This book is about taking the broken pieces of yourself and arranging them into something resembling a thinking and feeling person again. It’s about facing your deepest, most painful secrets and being able to exist with them and because of them. It’s about owning and honoring all the parts of you that scare you; whether those parts are wretched or wonderful.
And it’s also about people with magical abilities who can defy gravity, change their appearance, heal instantly and fight with long, magical swords.
Brandon Sanderson has created something special with this epic fantasy series. This is the second in the Stormlight Archive series, set in the universe of the Cosmere in which many of his other books also take place (though you don’t need to read any of them but Way of Kings before this book). I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the plot or describing the world and the magic of the book. I’ll just say that if you’re into multi-volume epic fantasy with rich world-building and great characters, this series is for you.
Roshar is a fully formed place full of a pastiche of different cultures and beliefs, rich in history, religion, and magic. The system of magic in this world is complex, and the characters themselves don’t know everything about it so rather than having it all spelled out and neatly presented, there’s some elements of mystery to it. There’s an element of the unknown to the history of the land as well and more is revealed as the book goes on. Sanderson sets up mysteries and resolves some of them, but not all; it’s both rewarding and tantalizing. Here’s an author with a clear plan and a firm confidence in how he sets things up and lets them play out. The level of effort spent planning and developing this world is truly impressive. One gets the impression that the author has no intention of leaving this story untold – even if it takes ten volumes – unlike other authors who seem to lose their will three-quarters of the way through a series.
You might expect that the level of detailed world and magic-system building would lead to trade-offs in other areas of the story, but that’s not the case here. I had read several of his other novels and enjoyed them (the Mistborn series and Elantris), but the Stormlight Archive series is truly his strongest writing. Sanderson’s prose doesn’t waste time with metaphors or poetic turns of phrase, but it’s not stale and dry either. His main strength is writing the action scenes. In this book, that means several giant sword duels as well as battles, among other spoilery things I loved but won’t mention. Overall, the plot flows much better in Words of Radiance than in Way of Kings. Way of Kings spent a lot of necessary time world-building and introducing characters. It also dragged significantly about halfway through getting all the pieces in place. Words of Radiance doesn’t suffer from this ailment. Sanderson may take his time in a few places, but it never feels indulgent or as if there’s filler.
In Words of Radiance the series begins to truly come together as the main characters find each other and the way forward. People may come to Sanderson for the magic and the intricate technology and the way his worlds are woven together, but it’s the characters that really make or break any story. Even one with gigantic magical swords and armor. Sanderson has spent as much time developing the main characters as his world. He has created a backstory for everyone and not only do his main characters feel like fully realized people, nearly every side character seems to have his or her own backstory we just haven’t been introduced to yet. The overarching plot of the series is the people of Roshar coming together to fight an ancient threat. They do this partially by being able to develop magical abilities. Yet, there is no stereotypical Chosen One narrative. No one seems to be a secret royal. They’re just people from different backgrounds and walks of life who are willing to help. Clearly with the series predicted to run to ten volumes, the world is not going to be saved any time soon. It’s fortunate then that we have these wonderful characters to focus on, cheer for and admonish when they don’t do the right thing with such an epic scope of an overall story.
Just as Way of Kings was focused around Kaladin and his journey from suffering in the bridge crews to coming into his powers, Words of Radiance is about Shallan. Her emotional journey will be familiar to anyone who grew up in an abusive home, and Sanderson absolutely nails how Shallan could have become the person she is after her childhood: self-conscious, but quick with a witty remark. Fearful, but with a hidden core of determination and bravery she’s not even sure she possesses. She has been forced to put on a brave face for so long it seems only fitting that her powers should involve shapeshifting and deceiving others. She finds freedom in testing out her new abilities, but there’s a mysterious place in her memories she can’t go to even though it is her next step forward on the path to reaching her full potential. The flashback chapters of her childhood throughout the book were some of the hardest to read but the best part of the book. Yes, all of the magic and giant sword fights are wonderful stuff but the emotional depth is what truly engages.
If there’s any fault in this book, it’s that Sanderson doesn’t write romance and relationships very well. It seems a somewhat juvenile take, even within a fairly conservative society that’s depicted here. The love triangle that’s potentially developing could be a great source of interesting character developments or it could be a train wreck that derails the series. It’s likely Sanderson has it already plotted out either way. The good news is that even when there’s violence and war, the violence is never sexual, which is a welcome change.
Fans of fantasy books are often presented with books three inches thick that herald the beginning of a multi-volume series. We have to weigh the time commitment involved should we begin reading them, plus the inevitable heartbreak should the series for some reason never be completed (AHEM, GRRM). With Sanderson, it feels a safe bet to allow oneself to enter this world and sink into it. He’s still young, he’s been planning these books for years, and the payoff is well-plotted action, interesting characters, political intrigue and a unique and fascinating world to live in. Just don’t fall asleep reading the hardback version lest it break your nose.