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…

Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

way of kings

Format:  Hard cover, first edition, 2010

Pages:  1001 (not including appendices)

Reading Time:  about 25 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Highprince Dalinar fights battles against a hostile race, political foes, and unusual visions; the slave Kaladin attempts to keep his fellow slaves alive; and young Shallan must make a bold attempt to steal an artifact that can save her family.

 

The Way of Kings has been sitting in my “to be read” pile for 7 years. The thick, doorstopping, massive tome had been intimidated me for those 7 years, because I knew it would take a long, long time to read, and I wouldn’t have much to blog about while I was trying to complete it. As time passed, the sequels Words of Radiance and Oathbringer came out and added another 2200+ pages on top of the 1001 pages found within The Way of Kings. I asked myself if I really wanted to tackle these massive works when I already have my hands full with the Malazan series, and with visions of Robert Jordan’s bloat in my head. On the other hand, Brandon Sanderson brought that bloated Wheel of Time series to a close, so perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I finally managed to conquer The Way of Kings, and have a review ready, but first I’ll look at other reviews on the internet.

 

Thomas Wagner of SFReviews.net states: “But what we are left with at the end of the day is, for all its very real merits, one of those thousand-page tomes in which far too little takes far too long to happen. For all the artistry of its execution, The Way of Kings never duplicates the sheer breathless entertainment value of the Mistborn novels. It’s too invested in being literary to remember to be plain old fun. Sanderson fills the book with one absorbing scene after another. But up to the point we’re nearing the climax — literally, I pegged the 900-page point with the note “things finally starting to get exciting” — The Way of Kings reads less like a novel than a collection of beautifully-written scenes in search of a novel. It all comes together just fine in the end, I’m pleased to say. But the readers who’ll end up appreciating The Way of Kings the most will be fans of epic fantasy who care far more for an immersive worldbuilding experience than taut storytelling. Sanderson has some of his characters experience the philosophical epiphany that life is much more about the journey than the destination. I’d have preferred a few more thrills along this journey, that’s all…In this way, the book’s length is a liability. Sanderson could easily have shorn about 200 pages from the final draft, not deleting anything of great import, but simply condensing passages that go on and on in a way that conveyed the same information. And, being tighter, the result would have been more palpable suspense…For all this, I remain deeply impressed by Sanderson as a writer, and it would be a real disservice to fail to mention the book’s virtues. I was fascinated by just about every aspect of Sanderson’s development of his world, all the way from its deep history, to its flora and fauna, to its intricately detailed system of magic, which is pretty similar to that in his other books. (This physical component is tied to that power, and so on.) The expected climactic battle scene is still plenty exciting, and there are good hints that the sequel will considerably raise the stakes. And while it’s hard to ignore that, like Sanderson’s previous books, this one eventually reveals itself to be a superhero story at heart, the superpowers some characters find themselves with are just part of a greater storytelling picture, and not the whole.

Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review writes: “I wasn’t even a quarter of the way into this book before I realized I was beginning something impressive. Sanderson writes as if for his life, knowing just when to leave a point of view for another, when to bring the character back from the brink and when to test a character’s mettle. From a purely writing standpoint Sanderson is showing himself to be one of the best. Not only is his grasp of his characters impressive, but the way that he imparts that to us is stunning. Every character seems to be intricately carved into what we read, with a mixture of flaws and qualities that make them figuratively jump off the page. The action scenes – whether they be from the lowly servants to the mystically enhanced generals – are nothing short of spellbinding and leave you breathless with anticipation throughout…Maybe the area in which Sanderson achieves his highest praise is in the manner with which he depicts the headspace our characters live in. Not only in their reaction and understanding of the world around them and the manner in which it reacts and has reacted to the continual storms that batter its landscape, but also in how the characters seem to be baffled by concepts that to us are normal, but in their world are foreign. Their bafflement leaves the reader similarly baffled, all too great effect.

Finally, Aidan Moher of A Dribble of Ink says: “It’s difficult to argue that any novel requires 400,000 words to tell its story. It’s an even tougher road to expect a series to need ten such volumes to reach its conclusion. On the surface, The Way of Kings should be enough in-and-of-itself to solidify any chance of anyone arguing successfully for behemoth-sized novels: it’s slow, plodding, over-complicated, and, even at the end of it’s final page, feels more like a prologue to a larger story than one of the longest published novels of the last decade. There’s a lot wrong with The Way of Kings, by all means, it’s a slog of a novel, but despite all of this, I found myself eagerly looking forward to every opportunity I had to crack open its many pages, to immerse myself in Roshar…Sanderson is so earnest, so effusively enamoured with his fictional creations, that it’s difficult to read The Way of Kings and not be washed over by the love that the author has imbued in his work. It’s a love of his own creation, but also of the epic fantasy’s lauded history: the enormous scale of Robert Jordan; the worldbuilding and ethnic diversity of Ursula K. Le Guin; the clashing armies of Terry Brooks; the otherworldliness and humour of Jack Vance. The Way of Kings is an homage to ’80s and ’90s fantasy, and, for anyone who grew up reading the great authors of those eras, there’s an almost irresistible desire to forget the novel’s flaws and just enjoy the ride…The Way of Kings has that same obsessive, addictive quality that makes all of Sanderson’s other works so effective. It’s not so much about what it offers readers, but about what it can offer readers. Promises abound, hints of world-changing events, and mind-bending character developments to come. Nobody does foreshadowing in epic fantasy as well as Brandon Sanderson, and, if his previous work is any indication, every small detail in this early book will have a ripple-like effect on the volumes that follow. Every chapter is full of questions, full of the type of plot developments and world building that fills chatter around water coolers or playgrounds…The Way of Kings is very clearly the first chapter of a much larger tale. Despite its flaws, The Way of Kings proves that Sanderson has the ambition to fill the hole left after the conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and continue establish himself as one of the most successful and prolific young fantasy novelists. Like many opening volumes before it, The Way of Kings convinces readers that the best is yet to come.

 

There’s something special about this book. I do remember that early on I was surprised to see that 400 pages had gone by and I hadn’t noticed the progress I had made. At 800 pages I remembered thinking that the amount remaining was just a small part, compared to what I had already read, and I wasn’t sure how I had gotten through those 800 pages so fast. Despite its size, Sanderson’s prose, as it has in previous novels I’ve read (such as Towers of Midnight or Mistborn), flows effortlessly. As Aidan says above, the book has its flaws…despite that, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the story. Here you won’t find ponderous language, extreme attention to every little detail and overly complicated plot devices like you do in other books of this size; rather, while the pacing does stagnate at times, it never feels as if size or page count is the impediment to finishing The Way of Kings.

