It’s going to be hard, but this review is spoiler-free. This book is still fresh on shelves, and it’s difficult to get a copy if you’re not into purchasing car-sized books at their hardcover premium. However, I can’t wait to share my thoughts with you, so as I said, spoiler-free. I’ll do my very best. Also, Words of Radiance is book two of the Stormlight Archive, so if you haven’t already read The Way of Kings, you should probably do that before trying to read this. Just a suggestion.
How do I even begin? I adored this book. It feels like it’s been too long since I’ve had a Brandon Sanderson book to read— I’ve only read novellas or short stories of his recently, and I wanted an epic fantasy. (I actually believe I read through Sanderson’s existing works too quickly, believe it or not; when I ran out of them, I went into withdrawal.) This was a welcome change. I loved being back in Roshar (the world) with the grand cast of characters. I’d list them all, but I’ve just found I can’t remember how to spell many of them, and I’m not sure whether those names would be considered spoilers or not. (As Sanderson himself said once, admitting that there is a sequel is technically a spoiler for the first book.)
Back on track. I loved the world and all the diverse cultures, flora and fauna, and weather (such weather! probably my favorite part). The characters were believable and each one was featured to perfection, so I never felt like I was missing any beloved character. The plot was enormous, yet excellent. As I said in the review for the first book, a compilation of a couple chapters from any section of this book could stand alone as its own novella or even novel in this world. The author made use of so many diverse climaxes and denouements that each plot line felt like it could have been featured alone, yet none felt skimped or forgotten. It gave an epic feel to the book that I loved.
In the first book, Sanderson had a problem with viewpoint characters. One character was obviously the main character, while there were several other viewpoint characters moving through the book as well. Each viewpoint had different conflicts and plots, and none was inherently likable, but for some reason, I felt like they were stealing the spotlight from the main character, the one whose story we were actually following here. I didn’t like that. However, that was the first book. This one had no such problem. The viewpoints melded seamlessly, no single character becoming more despicable by virtue of the viewpoint changes. He had no problem with it this time.
Speaking of characters for a little while longer, Sanderson was almost too good at provoking audience reaction. At one point, a viewpoint character became so despicable that I honestly wanted to put the book down and stop reading it. Yes, that’s right. I was along for the ride for more than half the book, then this emotion comes along that is just so overwhelmingly odious that I didn’t want any part of it. Now, didn’t I just say that no single character became more despicable than the others? “By virtue of the viewpoint changes”. This wasn’t a viewpoint change. Instead, Sanderson took the sliders for the character (Writing Excuses season nine, episode 13: sympathy, competence, and proactivity), and moved them around all of a sudden. He pulled the sympathy way down and with that (because of a feature of the magic system) also destroyed the competence. Left with only proactivity, which was also slightly lacking, I had no reason to root for the character. This was the character I had loved through the first half of this book, whose growth I adored, whose emotions I completely understood— brought to a crashing halt because I no longer liked him. It was a case, I think, of being too awesome with a character’s emotions. That said, however, the journey back from that was amazing, so I completely forgive Sanderson for his momentary lapse in judgment. It had to happen— I just would have liked to throw the book across the room, had I actually been able to lift the thing.
Still talking about characters, the interludes were spectacular. Allow me to explain. Sanderson puts snippets of other viewpoints— just a couple scenes, from a couple different characters— in a section he calls the “Interludes” before each of the five main sections of the novel (through which he follows only the main characters’ viewpoints). In those interludes, he often follows a certain character, but also adds stand-alone chapters from other, previously unseen characters to give us extra information about the story or world. The way he characterizes in those interludes was amazing. Without fail, the characters were vivid, engaging, and highly sympathetic. The extent of worldbuilding he shows through those little things is astounding. I’ve been toying with the idea lately of annotating some of Sanderson’s work in some way, just to see how much I can glean from it. If I analyzed anything in-depth, I’d do those interludes. They’re basically short stories set in the world, and they wrap themselves up perfectly.
Moving on. I already mentioned how the plot rose and fell, with plot arcs within plot arcs. The way Sanderson then used those mini-stories to build toward the conclusion was amazing. (I’m saying a lot of things were amazing, I know, but that’s about all you can do in a spoiler-free review.) You think you’ve seen how amazing these characters can be when they have a battle scene, or something climactic like that— nope, it’s still building, until you get a flooring fulfillment of promises at the end that makes it all worth it. Everything worked so well, exactly how Sanderson intended it. I loved it.
