Sep 16 2010 12:28pm

Dragon*Con Report: “The Art of The Way of Kings

So, Monday at Dragon*Con was, as usual, actually pretty chill. Kind of like Sunday at most regular cons. Yeah, there was still programming until like 4:00 PM, but most people were more worried with packing and hitting the road, and most of the programming was “goodbye and feedback” panels. But, Brandon Sanderson, true to form, kept on trucking, and at 11:00 AM, he and two of the artists that had worked on the twenty-plus illustrations for The Way of Kings sat down for a good long time and talked to us about not just the art, but the inception of the book in general.

But this isn’t a post about art. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the panel was mostly about the art, and I did sort of title this post with the name of the panel. But no, this is more about what The Way of Kings is in a general, postmodern sense. To that effect, I need to reference the wonderful essay by Brandon that went up on John Scalzi’s website titled: “Postmodernism in Fantasy”. It is kind of long, but a good and interesting read. For those who want to “tl;dr” it (and why the heck are you reading me if you are that kind of person?), the gist is that fantasy hit the “hipster ironic” phase really fast, where people try and use the tropes to twist the tropes in ironic ways then chuckle at their own cleverness. Sanderson talks about his own “postmodern” fantasy, Mistborn, and his worries about doing that with The Way of Kings as well. See, he didn’t want his great epic to still be in the shadow of Tolkien and Jordan. He wanted it to be something more, to transcend into what he thinks the next generation of fantasy writing should be. And that brings us back to the panel and one of the things he did to get out into his own ray of sunlight.

In the panel, Brandon asked a simple question: why do fantasy novels have maps? His self supplied answer: because Tolkien did it. Now, this is actually a good thing, he points out, as typically it is nice to be able to geospatially figure out where people are during the story without having to pen-and-paper it yourself from the vague (or sometimes not-too-vague) references. Still, it was standard and expected, and Brandon had been trying desperately to break away from it. Elantris, he somewhat lamented, had a standard fantasy map and he didn’t fight too hard about it because that was his first book. But the  Mistborn and Warbreaker maps got to move a little closer to his desire for the maps to be more “in world.” That is to say, these were maps that someone in the story might have access too. Which is why the Warbreaker map kind of looks like a tapestry and the Mistborn map is scrunched and kind of hard to read.

The Way of Kings got to go a step further, but Brandon had to push for it. Even with his rockstar status, Brandon knew Tor would be somewhat reluctant to just greenlight a novel with twenty interior illustrations, many of which would be drawn by two of his friends. So he had said friends put together a pitch package, a la Hollywood, and he flew to New York and had a meeting directly with Tom Doherty, where he did everything he could to sell the idea. At this point in the panel, we actually got to see that concept art, which was rather interesting, especially to see the concepts for Shardplate and Shardblades. Tom was reluctant, but Brandon made a good case, and so despite his fear (in Brandon’s estimation) that this might be a half-graphic novel, he tentatively gave the thumbs up.

But, what exactly is it that Brandon was and is going for? Well, Brandon actually referenced a graphic novel in explaining this: Watchmen. At the end of each “chapter,” Moore inserted a text-based snippet, but from in-world, like a newspaper clipping or a diary entry. They world-built, progressed the story, and enhanced the characters, but they were text, not graphic. Well, Brandon wanted to do something like that with his novel, creating a mostly text story that would have occasional in-world art to help our immersion. This flowed very naturally from one his characters being a natural historian and constantly sketching things. There were also tapestry-like maps, or maps that appear to be set in stone or glass, or even an illiterate soldier’s map of camp carved on the back of a shell. And beyond maps, we had illuminated manuscript pages, drawings from old books, and a rubbing of a stone carving.

And you know what? It works. A picture is a thousand words (which is roughly three printed pages), and the quick rush of information and the stimulation of a different region of the brain does well to increase immersion. But, the question remains: is it a gimmick?

Brandon had commented that Mistborn was a gimmick, and that is why it worked but also why he didn’t want to repeat it. He is trying for something beyond a gimmick with The Way of Kings, something that perhaps other authors will cleave to, and other publishers. It definitely isn’t going to be easy, but in this age of mixed media, it does seem like a valid path to try. There is something important for anyone trying this kind of work, though. Do not actually illustrate any scenes in the story (except for the cover, but that doesn’t count). The illustrations, I think, need to add to the story without repeating it. Brandon seems to have stuck to this, and it definitely works for The Way of Kings.