In all respects, The Way of Kings does what it is supposed to do as the first book in a series – it sets up the narrative and background while introducing us to the main characters, at the expense of action sequences. This is normal for an introductory book, and I would very much expect the next two releases to have a different focus and pace. As Sanderson uses The Way of Kings to explore the world he has created, the reader can see the passion he has for that creation in the details…at times it seems like Sanderson has thought out every effect and consequence of those details that he has created. From races such as the Parshendi (with their black and red skin and armor growing out of their body), to the rock based plants, to the various Spren, to the extreme weather…Sanderson has created a completely alien world. At times Sanderson lays it on a bit thick – I remember thinking, “not another type of spren!” when a new one was introduced later in the story. Still, it is quite ambitious to imagine such details, when most authors are content with variations of Earth’s Dark Ages. And I love the Highstorms…I had once imagined extreme weather as part of the setting of my own book, but Sanderson’s ideas are far superior to my own.

Although the world-building is top notch, at least with respect to flora and fauna, I still haven’t wrapped my head around the thousands of years of history that precedes the current time. Much of that is by design, as Sanderson has some secrets that he is not yet ready to reveal. As a result, we hear things like the Heralds, the Voidbringers, and the Knights Radiant, but what is revealed is often contradictory and confusing…this is by design but it doesn’t make things easier. A few bones are tossed to us at the end of the story, but there’s still a long way to go until clarity is achieved.

The characters in The Way of Kings are its strongest assets. Highprince Dalinar seems to be a by-the-book, straight-as-an-arrow, goody two-shoes, but he wasn’t always that way; in fact, not only was he a supremely talented fighter on the battlefield who enjoyed killing, he very nearly did something extremely dark in his past to a family member. Those less than noble deeds and thoughts still haunt him at times, and he strives to hold his older, current self to a higher ideal. It’s a concept that takes what should be a two dimensional character and gives him more depth. During Highstorms, Dalinar has visions of events in ancient times, but its never really clear why only he receives them and why the visions only come during Highstorms.

Kaladin was probably my favorite character. He has the ability to manipulate the feelings of people around him, as well as certain events, without even realizing it. Some of this is through magical talent, and some is through force of will. There is a quote on the back cover from Orson Scott Card that says, “It’s rare for a fiction writer to have much understanding of how leadership works…Sanderson is astonishingly wise.” This quote particularly applies to Kaladin and the way he naturally leads others by example. It seemed very familiar, but I was unable to remember where I had read something similar before. The closest parallel to Kaladin’s story that I could think of was Richard Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Faith of the Fallen – not an exact parallel, but rather some of the elements are similar. The only issue I had with Kaladin’s story is that much of his past is detailed through flashbacks, which I feel are a far too common vehicle for storytelling these days. Flashbacks have become routine and more accepted than I would prefer, often bogging down a story to visit a time in the past and destroying pace and continuity in order to develop a character, simply because it’s trendy. Other than that nitpick, however, I did enjoy Kaladin’s viewpoint the most.

Shallan is a bit of a mixed bag. At the beginning we learn she must steal something to save her family, but there really isn’t enough emphasis on why we should care or even why it should be compelling in the grand scheme of the plot. It is only later that we find out that Shallan has some kind of unique gift, which may become important in the future – but it was of no importance to the overall plot of The Way of Kings. In essence, by working for the scholar Jasnah, Shallan proves to be a vehicle for disseminating information to the reader that we wouldn’t otherwise know, and that seems to be her only function in this first book. Time will tell if her role justifies the amount of pages devoted to her narrative. There are a few other viewpoint characters: Adolin, Dalinar’s son; Szeth, the Shin assassin, who has a minor role here that seems like it will become more important in the future; and another random viewpoint or two.

In his typical fashion, Sanderson drops a few reveals at the end of the story to whet the reader’s appetite, reminding me a lot of the ending of the first Mistborn book. I should note that there are other elements that remind me of Mistborn, such as the way men can move with superhuman speed and strength in their shardplate (magical armor), and also in the way that Szeth can walk on walls and ceilings while lashing (pushing and pulling) objects. Then there’s the magic system itself: using certain gemstones determines the magic that can be used, which is incredibly similar to the well-defined system of Allomancy in Mistborn. Of course there’s an index in the back of The Way of Kings to refer to if you get confused about what the gemstones can do. And finally I should note the illustrations within the book – they are numerous, useful, and occasionally beautiful. The beginning of each chapter has a strange saying, along with a notation by some kind of scribe. These sayings and notations are at first meaningless, until a reveal near the end brings clarity to their use.

In conclusion I’d have to say that despite its flaws, The Way of Kings is a masterful work, ambitious in scope and easy to read. As the action picks up near the end and the pace accelerates, and Kaladin crosses paths with another viewpoint character, the tension ratchets up and I actual got a little misty-eyed as events unfolded. I hadn’t expected that powerful of an emotion to manifest during the story, and it was a pleasant surprise. The first part of the book drags a bit with regard to pace, as do some of the chapters devoted to Shallan, but once you get past that, the story moves along just fine. There’s an incredible world here that Sanderson has developed, and I’m actually looking forward to Words of Radiance, the next 1,000+ page entry in the series, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so intimidating.

Book Review: The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

bands of mourningFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  437 (not counting a postscript and appendix)

Reading Time:  about 11 hours

 

In my review of the previous Mistborn Novel, Shadows of Self, I was less than thrilled at the way it felt cobbled together, with an uninteresting plot, shallow characterization, and dark ending. I was hoping that despite being published only 16 weeks after Shadows of Self, in The Bands of Mourning Brandon Sanderson would be able to rediscover the magic that made the Mistborn novels so much fun. Did he succeed? Read further to discover my thoughts, but beware – there are a lot of spoilers of not only The Bands of Morning, but also Shadows of Self.

First, a look at some other reviews around the Cosmere. Alice Arneson at Tor.com writes: “Cosmere-building is moving into areas which were previously only hinted: Identity and Investiture come front and center as recognized concepts and magical tools. (The careful Cosmere reader will note that we have now identified the homeland of a certain mask-wearing Worldhopper. We have also seen on the page for the first time another important Worldhopper—one who has not yet been named in any published work, but has been obliquely referenced several times. When these two are properly identified, certain speculations will be definitively laid to rest.)…Steris… ah, Steris. I’ll confess, she’s probably my favorite fantasy character ever. Her progression was hinted at in Shadows of Self, but she really comes into her own here. From moments of painful honesty, to moments of sheer genius, her contribution to the team turns out to be absolutely invaluable. I’ve come to love her self-awareness and calm acceptance of herself, but it was a lovely thing to see her learn that who she is, is worthy.

Dina at SFF Book Reviews states: “As in Shadows of Self, it felt like a number of sub-plots were being juggled, but juggled rather hectically and without as much planning as in the first Mistborn trilogy. Where plot strings beautifully wove together to create a bigger whole at the end, here it feels like every book introduces new side plots, new political factions and character side stories, only to unceremoniously drop some (Wayne’s attempts at redemption, or his obsession with their weapons supplier, for example). Others feel like they should have been foreshadowed way earlier but were instead thrown in quickly and info-dumpy to prepare for the scenes to come…This book also took me on quite an emotional joy-ride. Not only was there a lot going on and it was a thrill to follow the characters as they solve problems each in their own way – I will never forget Spoiled Tomato – but I have also come to love all of them for being who they are. Marasi has grown into herself and trusts as much in her instincts as in statistical data, Wayne is slightly more serious, although you still mustn’t take away his hat. Ever! And Wax, who has been through so much, is put through hell once more. The biggest surprise was Steris, in her cold mathematical manner, who showed kindness and courage and creativity in the face of danger. So yeah, I love that gang!

