstrong armor powered by Stormlight, while Shardblades don’t seem to use Stormlight at all. A third type of artifact called a Soulcaster can use Stormlight to transmute any substance into any other substance, which is a pretty wild expansion of capabilities.
Then we have another kind of magic called Surgebinding. This uses Stormlight but no artifacts. Instead, Surgebinders are people who can use Stormlight to give themselves enhanced strength, fast healing, and also gravity manipulation. This increasingly random set of abilities isn’t helped by terminology like “double Basic Lashing,” which sounds like placeholder text from the alpha test of a video game.
Since this is Brandon Sanderson, I can easily believe that he has a full explanation for how WoK’s magic system works and how the disparate powers are actually part of a greater whole.* But it really doesn’t feel that way in WoK. I can’t look at known magical effects and make any predictions about what future effects might be or how different powers might be used together. It’s effectively arbitrary, whatever Sanderson’s world bible says.
This is far from the worst arbitrary system I’ve seen, as Sanderson at least establishes the different powers before he uses them to resolve major conflicts. But it still feels cobbled together, especially when Surgebinding enters the picture. Why does Stormlight have dominion over biological functions like strength and healing and also over a fundamental force like gravity?
I’ve given WoK a lot of praise for how well Sanderson considers worldbuilding implications for warfare and fight scenes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pay the same attention to most other aspects of Rosharan culture. In this world of regular highstorms and ever-present spren, human society is still mundanely feudal, just like you’d expect in a less unusual setting. I understand that not every book series can explore the effects of natural disasters to the same extent The Broken Earth does, but Sanderson doesn’t seem interested in trying.
It’s also disappointing how little impact the various magic items have had on the setting. Shardblades and Shardplate are both fairly present, but Soulcasters have a minimal impact. That’s especially weird since, of the three magic items, Soulcasters are by far the most capable. It seems like the power to turn anything into anything else would have far-ranging consequences, but it just doesn’t. Instead, we’re often told about various Soulcasting feats that we’d otherwise have assumed were accomplished through mundane means. Apparently the Alethi army doesn’t need supply lines because it can create food in the field with Soulcasters. That’s neat, but without the explanation, you’d just assume the army had regular supply lines. We’re told about several buildings that were made with Soulcasters, but they look like normal buildings made by carpenters.
Worse, Soulcasters are far from the only magical items that populate Roshar, and the rest are even more ignored. Collectively referred to as fabriels, there are entire schools of engineering devoted to inventing new varieties, but it’s not until quite late in the books that we finally see any evidence of them. For at least half of the story, WoK seems to have a medieval tech level until Sanderson grudgingly shows us enchanted pens that can be used to communicate long-distance. Then we finally get a trickle of other fabriels that can heat rooms or numb pain. These have theoretically been in the world all along; we just haven’t seen them before.
Bizarre Gender Roles
If WoK’s general culture is disappointingly conventional, its gender roles are the opposite: so arbitrary that they don’t seem real. The first thing that really grabs your attention is that despite this being a patriarchal society, men aren’t allowed to read. Anytime a man needs to do research, check his accounts, or consult battlefield reports, he needs a woman there to read for him. That’s just… not how anything works.
In real life, tasks like cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing are often considered unmasculine because there’s an expectation that women will perform them instead. A man doesn’t have to cook if his wife or female relative is preparing all the meals. But this doesn’t apply to reading. In WoK, a man still has to be present for a woman to read to him, so not knowing how to read isn’t saving him any time. In fact, it’s making things much less convenient, as being read to typically takes more time than reading something on your own.
Reading is only the tip of the iceberg, though. The setting has strict gender roles, but they don’t make any sense. Men are warriors and leaders, but women are engineers and scholars. In any rational world, those roles would have a lot of overlap. Since all the weapon engineers are women, they would have a lot of say in how wars are conducted. Since women are the only ones allowed to read and research, they would be important in crafting laws. None of that happens, at least not in this book.
In reality, social stratification primarily exists to benefit those with power at the cost of those without. On Roshar, someone seems to have divided up all the cool jobs by throwing darts at a board.
And, of course, there’s the fact that women’s left hands are considered highly erotic, to the point that they must be covered. Look, what makes certain body parts sexy will vary across cultures, but this is just silly. It especially doesn’t make sense since even upper-class women are all expected to have professions like painting or researching, tasks that are much easier to perform with two uncovered hands. Plus, all the conventionally sexy parts are still considered taboo, which makes this addition feel even more out of place.
