Stormlight Archive 2: Words of Radiance - Retro Review
To celebrate the upcoming release of Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, book three of The Stormlight Archive, Chris reviews both of the previous books. No scores at the end, but suffice it to say that they're worth reading.
These are the words that drive Dalinar Kholin, given to him in visions from the Almighty, the closest thing Roshar has - or, rather, had - to God. They urge that the storm is coming, the Voidbringers are returning, and the end draws nearer. The only way to survive is to bring the scattered peoples of Roshar - long separated by warfare, politics and greed - together into a unified whole.
Easier said than done, right?
Where The Way of Kings gradually started the process of establishing our host of characters, Words of Radiance goes deeper in what they need to do to survive. Sometimes, they may not like the answers they find.
Freed from slavery and now a leading guardsman in the Alethi army, Kaladin struggles with how to survive his new Stormlight-based powers whilst reconciling both his new station as Dalinar's bodyguard, and his rejection of the lighteyed hierocracy it's tied to. Escaping from a deadly assassination attempt, Shallan tries - literally and figuratively - to survive the natural and political wilds of a world she's still discovering. Armed with horrifying new information regarding the state of the world, Dalinar is tasked with keeping more than just his own army alive on the Shattered Plains. And nearby in the realm of the Parshendi, who reel from crushing defeats handed to them by the Alethi, a Shardbearer named Eshonai attempts a drastic plan which will either ensure her people's survival or earn them a swift descent into extinction.
Given where all our characters start, I'd almost be tempted to suggest that someone could start their experience with Words. What backstory we vitally need - save for the long unpacking of some of Kaladin's details that Kings dealt with - is handed to readers, and the status quo is almost completely changed from the one we got used to in the first book. No longer do we have to go through many chapters of Shallan struggling to convince Jasnah to take her on as a ward, or Kaladin once again suffering humiliation and subjugation at the hands of his captors.
But having Kings behind us makes many of Words' peak moments that much more powerful. The book doesn't just encapsulate the "epic" fantasy feel that the genre shoots for, but goes for deep as well. Each of our protagonists, and no small number of the supporting cast, go through remarkable journeys even while the world collapses around their ears. It’s not just that they achieve great victories or suffer horrific defeats; it’s that they do so while being well-rounded, captivating characters with a wealth of backstory and realistic shading. Even bit-part characters who appear for only a chapter or two – as well as those in the superlative Interludes between sections, where the world of Roshar is further expanded – get moments on par with the leads, thanks to Sanderson’s talent for sketching these folks so well.
The plot itself is still top notch, and on a re-read I’ve now noticed just how propulsive it is. In relation to the gradual unfurling of Kings, the main narrative thrust of Words hits the ground running and rarely lets up all the way to the end. Even when the book lowers its pace – with the nadir being an extended sequence of two characters trapped in a chasm together – the tension’s still ratcheted high through rampant foreshadowing and the assumption that a huge plot twist is probably nearby (an assumption which is usually correct). This is the rare kind of doorstopper where the meditative bits – which, in almost any other book, might be considered boring – have a habit of making you ask, “Ok, so now that we’re calming down, what’s the next apocalyptic twist we’ll be due for in a few pages’ time?”
That same narrative energy can also be a bit tiring. As much as Words wants to grab you by the lapels and not let go until it’s finished, some may want breaks here and there to digest. (I certainly did.) The book serves its characters and plot well with connective tissue and developmental scenes, but given the sheer number of revelations and upsets of the status quo, it can sometimes be a bit intense. That’s really not a kind of wholly negative criticism, mind – “This book is so good it’ll make you want to take breaks because of how good it is” – but something to be aware of. By the time of Words’ climax, which manages to outdo the triumphal crescendo of Kings, you may need a lie down.
For long-time readers of this site, it should be obvious that I love Brandon Sanderson’s work. I’ve heaped praise on his other work before, and I’ve never read a story of his that I haven’t liked; even his slightly less successful works are still head and shoulders above most of the competition. So consider the gravity of my claim when I say that Words of Radiance is, without question, my favourite Sanderson book. There might be a way Oathbringer could knock it off that top spot – at time of writing, I’m about 2/3 of the way through and have some very positive thoughts about it – but for right now, I can safely say this is the peak of Sanderson’s work thus far. The characters are deep and engaging, within a meticulously-cultivated and mercilessly-thrilling plot, taking place in one of the finest fictional worlds ever made for the genre.
It is, without a doubt, a breathtaking housebrick of a book.
Words of Radiance is available in bookstores now in two paperbacks - Parts One and Two.
Oathbringer is due for Australian release on November 14th.