Finally, Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review says: “It’s a fantastic bit of worldbuilding which makes Brandon Sanderson’s novels somewhat unique, in that we are really watching two stories – one a micro-story, focusing on the lives of individual characters trying to eke out answers, the other, a macro-story, of an entire civilization on the move, that has so far been spread out over six different books (and likely to be many more)…I spend most of my time reading these new Mistborn books hoping for more time with Marasi, though Sanderson continues to tease me. Obviously the focal point of the book is Wax, but the immediate supporting cast is so important to these books that I’m not surprised when I find I’ve gone a chapter or so without entering into his POV – in fact, I think the way that the story is going allows for this possibility even more as we progress…The Bands of Mourning represents exactly how you write the middle book in a trilogy, without it simply being seen as the stepping stone between book one and three. The character growth for everyone is vital, and beautifully fleshed out, leaving you absolutely enthralled.

 

Let’s start with pacing and structure. The book is divided into 3 parts…Part One covers events in Elendil; Part Two focuses on New Seran; and Part Three takes place in the Southern Roughs and mountains. However, I thought of it more in this way: Elendil is more like a prologue, which is followed by a train action sequence, then the events in New Seran, leading to the warehouse in the Roughs, and finally ending in the mountain fortress. So I consider it four parts with an introduction. The pace of The Bands of Mourning is fast with several hectic action scenes, sharing more in common with The Alloy of Law than Shadows of Self.

Perhaps the most notable improvement over Shadows of Self, however, is the characterization. The odd traits, shallow depth, and loss of team dynamics are gone. In its place are characters with more depth and interaction, restoring the team dynamic, and each character has his or her (or its) moment to shine. Wax is still struggling with what he feels is betrayal by Harmony, and though he makes a number of missteps, it just makes him all the more human. Wayne has toned down the eccentricities to a more palatable level, and even shows growth in a moment of grief by breaking his rule of not using guns and yet showing mercy. Marasi, having moved on from an attraction to Wax, deals with living in his shadow while continuing to show poise and adaptability in difficult situations. MeLaan the Kandra is a delight, not only in her abilities but in her growing comfort level around humans. And Steris? In my review of Shadows of Self I complained about her being underdeveloped, but that I liked her smart observations. Well, that complaint can be shelved, because as Alice mentions above in her review, Steris is an amazing character. Every scene featuring Steris (and there are a lot more of them here) is among the best in the book. I don’t know how Sanderson managed it, but he has completely turned around her development, and as her relationship with Wax becomes more caring, more intimate, I couldn’t help but grin and think, “why couldn’t this have happened sooner?”

Several new characters and concepts are introduced in this story, from a strange race of people to the south, to flying technology, to batteries and generators, to allomantic grenades – Sanderson shows he’s not afraid to think outside the box. In contrast to the new peoples and concepts are the many references to a classic Mistborn concept – hemalurgy. The use of spikes to create creatures or allomancy can be traced all the way back to the first Mistborn book. It’s very cool to see it come around again, and the concept that allomancers can be “created” by spiking them. I’m not one who follows Sanderson’s Cosmere concept…apparently, for those who do there are some hidden clues in this novel relating to his other works. For the rest of us, however, the book stands fine on it its own without the need to know the Cosmere.

The antagonists in this book are really nothing special. Mr. Suit is actually somewhat of a disappointment, and the identity of the main “bad guy” was a bit too predictable. “The Set”, the evil organization trying to start a war, remains somewhat of a faceless entity, although the revelation that it is being backed by a rival god named Trell (another old Mistborn reference) sets up some intriguing possibilities involving a battle between gods Trell and Harmony, as well as civil war between Elendil and all other peoples, that seems to be inevitable. And as Harmony pulls back the curtain a little bit, we learn of a mysterious “red mist”. What in the heck is that?

The map at the front of the book that features Elendil is practically useless – a map of the Southern Roughs and mountains where the warehouse and fortress are located would be far more useful – although I very much liked the map of New Seran. The broadsheets between chapters are still very fun to read as well. The usual appendix has been provided that explains all of the metal capabilities; however, there is a section that talks about the three metallic arts in a first person perspective. I don’t know who this narrating person is, but they reference Roshar a couple of times. Though I have not read any of the Stormlight Archives yet, I do know that it is set in the world of Roshar, so I better get busy with tackling that series soon.

There are a few small problems with The Bands of Mourning. At times I found modern words from our society dropped into the story, which was annoying, but fortunately it doesn’t happen to often. Sometimes the action sequences are so chaotic that they are hard to follow. And there were also a couple of times where I thought to myself, “well why didn’t they do this instead or in response?” It is a result of having a complicated magic system, which makes it difficult for the author to foresee every possibility a character might take. We also continue to have references to characters like Lord Mistborn and the Final Emperor, and when those names are used along with Lord Ruler it can become hard to remember who is really being referred to. And the hint that the Lord Ruler isn’t dead – really? Why would Sanderson undermine the original Mistborn story like that?! Finally there is a beggar who gives Wax a coin outside of a party and sets certain events into motion. The identity of the beggar remains a mystery, and hopefully Sanderson reveals the beggar’s identity and intent in the next novel, else it reeks of deus ex machina.

All of those problems are minor and did not affect my enjoyment of the story, and as a matter of fact I did enjoy The Bands of Mourning very much. I would say that this is the best book of the newer Mistborn entries and one of the best Mistborn books Sanderson has written. It is an action-packed thrill ride with superbly written characters and enough secrets and hints to keep me intrigued, and has me anxiously waiting for the final novel in the series, which is to be titled “The Lost Metal“. Bravo to Sanderson for overcoming what I felt was a previous letdown and for writing a superb novel that recaptured the magic and has hooked me once again.

Book Review: Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadows of selfFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2015

Pages:  376

Reading Time:  about 9.5 hours

 

Shadows of Self is the first Brandon Sanderson book I have read that was somewhat of a disappointment to me. A common misconception is that this is a sequel to The Alloy of Law, but actually Shadows of Self is the first in a planned trilogy of industrial age Mistborn books, with The Alloy of Law being a prequel. That prequel, now a stand-alone novel, either must have been very enjoyable for Sanderson to write, been more successful than predicted, or perhaps was a generous helping of both, convincing him that it needed a followup trilogy. Shadows of Self comes in with about an extra 50 pages more than its prequel. Unfortunately for me, I struggled at times to maintain interest and complete this book. Read on for my thoughts and as always, spoilers may crop up from time to time.

For the most helpful reviews of Shadows of Self, check these out:

Tor.com (Martin Cahill)

Fantasy Literature (Marion Deeds)

SF Signal (Robin Shantz)

As I struggled to articulate exactly what was wrong with this novel, I found that the above reviews each provided a piece of the puzzle. Martin talks about the humor and banter being a little forced and contrived; Marion is flustered by references to Earth inventions such as radios and aviation, doesn’t appreciate a lack of depth in the Roughs setting, and says the story at times feels like a stage set; Robin, on the other hand, felt it was more like a TV show, and that the story was choppy, lacked detail, and the characters lacked emotional appeal. Even Sanderson admits in the front of his book that he wrote a third of it while waiting for the editing of another book, was forced to set it aside, and that by the time he got back to it, his ideas had changed.