Can we expect to see other novels with large amounts of in-world images inside that are still managing to stay away from “graphic novel” territory? I truly hope so, although how publishers and the business model will take to it, I’m unsure. I have heard it said that narrative prose is one of longest lasting media styles, and I doubt that it will change, but I think there might be a new kid on the block that will be making a home for itself. What shall we call it? Well, a brief search found this article from back in 2007 on The Guardian’s webpage, and I like it: Illustrated Novels. Until I hear otherwise, that’s what I’m sticking with.

Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and sucker for pretty pictures. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Colleen Palmer
1. arianrose
I agree that the images increased immersion in the story. The one problem for me was that I was reading the book at home, and the ebook at work*, so every night I had to go home and flip through the pages I'd read during the day to see the beautiful illustrations.

Though, you know, I've worded that like it was a Bad Thing. It's not at all, simply another phase of adjustment.

I recall the beautifully illustrated set of Narnia books I had when I was younger, and I think there's definitely a place for some, hmm, not repetitive drawing. But I'd hate to see people in the illustrations, as they're almost guaranteed not to look like I'd imagined them.

*Yes, this is how I read ebooks - I buy them of books I don't want to put down, and don't want to lug around with me. As far as I'm concerned this is win-win for the publisher and me: I get more time to read, the publisher gets two book sales from me.
Rikka Cordin
2. Rikka
Now if only I had a copy of TWoK that actually had art in it... :(

I think you are most definitely correct in say, "Do not actually illustrate any scenes in the story" because that's when readers stop feeling like adults who like fantasy and more like kiddies who need the bright colors and the visuals to keep them attracted to the story.

And fantasy readers certainly don't like being patronized.

Daniel Goss
3. Beren
I see only one problem with this. If the author is going to put illustrations into the book that are not simply renderings of specific scenes, he also needs to make sure not to fall into the trap of having the illustrations be key to understanding the story. I just have this nightmare about this idea catching on, and a novel writer who can also draw coming up with the brilliant thought to hide clues to his mystery in the illustrations . . . and the people who read ebooks or listen to audiobooks do not get to experience that part of the story. As it is now, I liked TWoK. I don't feel like I would have missed any of this story by not having the illustrations, but I'm glad they were there -- they added a lot of extra flavor, but weren't absolutely vital to my enjoyment.
Christine Evelyn Squires
4. ces
I thoroughly enjoyed all of the artwork - maps, portfolio illustrations, chapter first pages, etc., and I think the book would have been less without them, for me they helped cement the mood.

Please Mr. Doherty, follow through on including them in the remainder of the series! You have a serious winner here!
Luke M
5. lmelior
Although I just got it from the library the other day and I'm only a few chapters in, I agree, the interior art is great so far.

Also I wanted to chime in that my copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (the cool, solid-black, first edition hardcover) has some very nice interior illustrations, too.
Binyamin Weinreich
6. Imitorar
I can't say that I've read The Way of Kings yet, but the idea of having pictures in a book to expand on the world reminds me of the paintings included in Clive Barker's Abarat series. Although that's a bit different, since Barker got the ideas, then painted them out, then wrote the story, but in terms of how the finished product appears to the reader, I think it works in a similar way.
7. Brentus
I thought the illustrations were great and were a great touch, although like arianrose I had to look in my hardcover version when I got home (I was listening to the audiobook, which is awesome by the way). I also thought the Kindle version's looked pretty good, but you couldn't read the small handwriting in the sketches. (Yes, I bought the book 3 times. That's OK because it's more than 3 times as good as most other books).
C Smith
9. C12VT
I really loved the interior art in TWoK, and the maps. As I was reading it, I noticed that I was using the map a lot more than I usually do. Generally I just glance at the map as I start the book, and may not look back at it at all while reading. But in tWoK I kept flipping back to look up the places mentioned, and having the map really added to my ability to imagine Roshar. I think this is because in most books, only a few locations really matter, so most of the map is just background - but in TWoK, even though we spend most of our time in just a few places, I felt like the whole world mattered, so when I got a tidbit about a new location, I wanted to be able to fit that in my mind and remember it.

The interior art also added a lot to my enjoyment - and I really liked how the pictures were all in-world, with different styles and subjects.

Wish I could have been at that panel...

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