This review is spoiler-free.
Good news: This book wasn’t as bad as some books I’ve read recently!
Bad news: It also wasn’t very good.
As the third book of a trilogy, this book had some living up to do. The first book was wildly creative and excellent. The second was a bit lacking, but still twisty and enjoyable. The third needed a bit more time in the incubator and some serious me-time with the author.
The characters were excellent, but… only in ways that carried over from previous books. Phase 1 characters— introduced back in Steelheart— were for the most part excellent and just as fun as ever. Phase 2 characters— from Firefight— continued being themselves (but didn’t grow in any way). Phase 3 characters— completely new to this book— had almost no bearing on the book’s emotional impact. In writerly terms, Phase 1 were dynamic. Almost everyone from Phase 1 had some sort of development or fleshing out to do. Phase 2 were static. They didn’t change, but they still felt alive. Phase 3 were cardboard. With one exception (based on spoilery things, one character could have been considered Phase 2 or even Phase 1), these characters just didn’t add anything of meaning.
But how can I say that? Surely they added something. Why else would they have been introduced? Well, they changed the plot, aiding or opposing the main characters in some way. But no Phase 3 character (with the aforementioned exception) had any bearing on any Phase 1 character arc. No Phase 2 or Phase 3 character had any arc to speak of.
Let’s keep examining the book, though. Perhaps these books are t0o short for dynamic characters to emerge in the third act of a trilogy. Perhaps there are redeeming factors in the other aspects of the book.
For instance, the setting. As with all the previous books, this book was creatively set in terms of both locales and magics. It was beautiful. It was creative. Brandon Sanderson prides himself on this. In this regard, while Steelheart was intriguing and Firefight was awe-inspiring, Calamity is staggering. The range of magical abilities Sanderson creates and utilizes through the book is wide and varied— the physical setting is almost a direct offshoot of that, in ways only he could have created. The setting was spectacular.
Too bad the plot let it down.
The story didn’t feel like a finale. It didn’t even feel like a single book. It felt like a bunch of episodes, squashed together and melted down a bit to feel smoother. Cliches abounded— which, funnily enough, he managed to avoid in the previous two books. (He must have just postponed them.) He couldn’t set up his promises, and he couldn’t deliver if he hadn’t set any up. And the characters who supposedly drive Sanderson’s plot— like I said, either they were Phase 2 or Phase 3 and unimportant; or they were Phase 1 and grew, but as dynamic characters didn’t bring anything truly real to the table. Where was the despair? Where was the grief? Where was the gravitas?
That said, however, this was still Brandon Sanderson. Compared to his other works maybe the plot wasn’t that great, but compared to the average YA fantasy author? Hey, it was twisty and turny, all the way from page one to page wherever it ended. It pulled off a couple great plot reversals and reveals that created a fairly workable plot, even if it wasn’t scintillating. And a workable plot is all a book really needs.
Well… except for a workable writing style.
Brandon Sanderson has never been the most poetic of writers, but his writing is never truly bad. It’s very straightforward and gets the job done, letting the characters, plot, and setting— the things he excels at— shine. Mechanically speaking, this book was no different. There were no glaring spelling mistakes (that I noticed). There were no hijinks with wordplay or anything beyond his main character’s fascination with bad metaphors (which unfortunately took me out of the story a little too much for my liking, but was kind of necessary for the character). By the nuts and bolts of writing, he made no mistakes. On the stylistic side, though… hmmm.
The point of a writing style is to get the story across in as pleasurable a way as possible. That means smoothing out the bumps of conversations, action sequences, and description. It means pacing the book well, hiding any plotting or character mistakes the author might have made (which, as we’ve established, he did). It means keeping me interested, instead of having to reread when I get confused, or deciding to ignore something I must have missed because I was skimming. It means placing a joke so it cuts, sustains, or increases tension in the right places instead of releasing tension in all the wrong places. It means stylizing fight scenes so I don’t get action fatigue while reading it, or start to wonder when the next chapter break is going to be. It means describing things so I know what I’m looking at. It means doing all the things that a published author should know how to do.
Maybe I’m being too critical. Maybe Sanderson isn’t comfortable with first person narration yet. Maybe his schedule is too packed full of writing so many projects he doesn’t have the time to focus on cleaning up his writing style, or tweaking little things in something as small as a YA fantasy. Unfortunately, that’s kind of his job.
Of all the Brandon Sanderson books I’ve read, this is my least favorite. The last three Sanderson books I’ve read have let me down, specifically in the writing style category. It might be time for a vacation from this frenetic writing lifestyle— time to get away from the fans’ demands and truly examine his craft of writing. I’d rather wait years for an amazing book (which I know he can write) than read five sub-par books published months apart.