These insights were a great help to me in coalescing my thoughts. Shadows of Self is obviously meant to be a light, quick read, with more flash than substance. This is by design. I understand that context, as The Alloy of Law was written in the same style. But something is wrong with Shadows of Self…to me it feels hollow, like it has no soul. It feels exactly like the byproduct of a successful stand-alone novel, an afterthought, a half-developed idea rushed to market. Oftentimes as I read I would have a hard time maintaining my interest level as I followed Wax (the same protagonist from The Alloy of Law) and his attempts to solve the mystery of who wants to kill the corrupt governor. Which could be any one in the entire city, since everyone seems to be unhappy. Sanderson’s aversion to substance didn’t leave me with enough to care about the plot. His prose is fine, and there’s lots of action in the story, but it is the characters that really impede the novel.

I’m still struggling to explain what I’m feeling, and the closest analogy I can find to illustrate my thoughts can be found in television. Procedural crime dramas like CSI and NCIS enjoy a lot of success not just because of their content, or their mysteries to solve, but primarily due to the dynamics of the ensemble cast. When watching spin off shows like CSI Miami, CSI Cyber, NCIS Los Angeles or NCIS New Orleans, I always lose interest in these other shows quickly. Some of that has to do with saturation, of course, but the biggest part of the equation is the cast – how they work well together, play off of each other, and possess an intangible dynamic. The spin off shows, which try to copy the originals by sticking to a formula, certainly present fine mysteries to solve. The problem is, using a formula can’t necessarily emulate the intangible dynamics of that original cast.

Wax is a well-developed character, but using the analogy I have provided above, he and his allies and antagonists don’t have that intangible dynamic that the characters in the original Mistborn series had, heck, they don’t even capture the magic of The Alloy of Law. Wayne gets more time to shine here, and Sanderson’s efforts are applauded, but as stated above by other reviewers, it’s often a case of trying too hard. We get to see more of his eccentricities and even a little tragic backstory (which could have been expanded upon), but his character contains too many contrasts rolled into one person. His unusual brand of humor doesn’t work very well, although a large part of his role is comic relief, and he’s supposed to come off as an everyday Joe, yet he’s a twinborn (he can use Allomancy and Ferochemy). There’s also a scene where he enters a bar and tries to change everyone’s mood, and it’s so utterly strange that I really struggled with it. Moving on to Wax’s fiance, Steris, she has been so underdeveloped that when she and Wax spend time together and she makes smart observations, I thought that she might have been killed and replaced by the chief antagonist (who in this story is certainly capable of such a feat). Marasi continues to be the most interesting character, as a woman who accomplishes much in a “man’s world”,  but even she doesn’t have a lot of depth to her story.

The moments of the book I did enjoy all referenced the original Mistborn series: what has happened to the Kandra (including Tensoon), what Harmony (Sazed) is up to, statues of Eland and Min, an underground Mistborn museum, and even an appearance by the Lord Ruler’s palace (could the Well of Ascension still be around?!!!). It’s all the stuff in between that I struggled with. Sanderson pulls his usual shocking twists and reveals at the end, with wild chases and battles, and I’ll admit I was entertained by the ending, but in this story it was a bit predictable, lessening the impact more so here than it does in his other books.

Shadows of Self feels very much like a successful writer’s side project, a passable sci-fi western/action movie in the vein of Wild Wild West or Sherlock Holmes, and that’s okay. I guess it’s my fault that I want Mistborn-level depth, which in this setting I think would be spectacular. Shadows of Self definitely feels disjointed, and clearly the author’s initial writings that were shelved and then picked up later and taken in a different direction are evident, and caused more than a few problems. However, with that said I will read Bands of Mourning, the second book in the series, since I bought it at the same time as Shadows of Self. I’d like to see if Sanderson can salvage this series after an uneven opening that has lost its momentum.

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The-Alloy-of-Law-by-brandon-sanderson-colourFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2011

Pages:  325

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

The Alloy of Law is not quite a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, although it does take place several years after those events, in the same world. Some of the characters in Mistborn are referenced, but none of them are around for this book – except, perhaps, a few (sorry, no spoilers here!). Much of the innovative magic system has been retained, with some new wrinkles. There are other elements from the previous books still floating around too – like the Mists, Koloss, and canals.  Sanderson has hinted that there may be sequels to this book, but that’s not a sure thing. On to the review…

It’s been 300 years since the events of the first trilogy took place. Not content to leave his world mired in medieval times, Sanderson has moved technology forward to an industrialized setting, featuring rifles and revolvers, skyscrapers, trains, and electricity. In between some of the chapters you will find artwork simulating the pages of a newspaper; I found myself looking forward to these inserts and read them with great interest. It gives the story a very Sherlock Holmes/Jules Verne/Victorian/(almost) Steampunk feel, which is awesome. Many other authors have medieval-type cultures that make no technological process for thousands of years, so it’s great to see Sanderson do something different. Add to the fact that magic is still around, and you can get a feel for the chaos of how bullets can be made to fly around, people leaping off trains, etc. Into this setting comes Waxillium Landrian, a twin born who possesses both Allomancy (the burning of metals) and Feruchemy (storing up abilities to use later). Wax can push on metals with his Allomancy, as well as make himself heavier or lighter with Ferochemy. This is the closest you can get to being a Mistborn in the current age, as more abilities have been discovered but powers have been somewhat diluted. Wax was born a noble in the city of Elandel, but spent time in the Roughs, which is a sort of desert wilderness similar to America’s Old West. In the Roughs he was a lawman who tracked down criminals, but eventually he is called back to the city to run his family’s estate when his uncle dies.

Accompanying Wax is Wayne, a former criminal turned deputy who worked with Wax in the Roughs. Wayne is a master of disguise and accents, and is also a twin born, who can create speed bubbles with his Allomancy and store health with his Feruchemy. The speed bubble allows Wayne to speed up time inside the bubble, giving him time to plan his maneuvers and move faster than his surroundings. We are also introduced to a myriad of other characters including Steris (the potential fiance of Wax), Marasi (cousin to Steris who becomes a major character), Tarson (an evil, part-Koloss thug), and Miles (another lawman from the Roughs). There are several other minor characters but they are not really fleshed out and remain for the most in the background.

The dynamic between Wax and Wayne feels very much like the Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic of recent movies and TV. The pace is brisk and the action at times is fast and furious, reminiscent of scenes in the previous trilogy…except now add bullets, moving trains, and dynamite. This lends an exciting air to the book, and the main characters are fairly well developed, but it seems to be over far too quickly – this is not an epic on the scale of previous Mistborn novels. I’m okay with that, though, because it means that there isn’t too much unnecessary filler. Both Wax and Wayne are likable enough – Wax has a nobility and ethos similar to Eland, while Wayne is somewhat of a scoundrel – he’d fit right in on Kelsier’s crew. Marasi is more than just a third wheel – her insightful thinnking, knowledge of law and university studies, and ability to fire a rifle go a long way towards helping solve the case.  Humor is abundant – sometimes it feels a little forced, but most of the time it’s appropriate, and though I never did laugh out loud, it had me chuckling a few times.

