Tell us a little about The Way of Kings.
The Way of Kings is... it's many things. And I once heard Robert Jordan, someone ask him to describe the Wheel of Time. And he said, "Well, I can't say it in a few sentences. If I could, I would have written the books that length. You'll just have to read them." And part of me wants to say that for this book. I just don't even know how to describe it. I've been working on it for something like fifteen years. It's kind of the project of my heart that I've wanted to do for a long time but I didn't feel I had the momentum to do it until this point in my career.
And it's about many things. On one hand, it's about Knights in magical platemail power armor that punch through walls and jump off buildings. There's that aspect. On the other hand, it's about the age of discovery in a world where magic is real. It's the dawning of an age of technology, but magical technology. It's the beginnings of something like that. So, for Wheel of Time fans, I describe it as the beginning of the Age of Legends. A story about something like that in a world where people are just starting to apply scientific reason to magical experience. And on the other side, it's a very individual story about a young man who gets recruited into, is essentially pressed into a terrible war where he's part of this crew of men who run siege equipment. He doesn't even get to fight, he runs this siege equipment and lives this terrible experience of people dying around him, and learning and growing and surviving in this terrible place.
So it's all of those things. On one side it's the fun action; on the other side, it's me trying to deal with the ideas of magic and science blending. But really, it comes down to a story about character. Who are these people? The young man who's trapped, and the young woman who's essentially Pliny the Elder mixed with a little bit of Darwin. She's a scholar who's just kind at the beginnings of this age of discovery, who's sort of sketching these weird creatures she sees and applying reason to them. So, it's all over the place, but hopefully it coalesces into one awesome story. I hope.
You brought up the magic system [of Way of Kings], and it's fairly unique. It's hard to wrap your head around it at first, but once you get into the story it actually makes a lot of sense. So, how long did it take you to develop that actual aspect of the novel?
It depends on the book. For this one, it's been going for a long time. This is one of the magic systems I've just been playing with forever, the idea...
Now, I describe the basics of the magic systems, and I'm worried that that will scare people off, because you don't need to know any of this stuff. The magic is fun, it should be just part of the story. But if you really wanna dig deeply, this one is based off the idea of fundamental forces. The [four] fundamental forces. Gravitation and electromagnetics and strong and weak nuclear forces. Those are the concepts that built this magic system, where I built an idea of a world with essentially ten fundamental forces, and built ten orders of Knights, each who learn to manipulate a type of these forces. So that is a growth over about ten years of work, to build this magic system with these ideas of "How can I make these fundamental forces manipulate them, what can it do? How can I make surface tension into a magic system? Or how can I make pressure into a magic system? Or gravitation that works in a magic system?"
But in other ones, it's just a quirky idea that occurs to me. Warbreaker, I spent only about four months building the magic system for that; an idea, you know, sympathetic magic of bringing things to life and using Breath as a metaphor for someone's life just kind of fell into place and worked together, and I did it. It depends on the book.
So, obviously, since you spent ten years developing that kind of magic system for The Way of Kings, it can't be just a one-off book.
No, it's the start of a large series. I originally pitched it, and I said, "This is ten books." And the publisher said, "Oh. Make sure you don't tell too many people that." (Which, it's already too late.) "Because either they'll hear that and be scared off because it's too big. Or eventually you'll be getting near the end, and you'll wanna extend it a book or two, and you'll have locked yourself in." But ten is a very mythological number in this series, and it is based on these ten Orders of Knights, and I'm pretty sure it'll be the ten books.
One of the things I'm playing with is trying to figure a way that I can make a long series like that feel like individual books. You know, I want to have an epic series, but one of the problems with epic series is that you get a few books in, and you start to lose track. And it's hard to keep track of everything. I want each of the books to feel individual. And the way I'm doing that is, each book is essentially about one of the characters. And there are other characters that appear, other viewpoints and things, but in each book, we delve into one character's past and tell a complete story, beginning with having some flashbacks to what happened in their history, and having a full arc for that character. So each of the ten books... they take place chronologically, it's not like we're always jumping back and things like that, but in each character's book, we will see one character's past and history as it's influencing what's happening with them in the present. So, hopefully, that'll work something like Lost, or one of my models is the old Highlander TV series, with their wonderful use of blending flashback, where we can see a person's past and watch their present, and get a cohesive feel for each book. Hopefully.
If Robert Jordan had been able to read [Way of Kings], what do you think he would say about it? What would he really love about it?
You know, Robert Jordan loved (at least, from what I can tell in the notes, and listening to him talk) this idea of blending technology and magic in a lot of ways. If you read the Wheel of Time books, it's about the Industrial Revolution happening at the same time as the end of the world. We have steam technology and things appearing, and this is all background. It's not what the story was about. But I think he would be fascinated by that concept.
Because I was always fascinated by the Age of Legends in the Wheel of Time books, where I wanted to... that influenced me in telling a story about worlds where we are seeing the beginnings of things like this. So, that might be something he would latch on to.
I have no ability to speak actually for him. I never met Robert Jordan. I saw him once at a convention, I still feel stupid for not saying hello to him. There are so many people who know him better than I do. To me, he's kind of like this heroic figure, he's the Odysseus who came before. And he still remains that to me, because I never really got to know him personally. Whereas all the people I work with know him personally, I just know him as this hero.
Since [Robert Jordan] obviously is one of your heroes, what kind of influence has he had on The Way of Kings?
You know, it's so hard to pick out my influences in different ways. I mean, Robert Jordan's had a huge influence on me. I was looking back at my very first book that I wrote back when I was nineteen, and I read the beginning and I realized (I'd never realized this before) I started with a wind scene. I don't know if you know this, in Wheel of Time, all of the books start with this omniscient perspective of the wind. I did that. And I said, "My goodness, I didn't even think..." You can call it an homage, but it really was unintentionally ripping him off. And I started, I had three or four pages of just the wind blowing through and looking at things in the exact same way. And I never realized that until I looked back at that.
I was deeply influenced by Robert Jordan's use of viewpoint perspective. I think that's the thing I've learned most from him that you can see distinctly in my fiction nowadays is how deeply he was in viewpoint. When you read Aviendha, she is so different from when you read Mat that it's night and day. And that's something that I hope that I learned from him, that I wanted to learn from him, so that when you read Dalinar, Dalinar feels very different from Kaladin who feels very different from Shallan because they all see the world in a different way. Use of the third person limited is just... he was wonderful at that.