Words of Radiance review

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Words of Radiance is the follow-up to Brandon Sanderson excellent opening of the Stormlight Archive series, The Way of Kings. Book two was released earlier this year (sorry for the delay in delivering the review), four years after the start of this huge endeavor, a project of epic proportion with ten door stoppers on our shelves when it culminates. At the time I'm writing this review, Brandon is 25% finished with Stormlight 3.
Six years ago, the Assassin in White, a hireling of the inscrutable Parshendi, assassinated the Alethi king on the very night a treaty between men and Parshendi was being celebrated. So began the Vengeance Pact among the highprinces of Alethkar and the War of Reckoning against the Parshendi. Now the Assassin is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin's master has much deeper motives. Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status "darkeyes." 
Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl. Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined. Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.
Brandon Sanderson is now a well-established and loved Fantasy author and the Stormlight Archive undoubtedly showed much potential in its first opus. Even with a wait of four years, fans seemed to remain eager for the release of Words of Radiance without harassing the author, like we have seen for George R.R. Martin or Scott Lynch.  My speculation (kind of evident) would be that's because he released other books... It looks like Sanderson has a status of its own.  Has he become a master of the genre with an unequivocal respect from the fans? Let's hold this thought while I review the book and try to answer this afterward.

Kaladin Stormblessed, Shallan Davar, Dalinar and Adolin Kholin and Szeth-son-son-Vallano. They are now names that we are accustomed to, they already feel like long acquaintances. They need no introductions and slowly but steadily, we pick up their trail right where we left them at the end of The Way of Kings.  The Stormlight Archive series narrative is not allowing jumps in the storyline. We follow all the adventures and misadventures from a simple talk over a diner or around a fire to Kaladin riding the wind alongside Syl just for the fun of it. Sanderson likes to recount everything of interest that happens to his characters and it creates a huge book the like of which is found less often nowadays. Is it a niche now? I don't think so but it has its rightful place in the Fantasy spectrum.

The origin story of Kaladin has been covered a lot in The Way of Kings.  You could say that it was Kaladin's story. In Words of Radiance, it's Shallan story, her origins unfolded in several flashbacks, that stands at the heart of the tale. While it became obvious as the chapters went by, I was kind of wary since the young woman wasn't my favorite character and her dominant presence in WoK was less enticing initially. I was proven wrong. Sanderson successfully switched the main point of view of the series while retaining its particular voice.

So, Shallan is developed with the help of a rather predictable background, still interesting to learn about, but mostly with her transformation from being the ward of Jasnah Kholin to an impersonation of a spy for the Ghostbloods and a highlady at the 'court' of the king of Alethkar at the Shattered Plains. Quite the journey. She can still be annoying every so often (personality wise) but when Pattern is around, they create a compelling duo. Her spren is even more interesting than Syl. His personality is rougher as he discovers humanity and helps the bold young woman with the surges, the world of Shadesmar and dealing with her past. At least, magic isn't simply an extension of herself that she uses without insight. Shallan grows into it. Her artistic qualities are also skilfully integrated into her storyline.

And then, there's a love triangle looming on the horizon. One romance is obvious and borderline cheesy, while the other in slow in coming. That second one is the result of the meeting, finally, of Shallan and Kaladin (I don't think I spoil anything here, you knew it was coming). This confluence was hiding behind many expectations. I admit that I was disappointed by how it happened at first but by looking at the situation of both protagonists at this point, I should have known. Still, it's better for it, you'll see in the long run. Their relationship is slow in building with some tension, contempt and a little teasing.

Who's next? Dalinar of course. Sadly, his entourage is lacking in Wit (I would have liked more clever interventions from the absurd fellow). The good-hearted old man is still having his fits/dreams and trying to unite Alethkar while fighting Sadeas politically but this time he leaves the spotlight to Adolin. I can't wait to read about Dalinar back story (or maybe Szeth) but it will have to wait and the author made a good decision in putting his son in the front seat of the narrative. It gives more cohesion to the scenes with Shallan and we can witness first hand his transformation. Moreover, when his father instructs him to get back to dueling, finally, the shard blades and plates are out in the field for glorious fights. Even Navani is used as a point of view but she's become expendable for the story told in this volume.