Wax and Wayne are pitted against Miles, who is robbing trains and kidnapping women. Miles has the ability to regenerate, making him near-immortal, and is somewhat reminiscent of an Inquisitor. But there is another figure behind the crimes, a benefactor known only as Mr. Suit. I have to say that the revealing of Mr. Suit’s identity at the end of the book was not a surprise, as the clues left by Sanderson are fairly obvious. Another element that is fairly obvious is Marasi’s Allomancy – not only is it not a surprise when revealed, but the fact that we are told it is useless several times just screams that it is not. I have to say I didn’t see its use coming, and when it was used, I just shook my head at how sly (and clever) Sanderson can be.

Overall I have a very favorable impression of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. When compared against George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, which is similar in setting, I greatly preferred The Alloy of Law. The ending is not a cliffhanger, but there are some loose ends deliberately left untied to set up a sequel, and a visit from a surprise character at the end has me wondering if the generally light-hearted tone of The Alloy of Law might give way to a more serious change if a sequel is written. Although reading the original series would help a new reader understand Allomancy and Feruchemy better, I think they could probably figure out what’s going on, especially with the help of the indexes in the back of the book. Highly recommended to fans of the Mistborn series, borderline steampunk/westerns, and Sherlock Holmes/sleuth action novels.

Book Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

memoryoflightFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  909

Reading Time:  A long, long time…maybe 17 hours?

I must admit that I’ve wrestled with the approach to take on this review. The most effective review would be to look at the book as it stands, alone from the rest of the series, as well as it’s place in the series as a whole, due to the fact that it’s the conclusion. However, I freely admit it’s been 23 years since I read The Eye of the World. And here’s another neat fact about me – my long term memory is terrible. I really couldn’t tell you what happened in that first book, it’s been so long. I have a vague idea, mind you, but the details pretty much escape me. No, my time is better spent approaching this book as the final part of the trilogy that Sanderson has written.

Furthermore, I’m not a Wheel of Time superfan. I’ve never been to Dragonmount.com, I don’t debate and argue plot points, or speculate on what should have happened between the pages and what would have happened in the future. For some reviewers, the Wheel of Time is an important part of their life. I was simply a 23 year old guy who picked up and read The Eye of the World in 1990, liked it enough to continue buying the sequels, got more and more frustrated with the characters and the lagging pace and plot in each successive book, gave up on the series completely, figured it was toast when Jordan died, but renewed my interest when Sanderson took over. Now the series can have closure, and for me, I feel like that should suffice. Though the book has serious flaws, it also has its share of both shining and tragic moments, and I’ve walked away with a feeling that…well, let’s not say I’m completely thrilled, but instead, I’m satisfied enough that the 23 year journey was a memorable one. I’ve touched on both what I liked and didn’t like about the book in bullet format below. Minor spoilers to follow…

What I liked:

  •  As other bloggers have mentioned, Sanderson does a wonderful job of taking a cardboard character like Talmanes and breathing some real life into him during the opening battle for Camelyn. interestingly enough, Talmanes doesn’t show up for the Last Battle.
  • The bonding between Androl and Pevara is well done and one of the best parts of the story. It explains how a member of the Red Ajah could go from wanting to gentle a man with channeling to wanting to marry him. That’s no easy feat. Especially for a woman a couple of hundred years older than Androl.
  • The subtlety of Compulsion on the great captains was lost on me at first. I couldn’t understand why the shadow wouldn’t just kill the generals off. But it’s really a brilliant plot point. The idea is that by the time the armies discover their tactics have been compromised, it’s too late to recover. Were the Shadow to just kill the generals, some other commander would take their place. It also clears the way for Mat to step in and use those memories he’s been given.
  • Rand has a moving scene with his father, learning to duel with one hand, while they repair the rift that had grown between them. Both realize that this is probably the last they will see of each other.
  • The confrontation between Egwene and Fortuona is great, especially where Egwene dares Fortuona to put on the a’dam.
  • Where The Gathering Storm focused on Rand and Towers of Midnight put a heavy emphasis on Perrin, in A Memory of Light Mat steps up front and center to lead. And more of Mat is a good thing.

What I didn’t like:

  • Moraine’s importance seemed overstated. From my perspective, any Aes Sedai would have satisfied the “two women” requirement that Rand desired, including Egwene, Cadsuane, or Aviendha. And indeed it is Egwene that has the biggest impact when Rand is in trouble.
  • In addition, the Last Battle seems pointless. Why did the Shadow send a million Trollocks to attack the lands when it is Rand that determines the outcome of humanity and the pattern itself? Why not bend all its resources to stopping him and killing him?
  • The scene between Rand and Fortuona, after so much build-up, was bland and disappointing.
  • Many of the individual showdowns – Perrin vs. Slayer, Matt vs. Fain, even Rand vs. The Dark One – seemed underwhelming. The showdowns between Lan and Demandred, and Egwene and M’Hael, were better.
  • Elayne as the leader/coordinator of the entire army was ludicrous.
  • The use of the Mask of Mirrors. This is the single biggest flaw in the series, and its use is far more glaring than gateways. When anyone can pretend to be anyone at any time, why don’t they? Forsaken should have pretended to be generals, or Aes Sedai. Egwene could have pretended to be Forsaken or a Darkfriend and got close to Demandred and killed him. There’s just so many ridiculously possible storyline abuses of such a power…it was so effective that Demandred couldn’t see through Androl’s and Pevara’s disguise…that both its use and non-use is staggering. Just a horrible plot point, very deus ex machina.

Other random thoughts:

  • Many lamented Gawyn as a useless character; however, he was necessary to get Egwene into the right frame of mind to challenge M’Hael, and much more.
  • You can bet that Artur Hawkwind spoke to Fortuona about a great many things – including the abolishing of the a’dam.
  • It was good to read about the battle for the Black Tower, but it was somewhat underwhelming. However, the comment about “making the Asha’man into their own men” instead of being Rand’s weapons was accurate. At first I thought, “no, they just worship Logain instead. But when the time came for the Tower men to choose between Logain and doing what was right, they turned their backs on Logain. Impressive.

Final thoughts:

There were moments of intense grief. After finishing page 795, I had to stop reading as the tears just kept rolling down my face. A character who I had grown to love as my favorite was gone. This occurred again on page 904, when one character paid tribute to another that had fallen. I expected more big showdowns, awesome displays of one-on-one badass moments, and was disappointed that this was not the case. Overall it was an exhausting read…too many battles and tactics going on for page after page…the grief I just mentioned…the sheer number of pages to wade through. And the Epilogue is very, very short. It has been noted by those other than myself that it would not have hurt the book, and far enhanced it, to have about 150 pages less of battles and 150 more of Epilogue. After all, this is The End, and there will never be another Wheel of Time book. At one point in the series I would have shrugged, but now…it seems like a shame. A big thank you to Brandon Sanderson to get us to this point.

