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.