Absurd Cultural Values
While the Alethi are generically feudal, they aren’t the only human society on Roshar. Another important culture is the Shin, and oh boy are they a can of worms. We don’t see a whole lot of Shinovar itself, but the main tidbits we learn are that Shin barter by undervaluing their goods and that soldiers are the bottom tier of their society, effectively traded around like slaves.
Trade via undervaluing one’s goods doesn’t seem very practical, but it pales in comparison to the absolute absurdity of oppressed soldiers.* There’s a very simple reason soldiers are never going to form an oppressed underclass: they have all the weapons. Anyone who wants to oppress them can take it up with Mr. Slicey, the anti-oppression greatsword.
While slave soldiers have existed throughout history, they typically had far more power and influence than the type of slavery we envision since, again, they had weapons. They also existed alongside free soldiers, since no actual group of humans would give slaves all the weapons. At the same time, when a society did rely too heavily on slave soldiers, those same soldiers inevitably became a privileged class of their own, as we can see with groups like the Janissaries and the Mamluks.
To get around this problem, Sanderson describes the Shin as being so devoted to their cultural rules that no one ever dares break one. This is personified in the character of Szeth, an assassin banished from Shinovar and forced to kill at his new owner’s command. He claims to hate killing, and he can stop anytime he wants, but his devotion to Shin cultural rules is just too great.
This just isn’t believable, and it even feels a little racist. According to Sanderson, the Shin are supposed to look like white people, but their description makes them sound more like anime characters, with cartoonishly large eyes and short stature. That’s not quite Asian coding, but it comes pretty darned close, and it feels like WoK is trading on the stereotype of Asian cultures being overly rigid and honor bound, regardless of what Sanderson intended.
Earlier, I praised the Parshendi for having a high threat level without dipping into the toxic trope of an inherently evil species, and that’s all still true. However, the Parshendi are seriously lacking in other areas. Over and over again, we see the Parshendi act not as rational beings looking out for their own interests but like video game enemies whose only purpose is to get in the hero’s way.
For example: We’re told that when the war between humans and Parshendi began, the Parshendi didn’t have much experience with large-scale warfare. That’s reasonable, but by the time the story starts, they’ve been at war for six years and they still don’t seem to have learned. Over and over, we see them shoot at Kaladin and the other bridgemen, even though it’s made very clear that doing so doesn’t help them win the battle. They do this because as the protagonist, it’s important for Kaladin to suffer adversity, not because it’s something the Parshendi would actually do in this situation.
Continuing the trend, it’s difficult to guess what the Parshendi’s goal in this war even is. After assassinating the Alethi king, we’re told that the entire Parshendi population hightailed it to the Shattered Plains and just camped out there as the Alethi besieged them for years. The Parshendi don’t try to negotiate, win allies from other human kingdoms, or do anything else that might improve their situation. I guess they’re hoping the Alethi will go away eventually?
A final oddity is that the Parshendi are shown to be honorable and virtuous, but they never make any effort to capture human soldiers alive. Even in scenes where the humans are surrounded and have no hope of victory, the Parshendi never offer terms of surrender. Instead, they force their enemies to fight to the death, which only increases the Parshendi’s own casualties. Of course, the meta reason for this is that if the Parshendi were the kind of enemy you could surrender to, it would be too easy for Kaladin and his bridgemen to escape the mistreatment they get from their own side. They could just walk up to the first Parshendi they see and surrender.
The Parshendi’s only saving grace is that since so much of their motivation is kept mysterious, it’s technically possible that all of their inconsistencies could still be explained. But so much about them is contrived that I find this highly unlikely, and even if I’m wrong, their early appearances will still feel contrived.
What We Can Learn
Here we are, over 300,000 words later, looking at the worldbuilding of Roshar and wondering what it all meant. Obviously it means that we can learn from both Sanderson’s successes and his failures, so that our own stories will be more like Shardblades and less like men not being able to read.
Creative Fight Scenes Are Novel
Speaking of Shardblades, if there’s one thing Sanderson excels at, it’s fresh and novel fight scenes. If your characters ever cross swords in the course of their journey, then WoK offers a useful lesson: use your speculative elements to spice up your fights.
