Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
I’m a big Brandon Sanderson fan, beginning as most did with the excellent Mistborn trilogy and moving on to Way of Kings, the first in his Stormlight Archive series not long after. Words of Radiance is the second book in the series, although at times it’s so dramatic that I felt like I was reading the penultimate part of a trilogy. It’s hard to believe that there’s going to be eight more books in this series. Hopefully the Stormlight Archive doesn’t end up suffering the middle book fatigue that so often plagues fantasy; in fact, Sanderson himself fell victim to it in The Well of Ascension, the middle and weakest of the Mistborn books. If the series stays at this level of quality throughout though, we could have the next truly great fantasy epic on our hands.
Like its predecessor, Words of Radiance mostly takes place on the Shattered Plains, as the Alethi continue their war of vengeance against the Parshendi following their assassination of King Gavilar several years earlier. Kaladin and the men of Bridge Four have been lifted from their horrific existence in the camps of Torol Sadeas, to stand as bodyguards to Dalinar Kholin and his family, following their rescue of Dalinar’s army after Sadeas’ betrayal on the plains. Meanwhile, Shallan and Jasnah sail to the Shattered Plains, bearing the news of their shocking discovery that the passive Parshmen slaves are in fact the dreaded Voidbringers of old. Each book in the Stormlight Archive tells the backstory of one character, and in Words of Radiance we discover the true horrors of Shallan’s childhood and the secret behind her possession of a Shardblade. Szeth, the Assassin in White, continues his bloody streak across Roshar, honing in on his next target, Dalinar Kholin.
There’s a lot going on in Words of Radiance, with hints of even more to come. It’s a huge book, but it never felt long, and I didn’t want it to end. The main story on the Shattered Plains is gripping, with a good balance of exciting action scenes, individual drama and a surprising amount of comedy. Some people may find it slow paced, but I honestly felt everything was interesting and added to the story. There’s no ‘Aes Sedai squabbling’ in Words of Radiance. The intriguing ‘Interludes’ from Way of Kings return as well, offering glimpses and hints of the wider world of Roshar, introducing characters who may play an important role in events to come in later books. Some of these interludes feel like distinct short stories, and some in particular would likely have stood alone just fine in a collection. I find it hard not to gush about this series; it’s pressing my buttons in a way which only A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Books of the Fallen can rival.
One of the most interesting things about Sanderson’s work is that the bulk of it is set in one, unified universe, similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, known as the ‘Cosmere’. Previous books have played it light with the links between books, with the recurring character of Hoid, here known as Wit, being the only real link. Way of Kings stepped it up a bit with a tiny appearance of characters from Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy, but by and large the Cosmere and all the wider cosmic stuff was there if you wanted it, but fundamentally non-essential. I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore. For avid readers like me, these links and connections are amazing, but I do wonder if perhaps Sanderson runs the risk of alienating new readers to this series. Hoid plays a very significant role in Words of Radiance, but most of all…well, read Warbreaker. Seriously, the single best moment of this book won’t make any sense if you haven’t read Warbreaker. Is it fair that Sanderson does this? Perhaps not. Do I as a reader enjoy it? Most certainly.
Sanderson’s readable, unpretentious style is solidly reliable, and Words of Radiance is one of those books that just flows off the page. He’s not doing anything interesting with language, it’s purely a vehicle for story, but there’s nothing wrong with that. One irritation is the weird bits of modern language which seep in, such as ‘awesome’ and, er, ‘poop’. To be fair, most of these moments are for comic effect, and I think Sanderson knows what he’s doing, but nonetheless it can be a tad immersion breaking.
Sanderson’s characterisation, his weakest skill in the earlier books, has come on leaps and bounds. Shallan, a character whose constant pithiness and sarcasm seemed somewhat overdone and false in The Way of Kings,suddenly begins to make sense in Words of Radiance. Kaladin is slightly less whiny, and gains an enjoyable new love/hate bromance in Adolin. Sanderson has achieved what Robert Jordan did in the early Wheel of Time books, and created a wide range of enjoyable and intriguing minor characters. The varying personalities of Bridge Four are as enjoyable as ever, developing and growing in interesting ways. The characters of the interludes stand as particularly intriguing, with Sanderson doing a hell of a lot with very little.
Words of Radiance is an excellent follow up, possibly even better than The Way of Kings. The third book, which I believe is focusing on Szeth, cannot come soon enough. Knowing Sanderson’s pace though, I won’t have to wait too long, and I believe he’s releasing a new Wax and Wayne Mistborn book as well. If Sanderson manages to avoid the middle of the series slump, we could have a classic on our hands.