Book Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radianceFormat: hard cover, first edition, 2014

Pages: 1080 (not including appendices)

Reading Time: perhaps 28-30 hours???

One Sentence Synopsis: As the three main characters finally begin to interact with each other, the war with the Parshendi comes to a climax, just as the Assassin in White makes a return.

 

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive, blew me away and captivated me so completely that it ended up in my top 20 of books published prior to 2013…which is no small feat due to a staggering amount of contenders. The question for the sequel, Words of Radiance would be: do I dare raise my expectations of how awesome I think this book should be? Read on to find out what happens, noting that there will be some spoilers, including a few for The Way of Kings. First, some guest reviews from the World Wide Web:

 

Carl Engle-Laird of Tor.com writes: “Shallan Davar, whose backstory we learn in Words of Radiance, was already my favorite main character in this series, and this is her book through-and-through. I know that many fans dislike Shallan, finding her childish or flippant, or perhaps just boring. And while I’m sure many might still dislike her once this book is finished, I doubt there will be many readers who don’t come to respect her. Her backstory is heartbreakingly poignant. Sanderson masterfully weaves her dialogue with her past throughout the narrative, bringing her conflicted self-image into stark relief. As I read through the book, the pressure of her backstory grew and grew. Even when it became clear what Sanderson was going to reveal, the anticipation was not relieved. I teetered on the edge, waiting for the book to come out and say the devastating facts that I knew were coming, waiting for her to admit the terrors of her past. Even as we reel at Shallan’s past, she faces challenges from every direction in the present. Words of Radiance cranks up the level of intrigue to dizzying extremes, picking up all the plots from the end of The Way of Kings and introducing even more. Where Way of Kings portends, Words of Radiance delivers, resulting in a much faster pace. Brandon Sanderson has shored up the biggest weakness of the first book, showing once again that he can write page-turners with the best of them, even on a massive door-stopper scale..The book isn’t without its flaws. First, some characters get a lot less attention. Dalinar in particular is a much less frequent viewpoint character, with Adolin taking up much of his page-time. Adolin has improved greatly between books, but it’s sad to see Dalinar stepping back from the action. This is made worse by the fact that much of the tension in Words of Radiance is derived by characters’ unwillingness to talk to each other. Even when justified by character prejudices, as is the case in this work, I hate this device. Kaladin spends almost the entire book being a paranoid jerk who won’t admit his fears or suspicions to anyone, and it just makes me want to shake him. I can’t help but feel that Sanderson could have provided less irritating motivations…For every cultural assumption, Sanderson has provided an opportunity for re-evaluation, questioning, dissent. He shows how the systems of this world developed, and where they’ve gone wrong. Alethi culture in its present form is sexist, classist, racist, and oppressive, and we are invested in its survival. But Sanderson has provided his characters with abundant grounds to question their cultural prejudices, and shaken the roots of the system enough to enable change. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that pay-off.

Dina of SFF Book Reviews states: “If The Way of Kings was Kaladin’s book, this is clearly Shallan’s. The story continues seamlessly from where the first book left off, continues and (finally!) intertwines Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar’s tales, and answers some burning questions, while throwing up a whole bunch of new ones. Oh, and did I mention the epic battles, powerful magic, lovely bickering, and world-building? Well, you’ll get all of that too for the price of one book…What at first appeared to be random or existed by evolution turns out to have more complex backgrounds and it was so much fun discovering how new information made events from the first book appear in a different light. We learn a lot about spren, about what is probably the Big Bad for our heroes to fight, about history and culture in Roshar… oh man, there is seriously so much to discover. I especially liked the interludes which usually have nothing to do with the main story but are put in as an added world-building bonus, if you like. As I said, this was Shallan’s book, and just like we got Kaladin flashbacks in The Way of Kings, we get Shallan flashbacks in this one, fleshing out her past, her reasons for hunting down Jasnah Kholin, and more information about Shallan’s family. Some of these were not surprising, but there were a few revelations that I found quite chilling. And knowing what Shallan has gone through makes her character all the more impressive. The way Kaladin deals with grief (and he’s had his share of that!) is very different from how Shallan deals with hers, but I liked both of them better for it.

Mike of King of the Nerds says: “The characters readers came to know and love in the first book return here and while Shallan and Kaladin take the fore Sanderson manages to delve into and further explore a host of other characters including Adolin, Dalinar, Navani, Renarin, Jasnah and countless others. Sanderson really puts Kaladin through the ringer again here. Where the bridge runs in the previous book served as a sort of galvanizing force for Kaladin the sudden shift towards providing protection for Dalinar and his family rocks Kaladin back on his heels. Torn between duty and his own anger Kaladin is an extremely troubled figure throughout the entire novel. Perhaps the most standout character of the novel was Shallan. Over the course of the novel readers get to see the tragic events that lead to her quest to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster while during the present narrative we witness Shallan playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Ghostbloods; a mysterious group who were responsible for the death of Gavilar.  Sanderson delves deeper into the culture of the Parshendi through the character of Eshonai; a Parshendi shardbearer. They are a fascinating society and her arc, seen first in the novel’s interludes, is particularly fascinating given the revelations about the parshmen in Way of Kings. Sanderson strikes an even tone during Eshonai’s chapters revealing how the war to avenge Gavilar’s death has worn on her people. While the war is the result of her people’s action there is a touch of the tragic to her tale as you witness a people willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure their own survival…Words of Radiance is quite frankly the definition of epic fantasy. Sanderson is writer who improves with each new novel he releases and Words of Radiance is his strongest release yet. Clocking in at over 1000 pages it is a novel that never lags; not once. Even in the moments when it slows down you are left, mind racing, trying to figure out how each new revelation and every new character fits into the larger frame of the story that Sanderson is weaving. If you’ve yet to start The Stormlight Archive now is that time.