Thus it was that the Dragon rode once more upon the winds of time, and as I rode beside him, I observed and marveled at the immensity of his purpose, and wept as the Dragon fulfilled his destiny, but it was not the end. There are no endings to the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending…

Now Reading: A Memory of Light

I cancelled my pre-order for A Memory of Light yesterday, so that today I could make the trek to Barnes & Noble and pick it up, instead of waiting for it to be shipped to me. The lady behind the counter said they’d sold a lot of copies today. I could have saved $3 by being a B&N club member, but after the demise of my Borders account, I’m not doing that again.

Let the Last Battle begin!

Book Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

towers midnightFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 843

Reading Time: about 15 hours

Okay, you know the drill…I’ve been reading the Wheel of Time series since 1990 blah blah blah…the end is nearly here blah blah blah, and so on. It’s really a series that is long past needing an introduction. Towers of Midnight is the 13th book in the series, and at a hefty 843 pages, is packed full of amazing stuff. So read on, but be warned that minor spoilers will follow.

The title of the book at first glance seems to literally reference the thirteen fortresses in Seanchan that, during the Consolidation, when Artur Hawkwing’s descendants seized power, was the center of Seanchan might. However, the Seanchan barely factor into this story. I thought it might refer to the two towers that have been hinted at but largely ignored to this point: the Tower of Ghenjei, where the Aelfinn and Eelfin reside, and the Black Tower, where the Asha’man are living and training. And certainly those do become the focus of the last 10 percent of the book. But what about the other 700+ pages? They are a buildup to the Last Battle, which is now suddenly, frighteningly close. Returning to the reference of the Seanchan fortress, Artur Hawkwind’s armies were able to conquer Seanchan, despite the presence of the fortress, due to the divided nature of the Seanchan lands, where factions were pitted against one another; such divisions weakened the Seanchan and made them ripe for the conquering. With that in mind, the time has come for Rand al’Thor to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison. Will he be able to unite the various factions into a single purpose, to break the seals and fight the Last Battle? Or, will the differences and divided factions turn against him, and much like the Seanchan fell before the armies of Artur Hawkwing, allow their division to be the means in which the Dark One defeats them? Though the question hangs in the air as the book ends, as of yet unanswered, it is the events throughout this book that bring us to this point.

The pacing of the story, for the most part, is fast and furious…there’s so much happening that if you let your mind wander, or skip a few pages, you’d be likely to miss something important. I often found myself reading ahead in anticipation, and had to go back and re-read the section I jumped, chiding myself for a lack of discipline. The change of pace in the series is so different – so incredibly quick now – it seems like the glacial pace of entries like Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight are but vague memories, the side plots and characters in those stories completely irrelevant to what has needed to happen. Towers of Midnight does possess a few slow moments, like Perrin’s attempt to master the wolf dream or Elayne’s political maneuverings, but these are small sections of the book. As armies march and travel through gateways, disparate events suddenly begin to tie together, plot threads are resolved, and the pieces are in place for the conclusion. There’s no telling how long it would have taken Jordan to get from Crossroads of Twilight to the Last Battle, had his health not suffered, but it would have been far more than four books.

The characters readers have grown to love – Rand, Mat, Egwene, Perrin, Thom – at times in the series were nowhere to be found; now they dominate the pages. Other supporting characters that once had pages and pages of focus, such as Aviendha, Min, and Cadsuane, are now reduced to bit roles. The whole reversal effect, of main characters returning to the forefront while supporting characters step into the background, is a good thing – heck, it’s a great thing. Where A Gathering Storm returned the focus to Rand, with Egwene’s situation as the other major plotline, Towers of Midnight focuses mainly on Perrin, with a generous helping of Mat sprinkled in. With Perrin being the focus, his storyline is finally fully resolved in a satisfying way. Though Mat’s loose ends are tied up as well, he suffers the cost greatly, and someone close to him is not who they seem to be. Even characters I once despised – such as Elayne, and the Whitecloaks – I grudgingly followed in this book without skimming, and it proved to be a good decision. Mat has a brilliant exchange with Elayne, and the Whitecloaks show that they aren’t all religious nutcases. There were still moments when I was peeved about Elayne’s arrogance as Queen, which is in stark contrast to how Rand attempts to lead people, but those moments are blessedly few in this book. This time around, Sanderson has a firm grip on Mat’s voice, and he even manages to make Aes Sedai feel different, which is no small feat.

I was fortunate to start reading this book at just the right time, during my company’s Christmas shutdown. It allowed me to sit and relax in solitude as I consumed my reading in large chunks, and it allowed me to be immersed and entranced by the story. I think reading it in smaller chunks, only a few chapters at a time, would be more difficult; the story requires – no, demands – your full attention. There are many plot threads occurring: Perrin’s attempt to destroy Slayer and face the Whitecloaks; Egwene attempting to flush out Mesaana in the White Tower; Mat and Thom attempting to rescue Moraine; Rand trying to convince the Borderlanders he is the Dragon Reborn; Lan reluctantly mustering an army for a suicide run; Nynaeve taking the test to be Aes Sedai and trying to recover Lan’s Warder bond; Elayne attempting to take the throne of Carhein; Gawyn trying to find his place in Engewe’s new world; trouble at the Black Tower…and that’s just a brief summary!

There are so many questions still to be answered: why is rescuing Moraine so important? What will happen when Rand breaks the seals? Who will aid him and who will oppose him? How will Min’s visions translate into actually events? What happened to Logain, and what’s going on at the Black Tower? What will the Dark One do now that so many Forsaken have fallen? What are the Seanchan going to do during the Last Battle? I can’t wait for the last book!

If there’s one failing of the story, it’s Aviendha’s visions of the future in Rhuidean. Though they are essential to her character’s plotline, I feel the authors gave away too much of the future and robbed the story of some of its tension, and I would have been happier not knowing. However, assuming Aviendha attempts to change the future, maybe things will shake out differently. But that’s my only real criticism.

Towers of Midnight is a brilliant read, the best book I’ve read in a long time. Plenty of action, tension, resolved plot lines, and the return of prominent characters as the focus make this the best book in the series by far. Here’s to hoping A Memory of Light, which should be holding in my hands in less than a week, lives up to expectations that have now set the bar very, very high…

Book Review: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

gathering stormFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2009

Pages: 766

Reading Time: about 13 hours

The Gathering Storm is the 12th book in the Wheel of Time series. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been with the Wheel of Time since The Eye of the World was released in paperback in 1990. The series has been both a delight and a struggle, and the payoff is finally here. There are a few minor spoilers ahead, so read with caution….

I would like to take a moment and offer the utmost praise to a man that has recently become my favorite fantasy author – Brandon Sanderson. What he has done here – advancing the story to it’s conclusion with nothing more than Jordan’s notes – is simply amazing. It’s hard enough to write your own stories; I can only imagine how much harder it is to write someone else’s story, in their voice. A standing ovation for Mr. Sanderson.