Don’t get me wrong: gritty and realistic fight scenes can be cool too. But if you’re going to add magic, advanced tech, or strange locations to your world, then use them when your characters fight! WoK’s best fight scenes are between Shardbearers, when Sanderson is in his element describing how the blades and plate interact. In contrast, his more mundane fight scenes just aren’t as interesting.
Beyond one-on-one duels, Sanderson also uses speculative elements to enhance warfare in his setting. Fantasy battles can often be somewhat abstract, as it’s hard to visualize important moments when thousands of troops clash on a long front. But by focusing on the bridges and how important they are to get from plateau to plateau, Sanderson gives us a more tangible way to intuit which side is winning.
Novelty Is Best When It Matters
A striking difference between what works and what doesn’t work in WoK’s worldbuilding is whether it actually matters to the story. The highstorms, for example, are vital for understanding the world. Roshar’s environment has evolved around them, and they’re the source of magic. You couldn’t remove them without making big changes to the rest of the setting. They’re also important to the plot, with one character getting caught in the open during a storm and another character receiving strange visions from the storm’s magic.
In contrast, the unusual time measurements and ever-present spren add far less. If you took those out, very little about the story would change. Without rotspren, we’d need another explanation for why doctors know about disinfectant, and there’s one character whose backstory would need to change. She’s a spren herself, but she’s the only one, and it wouldn’t be difficult to give her a less intrusive backstory. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a single thing that would change if we simplified Rosharan timekeeping.
Similarly, the Shattered Plains are critically important for how the Alethi and Parshendi fight their war. Compare that to the magitech fabriels, most of which don’t have any impact on the story until past the halfway point. While both elements have the potential to be cool and interesting, there’s a lot more investment built up in the one that matters more to the story.
The lesson we can all learn is to make the most of what we have. Readers will be far more enthralled by three well-developed speculative elements than six poorly developed ones.
Cultures Aren’t Arbitrary
Many spec-fic authors want to create cool and unique cultures, a desire I sympathize with. We see in this very book how it can be boring to simply recreate medieval feudalism. But in that pursuit, it’s easy to lose track of how a society actually works and start assigning it random traits instead.
That’s how WoK ends up with one culture where men can’t read and another culture where soldiers are oppressed. Those are certainly unusual features, but they’re also very silly. Instead of making Roshar cool and unique, they give it the distinct impression of being bodged together from spare parts.
When creating a fantasy or scifi culture, worldbuilders need to consider why people do the things they do. This can get really complex, but one consistent rule is that those with power get their way. We know that soldiers won’t be oppressed, because they have the martial prowess to resist oppression. We know that men won’t be denied reading in a patriarchal society, because that would be really inconvenient.
The good news is that we have plenty of room for creativity without going to these weird extremes. History provides us with countless examples of unusual societies, but writers can also use the speculative elements of their worlds to build new cultures around. WoK doesn’t do that, but it has all the right conditions to. Sanderson could have explored how the constant threat of highstorms shaped the way humans interact in his setting, but instead he went with arbitrary gender roles.
You Can Just Include Women
While I’m happy to give WoK a hard time for its weird sexism, I don’t think Sanderson had malicious intent when he wrote it. Instead, it seems like he was trying to give women a more active role in his setting while still retaining the social stratification he thought was necessary. WoK even includes a number of sections that talk about the importance of husband-and-wife teams, since the guy can lead soldiers or trade goods and the lady can read records or… paint portraits, I guess, as that’s another of WoK’s “feminine arts.”
The good news is that if you want more women in your fantasy stories, you don’t need to create all these complicated gender roles. You can just craft a world that doesn’t have the sexism we’re so used to in the real world. You can have female engineers without saying that only women are allowed to be engineers. If you want married characters who act as a team, just write them doing that! There’s no need to make one of them unable to read. Relaxing your setting’s gender roles only makes this easier.
The bigotry we see in the real world is not inevitable, and speculative fiction is a great place to explore worlds without it. Don’t be tricked into thinking you have to work within existing prejudices when you’re creating brand-new worlds from scratch!
The Way of Kings doesn’t have the best or the worst worldbuilding of the stories I’ve looked at, but it may have the most worldbuilding. I didn’t even have time to talk about how the weird religion works, mostly because it’s so far in the background that I never formed much of an opinion on it. The consistent pattern is that WoK works when Sanderson is actually using his world for something, and it falls behind when he’s just adding things for the sake of it. That’s true of most books, but it’s especially on display here, where parts of the setting are developed with laser focus while the rest are dropped in at random.
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