 

I’ve explained many times that I don’t like flashbacks. They’ve become so trendy, the “in” thing to do, that almost everyone does it. And I’m so against anything that’s in or trendy. Forge your own path! The use of flashbacks are taken to extremes by Sanderson in The Stormlight Archive, with the main characters flashing back to events in their own lives, while Dalinar has additional flashbacks of other lives and events in the distant past. In Words of Radiance it is Shallan who is the focus of the character flashbacks. I will grudgingly admit that the flashbacks are used effectively here, not only adding depth to Shallan’s character and making her more sympathetic, but also giving the reader multiple “A-ha!” moments when we find out what exactly happened to her, and her family, in the past.

When looking back at my review of The Way of Kings, I noted that Shallan’s character was a mixed bag and wondered whether or not the pages devoted to her narrative were justified. I needn’t have worried. Shallan is the star of this book, and as I mentioned above, she becomes integral to the main plot. In fact, Sanderson does a great job of redeeming her character to the point of being more compelling than everyone else. She’s clever, has good instincts, and has luck on her side to help the plot along on a few occasions. And when it comes to compelling characters, you have to add Adolin to the mix, as more page time definitely helps his character develop from one dimensional to something more complex. Even his brother Renarin gets a welcome boost in development. All three of the main character viewpoints converge in this book, which is a welcome event, as Shallan’s physical distance from the others previously made her story harder to follow.

Unfortunately the focus on Shallan comes at the expense of the other viewpoint characters. Dalinar actually has very little page time in the book, although I’ve read that he is the main focus of Oathbringer, which makes a lot of sense. In Words of Radiance, Kaladin comes across as rigid, envious, and paranoid for much of the first half of the story, which is at odds with his personality in the first book. I suppose you could say that he now has much more to live for, hence the personality shift. However, the old Kaladin returns in the later chapters during a brilliant arena scene that I won’t spoil, but it is one of the highlights of the story. He also is really the true hero of this tale, and his importance is never greater than when the war with the Pashendi reaches a climax while at the same time the Assassin in White appears, resulting in a thrilling ending that goes on for pages and pages as viewpoints switch, the stakes get higher and higher, and the pace becomes frantic.

As Mike mentions in his review, adding an “alien” viewpoint character in Eshonai, one of the Parshendi, allows Sanderson to explore the differences and motivations behind their culture, which also goes a long way towards understanding them as a people rather than just casting them as a one-dimensional villain. In addition, it helps give a boost to Sanderson’s world-building, which he has always been quite adept at. I does bear worth mentioning again (as I explained during The Way of Kings) that Sanderson seems a bit limited in how he has built his heroes. What I mean is, between this series and Mistborn, his characters only seem capable of running fast, jumping high, pushing, pulling, etc. Perhaps that’s by design since all of these stories are part of Sanderson’s overall “Cosmere”, or related worlds, but rarely does Sanderson bother to delve into tactics, swordplay, or anything else beyond applying superhuman abilities. It does lend a “been here, done that” type of feel to the action if you’ve read the Mistborn series.

Minor Spoilers ahead! One thing I really like about Sanderson’s plot in this book, and the series, is that he’s not afraid to discard everything he has set up in the first two books, with eight more books still to come. The war with the Parshendi largely dominates the focus of the first two books, but that ends as Words of Radiance comes to a close. The scope of the series and the plot becomes more complex and convoluted by the end of the story. Who are the bad guys here? What is their motivation? Where is the plot going from here now that the Parshendi storyline has been wrapped up? What role do the Spren have to play? While a small bit of clarity is gained, Sanderson, in typical fashion, never lays all his cards out on the table and surely has some twists and surprises up his sleeve.

Clocking in at a whopping 1080 pages (not including appendices), which is almost 10% more than The Way of Kings, readers are looking at an intimidating 2000+ page count just from the first two books in the series. However, like The Way of Kings, I never felt like getting through over 1000+ pages in Words of Radiance was a chore. The pages seem to fly by thanks to a brisk pace and there really isn’t a lot of filler, except perhaps for interludes that explore ancillary characters and settings, but even those are appreciated for their contributions in worldbuilding as Dina mentions in her review. Even when there’s no action sequences happening, there’s plenty of intrigue to keep the reader’s interest high. I always mention when a book gives me frequent breaks in the reading so that there are plenty of stopping points, and that is true here…it’s easy to stop and pick up where the break is, if necessary.

There’s really not much more that I have to add besides what the guest reviews have expressed and what I’ve written. While it seems a disservice to this book to write such a short review for so many pages of material, the main takeaway is that while it didn’t completely captivate me like The Way of Kings did (I have a couple of other books rated higher for 2014), Words of Radiance is still a page-turner that I did not want to put down. The scope of this series is incredible, and despite an even bigger page count looming for Oathbringer (1248, a 20% increase!!!), I’m really looking forward to it…

Status Update 10-24-19

Today I completed Paternus: Wrath of Gods, the second book in Paternus series. The Pages Read count for the year is now 9236. It’s looking highly unlikely that I’m going to meet my reading goal, but that’s okay, the next two books will take me over 10,000 pages read for the year which is still a lot. And I have some time off coming up so who knows what will happen between now and the end of the year…

I am still working on a review of Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, but I’m having trouble with WordPress on my home PC, which has relegated my posts to the few breaks I get at work (in other words: very little time). Up next: City of Light by Will Wight, the third and final book in the Traveler’s Gate series.

New Orders 10-11-19

I’m slowly working my way through Paternus: Wrath of Gods. Unfortunately there’s not enough time to do much of anything else right now. I did manage to place an order for Jonathan French’s The True Bastards, the sequel to The Grey Bastards. It’s sad that I haven’t ordered many books that were released this year…

true bastards