I’d also like to sidebar for a moment on the concept of the book itself. Initially fans were upset that the final book was to be split into two and then three books. They felt that they were being milked out of yet more money just to see the series to its conclusion. If you think about it, however, that’s really an asinine attitude. There’s absolutely no way this could have been wrapped up in one book – it wouldn’t have felt right. Conceptually, it’s already a struggle to relate this book to the previous few books that were glacial in pace, filled with padding and unnecessary detail, with viewpoints from a multitude of characters. To finish the story, it’s necessary to abandon that writing style, level of detail, side plots, and character viewpoints. With so many events that need to take place, main plots to explore, and main characters that need to be where they are, The Gathering Storm already feels much different from the previous few books. It would be worse with only one volume – it would be so jarring that it would never feel right. Splitting the last novel into three is the right move.

And speaking of right moves, the story is as good as any of the Wheel of Time books, maybe even better. Matt and Perrin are maneuvering their armies for the last battle, while Rand struggles with his inner demons, and Egwene tries to fix the broken White Tower. The pacing of the book is excellent; it’s been a long time since I was reluctant to walk away from a Wheel of Time book, but that definitely was the case here. I found the battle for the White Tower to be incredibly compelling and thrilling, as well as the final chapters when Rand seems to lose control and threatens to wipe out the Pattern (and all of humanity in the process). Both plot threads are resolved in a satisfying manner. I’m guessing that Towers of Midnight will feature both The Tower of Genjii, where Moraine is being held, and the Black Tower, which was notably absent in this book.

The characterizations are pretty much spot on, with Rand, Egwene, and most Aes Sedai captured perfectly. While Sanderson had a difficult time with Mat’s character, he did manage to capture Mat’s voice in a few places, and I wasn’t bothered by it as much as some other reviewers were.

While I don’t normally pay attention to cover art, Darrell Sweet’s cover is uninspired and just plain awful. I would have liked to see some Michael Whelan cover art (like the one done for A Memory of Light).

In conclusion, this is really an outstanding and thrilling book that is setting up a finale that has been over 20 years in the making. I’ll be moving on to Towers of Midnight with great relish, content in the knowledge that the conclusion of one of the greatest epics ever told is in good hands. Highly recommended for Wheel of Time fans; readers who want to get into the series should not start here – go to the beginning!

Book Review: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The_Hero_of_Ages_-_Book_Three_of_Mistborn

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2008

Pages:  556

Reading Time:  about 14 hours

As the third book in the Mistborn Trilogy, The Hero of Ages both delights and frustrates at the same time. Is the payoff worth it? Continue reading to find out…

We’ve reached the conclusion of the Mistborn trilogy only to find that the world is coming to end. The pace of the story starts off rather slow, despite a few combat scenes, as the world starts to collapse. Ash is piling up waist-high, and no one can figure out how to fix things. Much of the early story focuses on Vin and Eland as they follow the clues left behind by the former Lord Ruler. The march armies around the land, looking for the Lord Ruler’s secret caches and fighting off the brutal Koloss.

My favorite new plot thread, however, had to do with the emergence of Spook. As a boy in the former books, he played an inconsequential role, but here he begins to gain powers and becomes a leader. His story is compelling and enjoyable, a welcome relief to not only Vin and Eland spinning their wheels, but also to Sazed continuing his monotonous quest to question the purpose of life, as he sifts through the last of the religious beliefs contained within his metalminds while  looking for answers.

As the story progresses, Sanderson begins to drop pieces of the puzzle in place. As reveal after reveal occurs, increasing in frequency right up to the amazing end, I had to sit back in amazement as the story ended. Only then can you truly appreciate the intricacy and detail of the story, how much everything was planned out in advance, and the scope of  imagination that  Sanderson possesses. Sazed’s quest to find the perfect religion, the use of metalminds (immune to Ruin’s influence), the origins of the Koloss and Kandra, the Lord Ruler’s creations and his preparations, the  atium cache, the force known as Preservation – the puzzle pieces all fit together and leave you with a completed image that is astounding. Never before have I read something like this, and it took some time to absorb it all and truly appreciate it.

Another aspect I appreciate is how the major plot point, the end of the world, is resolved. From the start of the book you can see that the world is going to end. I was apprehensive about how Sanderson would handle it: would he allow the world to end, killing all his characters and leaving a bad taste in my mouth; or would he save the world using a Deus Ex Machina? Happily, neither is the case, which is why I was so satisfied with ending, despite the deaths of some of my favorite characters.

The story is not without a few flaws, the main one being that the evil entity from the previous book, now known as Ruin, is supposed to be able to change the writing of text, and even words that people speak. However, it rarely does so, allowing people to plan and plot against it. It seems to me that it would be far easier to influence words, rather than trying to get metal spikes into people so that they could be manipulated. However, this is a minor quibble and doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

In conclusion, Mistborn has to be one of the most imaginative, innovative series I’ve read in a long time. In a world of Tolkien derivatives, Sanderson takes a risk and reaches for something different, and in my opinion succeeds. Despite chapters that mire the pace of the story, I highly recommend this book and the series as a whole…it is well worth following to the epic conclusion.

News

I was prepared to read & review White Wolf’s Son by Michael Moorcock as my next book, until I learned that there is a book that precedes it called The Skrayling Tree. Since Powell’s Books is supposed to have it in stock, I’ll be heading down there soon to pick it up. In the meantime I have finished reading Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan and will have a review up soon.

I’ve ordered the following books from Amazon:

The Alloy of Law from Brandon Sanderson…I’m almost done with the original Mistborn trilogy, so it seems like a good time to add this.

Ghouls of the Miskatonic by Graham McNeill. I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft & the Arkham Horror board game from Fantasy Flight Games, so when I saw this release of the first book in a planned trilogy (Book One in The Dark Waters trilogy), I knew I had to have it.

Dance of the Damned by Alan Bligh. A new release in a separate trilogy (Book One of The Lord of Nightmares trilogy), I also had to have this one for the reasons described above…

Book Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

wellofascensionFormat:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2007

Pages:  592

Reading Time:  about 15 hours

As the second book in the Mistborn trilogy, I was afraid The Well of Ascension would suffer from a sophomore slump. I needn’t have worried – The Well of Ascension is an enjoyable read, and in some ways is superior to Mistborn. Spoilers ahead…

Here are some other reviews:

A Fantasy Reader:  http://afantasyreader.blogspot.com/2011/08/well-of-ascension-review.html

Fantasy Book Critic:  http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2007/08/well-of-ascension-by-brandon-sanderson.html

(Sorry, my ability to insert links is still broken)

The Well of Ascension picks up where Mistborn leaves off. The story focuses mainly on two characters from the first story: Eland is King, Vin is his bodyguard/mistress. The thieving crew have been promoted to high-level positions in order to run the new government. Trouble starts right away as not one, but two armies camp outside the city, looking for the stash of the power metal Atium, which Mistborn can burn to become very powerful.

