[cp_dropcaps]I[/cp_dropcaps] begin this review, not with a bang, but with a boom. The boom is the sound Words of Radiance made when I dropped it while reading. It was shortly followed by a howl of pain as it struck my pinky toe. It was not a manly howl, akin to a shrieking meerkat as its eviscerated by a laughing hyena. Now that I’ve made the obligatory “size” joke about Brandon Sanderson’s newest novel (make note that it’s required in the ‘review copy contract’ provided by Tor) I can actually talk about the merits of the novel, which is something like watching a ladies tennis match: extended volleys, a fair bit of screaming (and/or grunting), lots of excitement, and an ending that’s often predicated on fitness as much as it is skill.
Unlike most epic fantasies of its size, Words of Radiance features only four primary characters–Shallan, Kaladin, Dalinar, and Adolin. Although there are a host of other important characters, and a dozen other view points as part of Sanderson’s unique “interludes”, the novel boils down to these four. Given Words of Radiance comes in around 400,000 words, each of point of view is given nearly an entire novel’s length to bond with the reader. Combined with their appearance in the previous installment, Way of Kings, a Stormlight Archive reader has absorbed each of these characters for at least 150,000 words each. I would argue that level of intimacy with a group of characters is unheard of, where typically we’d get the forty disparate characters of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or the unerring one-character-note of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy.
What’s fascinating about this paradigm is that Sanderson, contrary to many opinions that he’s a hack, manages to keep these four interesting despite the reader’s familiarity. It was remarked to me, to my own surprise, by Aidan Moher that there are really only four ‘settings’ in the entire first novel, flying in the face of one of the fantasy novel’s most vibrant tropes–the unfamiliar world. This demonstrates how really talented a writer Sanderson is. He balances the depth of character and plot development he craves as a story teller with the needs of the reader for a compelling narrative. While the prose remains uninspired and occasionally awkward, it is his strength as a story teller that recommends Sanderson as one of the finest writers working today. What he accomplishes with so little variation or variety is astounding.
As for the second novel itself, two things become clear that were perhaps opaque in Way of Kings, namely that there are probably at least seven too many magic systems in the world and the whole cosmere thing is probably a little too complicated. For the uninitiated, Sanderson’s entire original adult catalog, from Elantris to Mistborn to Warbreaker to the Stormlight Archive, is set in the same universe, which he calls the cosmere. There’s even a single character that spans the various series, known as Hoid. He’s a much more prevalent figure in the Stormlight Archive, and often functions as what I can only describe as the voice of the author. Often treading very close to breaching the fourth wall, Hoid speaks about expectations, and narrative, and themes that are absolutely part of Sanderson’s fabric. Layer this with an incredibly dense and expansive system of magic, escalated on both counts in the second book, and Words of Radiance teeters on the edge of frustrating.
But, where Way of Kings was decidedly Kaladin’s book, Words of Radiance is Shallan’s, despite the fact that from a marketing perspective we still get a dude punching the ground on the cover rather than the beautiful image of a woman painting on the endpapers. This distinction provides enough narrative conclusion and satisfaction that any of the weighty baggage the series carries becomes digestible.
Like Way of Kings Sanderson weaves the present with the past, moving the plot forward, but also emphasizing how our primary characters came to be. Given what’s been demonstrated so far in the series, I fully expect this structure to employed in book three with Dalinar, whose absent memories of his dead wife continue to tantalize. Sanderson makes interesting choices in how the past is unveiled in Words of Radiance. Without spoiling anything there is a major reveal in middle section that simply isn’t explained until the novel’s final moments. Given the length of the book this left me with several moments where I was sure I must have missed some important detail that explained it all when in fact I just needed to keep reading.
And keep reading I did, often until late into the night. There is something inherently enticing about Sanderson’s work, even when it fails to connect aesthetically or the plot and world lose their synchronicity. Words of Radiance is no different. It is a piece of art composed by a mad master who is so deep into his work that he cannot see beyond it–out of control and in danger of toppling over, but undeniably brilliant. Finishing it is an exercise in commitment as much as it is of love, and you’ll occasionally wonder why you’re as invested as you are, but you’ll keep reading because there’s nothing more entertaining. While the dichotomy of Brandon Sanderson pinging back and forth across the proverbial net left me with a sore neck, I’m eager for the next match.