The world is ending, as worlds in novels are wont to do. Which is fair; that’s pretty good motivation to get the action rolling. But what has consistently struck me about the Stormlight Archives series setting is that it feels like a world, meticulously crafted with distinct regions, cultures, and creatures. In the first two books, Sanderson has used a handful of individuals to lay out a fantastical setting with warring factions, lost histories, well-defined magic, and personal entanglements.
Oathbringer picks up right where Words of Radiance left off, grappling with the awakening of parshmen and the damage they and their new storm have wrought on the already splintered human nations. Yet even as disaster looms in the near future, the narrative allows each of the main cast (and a solid handful of side characters) to grow and develop, making distinct choices as events unfold around them.
I’ve been on a bit of a Sanderson binge for a while, and one thing I have noticed is that I generally feel safe enough to trust his planning and fully immerse myself in his work, which can be hard to find in mainstream fantasy. I often find myself shying away from impending rape or cruelty when picking through the latest hot recommendation, but not so with Sanderson’s work. This is not to say that he takes the easy way out or avoids consequences for his characters actions. On the contrary, he lays out worldbuilding rules and chains reactions and commits to following them, and even the plot twists or failures happen logically and to drive the story forward.
But he builds worlds with disaster and tragedy that never feel gratuitous or just done for the sake of being “gritty.” I’ve never gotten a sense of voyeuristic intrigue when delving into horrible backstories. I can follow along with his riveting fights or scenes of peril (and they are riveting; I have missed multiple stops on public transportation thanks to Sanderson’s writing) without the sick dread that I sometimes get with authors I don’t trust quite so much. It might not always go well for the characters, but there will be a purpose to it, not just a bro-ish sense of “hey, check out how hardcore my world is.” He also avoids caricatures in his writing, so even despicable characters come across as humanized and nuanced (which can make bad choices all the more painful or repulsive — they could be doing so much better!)
Most of all, the disasters and challenges are always tempered with hope and growth. Kaladin and Shallan especially have developed far beyond their initial traumas, not leaving them by the wayside, but consciously facing them and making decisions for the better. The narrative does not scoff at doing the right thing; heroic choices feel earned, not corny, and sometimes that’s exactly the kind of world I want to escape into.