Eland begins to have trouble with his new government, while trying to deal with the armies camped outside and repeated assassination attempts. Vin continues to struggle with her own self-worth and the death of her mentor. An early indication that someone in the King’s circle is a traitor is also a cause for concern.

As the story progresses, another Mistborn arrives in town, a mysterious creature appears in the mist, a third army full of creatures called Koloss arrive, the mist starts to kill people, and something’s going on with the Inquisitors. Sanderson has a lot of material to juggle here; despite this, story moves very slowly through the first 200 pages, and struggled through that part of it.

I’ve never been fond of politics, especially in fantasy, and it was my least-favorite aspect of Mistborn. That continues here, and in my opinion it drags on the pace of the narrative; however, when action began to replace politics, I started getting more and more caught up in the story. Though the story has some predictability to it, Sanderson still throws in enough twists and turns to keep the story fresh, and it kept me turning the pages.

Another area where the story bogs down at times is when the Terrisman Sazed is trying to solve the problems with the writings of Kwaan, the discoverer of the Hero of Ages. Far too much time is devoted to Kwaan’s writings, causing the pace to drag. In addition, you could play a drinking game based on the number of times that Sazed knows that there is something wrong with Kwaan’s statements, but was unable to put a finger on it. Although this works out nicely at the end of the story (see the major spoiler below), the journey to get there crawls at a snail’s pace.

There’s a basic premise in creative writing that characters should change over the course of a story. Sanderson has embraced this concept enthusiastically, with Eland and Vin undergoing multiple, remarkable changes. Elend evolves from naive scholar, to commanding king, to bringer of justice; Vin overcomes her lack of self-worth, feelings of betrayal, being used as an assassin, and inability to trust; she fully embraces her power and develops a philosophy on how it should be used. These characters are deep, compelling, have integrity, and are easy to root for. Other characters, however, especially among the thieving crew, are not compelling enough to care whether they live or die.

As in the first story, Sanderson also introduces more strange creatures. The Terris and Kandra are expanded on in many ways, and the Koloss make a great, horrific villian, although Sanderson adds a twist and things are not always what they seem. One of the great relationships in the story is between Vin and the Kandra OreSeur, where Vin’s vulnerability and frustration have the Kandra not only revealing secrets about his people, but also violating his Contract to defend her. I hope this story thread is continued in the last book.

The magic system of Allomancy still plays a major part of the story. While it is still one of the most inventive magic systems ever created, in this book it suffers from both trying to figure out what the limits of its users are (as they push themselves to superhuman efforts), and make it sometimes difficult to follow the action (as it did in the first story). These are minor quibbles that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

The greatest strength of the story is what happens after the “bad guy” gets whacked. Things should be rosy now, right? Well, maybe not so much…the bad guy was able to control the bickering factions that are now trying to take over the city. He also kept people fed and warm, and protected everyone from the Deepness, a terrible danger. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as everyone thought, but now he’s gone and the people wonder if they weren’t better off being oppressed. You can draw parallels to the war in Iraq – an evil dictator was toppled, but suddenly a host of other problems appeared afterwards. It certainly makes the story more believable.

*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*  highlight this next part if you don’t care if I reveal one of the plot points at the end of the story…

Most stories use prophecy as a means to predict the rise of a hero or event to combat evil. In The Well of Ascension, however, the prophecy is established and manipulated by a possibly evil entity to make sure its goals are met. At one point of the story, the Inquisitor Marsh, Kelsier’s brother, leads the Terrisman Sazed to a place to ensure he finds this manipulated prophecy and supports it. The end result is a crumbling of Sazed’s entire belief system and purpose that he has dedicated his life to. It’s a crushing blow, and an impressive twist. This leads to another aspect of Sanderson’s writing: he’s not afraid to kill off major characters or have everything in their life become meaningless. While it’s not on the scale of Steven Erikson, is does create tension because you have no idea who will make it to the end. 

The Well of Ascension is, after a slow start, a compelling middle book that sets things up nicely for the finale, The Hero of Ages. Sanderson’s Wheel of Time and Way of Kings entries will have to wait a bit longer to be read by me, because I can’t wait to see how Sanderson wraps things up in The Hero of Ages. And with the new release of The Alloy of Law, it sounds like there’s more goodness to come.

Book Review: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2006

Pages:  537

Reading Time:  about 13 hours

 

Mistborn is the first book in the Mistborn Trilogy, and Sanderson’s second book, which followed the critically-acclaimed Elantris. I’ve been itching to read some of Sanderson’s work ever since he was tabbed to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Before I hit Sanderson’s Wheel of Time entries, however, I wanted to sample some of his own works and see what had impressed everyone else.

Mistborn is described as a question designed to turn a fantasy trope on its head: “what if the hero lost and the dark lord won?” It’s about a world covered in ash due to volcanic eruptions, strange mists that come out at night, and the Lord Ruler, a dark overlord who suppresses the peasant race called Skaa.

Into this setting steps Vin, a teenage girl who lives on the streets as a thief. As I began reading I was immediately struck by the similarities between Vin and Kiska, from Ian C. Esslemont’s Night of Knives. Not only was Vin written three years earlier, she is also a more believable character. Vin possesses some of the same annoying traits found in Kiska: stubbornness, inability to follow instructions, and reckless actions. What makes Vin believable is her vulnerability. Abandoned by everyone in her life, growing up in a thieving crew, she believes herself unworthy when good things happen to her. Her transformation during the course of the story gives her character depth, which Kiska did not have.

The supporting characters are well done, especially Kelsier, who becomes Vin’s mentor, and Sazed, Vin’s teacher/watchdog/servant. The adversaries are truly evil…the Lord Ruler is cruel and uncaring, and Inquisitors are horrifying creatures, with spikes for eyes and near-immortality.

The genius of the story, and what moves it along, is the much-raved-about magic system called Allomancy. It’s the ability to burn certain metals, each type giving the user a different power…Copper keeps one from being detected by other allomancers, while pewter allows one greater strength, speed, and stamina. It’s a brilliantly-realized system, although combat sequences can be a little hard to follow with things being pushed and pulled around.

I was captivated at the beginning of the story, as the characters are introduced and the magic system is explained. However, the book tends to bog down in the middle as it becomes a series of training exercises for Vin, mixed in with the subtleties of pulling off a major con. However, the last 100 pages really gather momentum, and events move at a breathless pace. I was disappointed whenever I had to put the book down to do other things. What makes Mistborn truly great, however, is the pay-offs. After struggling through that middle section of the book, when things start moving in those last 100 pages and information is revealed, everything ties together nicely, and their are some shocking reveals that I totally didn’t see coming, including the death of a main character. None of it really feels like Deus Ex Machina – Sanderson has set everything up well beforehand. A few loose ends exist, and some questions go unanswered, but this is a series after all, and some things need to wait for the next book.

In conclusion, I was absolutely blown away by Mistborn. I now understand the praise bestowed upon Sanderson and the choice for him to finish the Wheel of Time series. Although Sanderson’s Wheel of Time contributions are in my queue, as is his new 1000 page novel The Way of Kings, I’m going to have to read the next book in the Mistborn Trilogy first, because I have got to see what happens next!