Within those little plots, all the politics and intrigue of court was thought out perfectly. Perhaps there was a plot hole, somewhere, somehow, but I’m not going to worry about it. I don’t know how Sanderson thought this all out in one measly lifetime, but he did.
Moving on to setting, possibly the biggest element of epic fantasy. Sanderson did it perfectly. In the first book, he gave us enough description of flora and fauna that we knew about the world but weren’t left confused about anything. This time, he built upon that. He explained things that needed explaining, without letting on that they ever needed explaining before. (That doesn’t make sense.) For instance, he mentioned horses in the first book, and that’s as far as he took it. In this book, he actually went into more detail with them, if not making them different from horses in our world, at least making them seem novel, like they had a place among all the cremlings and chasmfiends and axehounds of Roshar. Horses were a necessary mundanity, I think, which he managed to make original anyway.
The cultures. I adored the cultures, and the way Sanderson introduced them and their peculiarities without detracting from the plot or characters. That’s the amazing thing about this book, I think— in Robert Jordan or Tolkien, you have to consciously slow down and allow yourself to be taken on an epic journey through amazing vistas and new cultures. With Sanderson, he just does it without asking, and you let him because he does it perfectly. His books are never dry, never boring as he explains cultures. I don’t know how he does it. I might have to look back and figure it out, but he nails it every time. He makes epic fantasy read like heroic fantasy (read: he makes long stuff read like short stuff).
However, while his world- and character- and plot-building is spectacular, sometimes his technicalities need a little work. As I said in my review of the first book, his transitions are oftentimes deplorable. He doesn’t know how to smoothly take a reader from one chapter to another— or if he does, he doesn’t try to do it. He openly admits that he structures the chapters of these books like short stories, meant to give closure at the end and allow the reader a sandwich break. I think that’s fine, except what about when the reader really wants to keep reading? Closure is great, and readers should get sandwiches when they want them (especially in books like this), but they should also be able to keep reading if they wish. I often found myself skimming over the little snippets at beginnings of chapters, just so I could get back to the action.
Exacerbating the problem, often Sanderson structured his chapters differently than he said he did. He doesn’t always give closure like he says— several times, most often near the end but occasionally at the beginning, he ends a chapter with a plot twist that forced me to keep reading. What did I get? A jarring snippet of weirdness that would probably make sense except I WANT TO KEEP READING. It gets aggravating, you see, when he ends a chapter as it ought to be ended in a thriller or any shorter book, then has no transition to neatly carry the reader from one chapter to the other. He wouldn’t have ended the one chapter as he did if he didn’t want me reading on, so why not have a transition? Please.
Speaking of that, however, by saying he ended chapters with closure, I don’t mean he ended them happily. I like to say, as a rule of thumb, end chapters with plot twists— in epic fantasy, you can’t do that for extended periods of time. You have to give breaks, as Sanderson does. However, you also have to keep the reader intrigued, coming back once their sandwich is finished. How do you strike that balance? If you decide not to go with a plot twist, but instead give closure, you must then end the chapter on a sour note. That means ending a plot line as you would normally, however you want to do it— happy, sad, whatever— but then making sure to end the chapter on a downswing. Foreboding, perhaps, or mourning for the losses. Sure, you can have your character show all this mastery of their magical powers in this chapter, all that happy stuff— but end it with the price they have to pay, or a plot twist about what happened while they were gallivanting, or something sad. Yes, it’s a downer, but you’re not supposed to conclude the story this early, so make sure your readers know, even though you’re letting them get sandwiches for now, that you’re going to pick up the story again when they come back. It’s the same idea as promising a sequel at the end of one book, but miniaturized for chapter use. Sanderson did this really well, despite his transition faltering.
Things I learned:
- If you ever want a workshop on opening lines and examples of awesome ones, look at the interludes in these books. Each one has to engage you with a new character from the very first line. Most authors like to only have one first line in each of their books— Sanderson chose to have… somewhere around fifteen. He makes them sound intriguing every time. No matter how mundane the story you’re writing, lines like that are possible.
- If anything is missing in a character, it counts as a promise. When that thing is restored— unless the character has thought about this thing and vehemently doesn’t want it restored— it counts as a promise fulfillment. (There are two characters I’m thinking of at the moment, both of whom have such things restored at the end of this book. One never wanted that thing restored, and has refused it several times. The other never wanted it restored, but doesn’t mind when it is restored. The difference is palpable. If you read the book, come back and read this, and you’ll know who I mean.)
- Take care with the character sliders. Sometimes turning a character unlikable, even temporarily, can have drastic effects.