With the plateau runs out of the way (mostly), the duels are one of the parts where Sanderson gives more speed to the action. As with most of books of this type, there's a convergence, a build-up coming near the end and by then, the action is now going at full speed. Through it all, Kaladin still struggling with his new life.  The new position he received from Dalinar put him at a distance from his bridge crew, aside from the core.  Sadly, it means that there's less soldier camaraderie.

Moreover, his nemesis, Amaram is now in his surroundings. With retribution, justice or simply vengeance in mind, and with a new dilemma created by his fellow bridge brothers versus his duty and Dalinar orders, his plate is full. His choices are even affecting Syl. Poor Kaladin. He remains the broken man he became in The Way of Kings and a true champion to rout for as he fights against all his internal conflicts and the threats to his people.  And now, he's playing along the greats of the world, fighting for the blending of the classes. I can't imagine how we'll look at him after many more books but I think Kaladin will become a legendary character.

Between each parts of the book, as was the case with the previous novel, Sanderson throws in a couple of interludes.  This time, there is a mix of a fundamental points of view from the side of the Parshendi, a spren linked young thief and some mysterious people and tales... In the end, it could seem more helpful than not while not being a necessary read but Eshonai (the Parshendi PoV) is bringing nice information to the table. It doesn't feel like info-dumps and with their rhythm and forms (ways of transformation from nimble form to storm form, etc...), the parshmen relative now seem less like an evil gang of oblivious doom bringers.

Worldbuilding and magic systems are always a priority of Sanderson.  The basis for WoR is already solid. Slowly, the focus is taken away from the Shattered Plains, even if it's the full story that's taking place there.  The highstorms, sprens, shardplates and blades, fabrials, lashings, the Stormfather... all feel natural. The icing on the cake is the ability for him to make it even more fascinating. It's accepted but it's novelty. With the surprises at the ending... anyone want to know more about the Everstorm and its effects?

As a complement to the rich tale of the book, the mad king Taravangian and his random daily intelligence that spawned the prophetic diagram is making his plays.  The meta story is becoming more complex and the intrigue thickens while the characters remain at the core of this tapestry. Although the first half of the novel felt like a big epilogue of The Way of Kings in term of overall situation and had the same central setting, a whole new set of opportunities has opened in an intriguing new region.

The Stormlight Archive can now be seen as an impressive series, not simply a prelude of great things to come. Words of Radiance is a fascinating successor to The Way of Kings, but again it's not a revolution and has its flaws.  If I come back to the question I asked at the start of the review, I would say yes, Brandon Sanderson is a master, but not The master, of traditional, lengthy, magic heavy, classic but dexterously crafted, Epic Fantasy. WoR proves it for me. A very good read.

Cover: Michael Whelan is a great artist and I like the color scheme he chose but I think that Shallan's interior cover illustration would have made a better cover.
Release date: March 4th 2014
Map: Yes, and they are gorgeous!
Number of pages: 1087 hardcover edition
Acquisition method: Courtesy of Tor
Other: Several appendices and many amazing illustrations!

I liked...Was disappointed by...
Kaladin struggleWit's lack
The new direction of the narrative with the consequences of the endingSome interludes
Shallan was redeemed as a characterA couple of dragging parts
The Parshendi PoVA couple of predictable plot elements
The battle/fight scenes
The world of Roshar and its magic

Words of Radiance review rating :


Prateek said...

If you really want to see how long Sanderson can drag out the meeting of the two main Romantic characters in a book you should try out Elantris. And I don't know how you predicted Shallan's origin story I was really shocked and grieved by the conclusion of that backstory, the poor father.

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