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Review: Battle Tactics in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings

If you’ve read my previous article on battlefield tactics, you’ve probably realized by now that I just can’t leave the topic alone. So here’s another article on battlefield tactics – but this time I want to talk about tactics done right.

I first read Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings last summer (along with the other books in the Stormlight Archive – I was a bit starved for books, okay?). Sanderson is renowned for his worldbuilding, and his battlefield tactics are yet another example of the thoroughness with which he approaches his writing. In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through three aspects of the battlefield you need to consider when writing a battle scene – terrain, objectives, and technology – using Way of Kings as an example.

1. Terrain

What does the land look like? Open fields, hills, river, town? Is there a swamp nearby? Where’s the high ground? Consider how the absence or presence of each of these things would shape the battlefield.

In Way of Kings, the terrain consists of shattered plateaus with deep chasms dividing them. The chasms are just wide enough that an ordinary man can’t jump across them, but bridges can reach. Furthermore, it’s essentially a wasteland. Due to the lack of shelter from the devastating storms that sweep the plateaus, not to mention the complications of a long supply line over multiple chasms, it makes sense that the only settlements are the home bases of each opposing army. This terrain, together with armies’ objectives, massively impacts the flow of battle.

2. Objective

What are your commanders trying to accomplish? A general trying to retake his home city will behave differently than a general trying to raze the enemy capital to the ground. The first will try to preserve infrastructure, the second with do his damnedest to destroy it. Likewise, if you are trying to capture a piece of land, you want the enemy soldiers to flee – but if your only goal is to cause casualties, you might choose to block off escape routes. An army’s objective shapes the actions they take.

Unlike many battles, the objectives of the battles within Way of Kings does not center around “kill the most enemies.” Rather, the goal of each army is to get their hands on valuable gemstones called gemhearts. Gemhearts are only found when a large creature called a chasm fiend comes onto a plateau to pupate, but both the timing and location of this event is totally random. Since the terrain prevents controlling vast swaths of land in anticipation of these events, then that turns each chasm fiend pupation into a race – which side can get there first in order to claim the gemheart. This results in an emphasis on mobility and a de-emphasis on defense which in turn impacts the value of certain types of technology.

3. Technology

If you recall my rant against Marie Lu’s Skyhunter in my previous battlefield tactic post (linked above), then you should already know: Technology matters. If your characters have access to guns – or, really, any long-range weaponry – then that will significantly impact the arrangement of the battlefield and possibly the course of the battle. Of course, the degree to which it does so depends on both terrain and commander objectives, and the way in which Sanderson shows this in Way of Kings makes my battlefield-geek self squeal in happiness.

Like most fantasy worlds, Way of Kings is working with essentially medieval-era technology: Swords, shields, arrows, basic fortification capabilities, etc. I’m going to be focusing on three aspects of technology and how they are shown to affect the flow of battle.

a. Bridges

Due to the frequent and destructive storms, permanent bridges across the chasms are basically nonexistent. However, soldiers still need to cross chasms to cover ground and reach the gemhearts. This means that mobile bridges are incredibly important, and because it’s a race to reach gemhearts, the faster the better.

This leads to some really interesting conflict. One of our main characters, Kaladin, is a bridgeman – one of the slaves used to carry bridges to the conflict zones. Bridges carried by bridgemen are notoriously faster than the wheeled ones pushed by soldiers. This means that commanders who use bridgemen are more successful than the more humane commanders, like another MC named Dalinar, who dislike the slavery system. In addition to giving Dalinar some internal conflict as he debates the morality of using bridgemen, it also impacts the value of long-range weapons, like arrows.

b. Arrows

Now don’t worry, I know that long-range weapons are not the be-all-end-all. The reason I harp on them so much is that, particularly in fantasy worlds where writers like to describe flashy sword fights, long range weapons have a tendency to be left out altogether. Way of Kings is a great example of still making use of long-range weapons, even though the terrain and objectives decrease their strategic value.

Long-range weapons like arrows are particularly valuable in defensive positions when you’re trying to kill a bunch of soldiers charging at you. As previously mentioned, this is not Way of Kings. The battlefield objective in Sanderson’s book is to reach the gemheart before the opposing army, which means you need boots on the ground and hands that can grab the gem. Since archers are just as fast as footsoldiers, that would actually mean you would prioritize getting footsoldiers to the location. In other words, archers aren’t as valuable if you’re an attacking force.

If you’re the defending force, archers would primarily be valuable in aiming for the bridgemen, to try to keep them from setting up the bridges so the footsoldiers can come across the chasm. And indeed, this is what Sanderson shows us. This also leads to some character conflict as Kaladin wonders why bridgemen aren’t allowed to have shields, only to discover that bridgemen are actively used to draw the archers’ attention so as to preserve the more valuable footsoldiers.

c. ShardBlades & ShardPlate

Everyone loves their power fantasy – a single super-powered character who can turn the tide of a battle and get some epic fight scenes while they’re at it. The sad news is, in traditional battles it’s hard to have such a character actually be able to make a difference (rather than being overwhelmed with numbers) without having them be too overpowered. Thanks to both the terrain and objectives, Sanderson is able to give us the best of both worlds.

ShardBlades are basically really long swords that can cut through anything, while ShardPlate is the armor equivalent and is the only thing that can block ShardBlades. While the blades are really cool, it’s the plate that is actually valuable in this scenario, because it gives the wearer the ability to leap over chasms. This is valued maneuverability in a world that is reliant on bridges. If the enemy has reached the plateau before yourself, then Shard bearers can leap ahead and clear off a portion to make room for the bridges. Furthermore, they have the ability to wade through enemy lines to try to reach the gemheart and carry it out of the conflict zone. Of course, they can still be overcome by sheer numbers – and be careful if you let one of your Shard bearers fall, for in doing so you are allowing their valuable armor to fall into the hands of the enemy.

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So now you have it – terrain that inhibits fortifications, an objective that emphasizes mobility, and technology that increases the value of the individual in the course of battle. The perfect fantasy set-up to highlight the epicness of your main characters while retaining the integrity of the battlefield. As Sanderson has demonstrated in Way of Kings, it’s still possible to have epic individual fight scenes without ignoring wider battlefield strategy.

Hopefully talking through how terrain, objectives, and technology impacted the flow of battle in Way of Kings has given you an idea of how to think through your own battlefield conflicts! Let me know if you have any questions or observations in the comments below, or if you want to join me in geeking out about the Stormlight Archive.

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