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Review

 

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
4.5
Book Name: Words of Radiance
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Release Date: March 4, 2014

This review contains spoilers for The Way of Kings. Read with caution if you have yet to finish the first book.

It was a struggle to try and fit everything I wanted into this review. Even in two parts. There’s so much more I want to talk about, but, I am told, word limits exist for a reason. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to a little of the experience of reading Words of Radiance.

At 1080 pages there’s no doubt Words is epic in length (there are 89 chapters, not including the Prologue, Epilogue and 4 Interludes). Like most epic fantasies, the book opens with a map of the world, Roshar, in which the Stormlight Archive is set. (It also ends with a glossary termed an Ars Arcanum, no doubt to call attention to the scholarly work and principle at the heart of the supposed retelling–see also the extracts that open chapters.) Beyond the map, each chapter is fronted with a character’s emblem, to let you know whose perspective you’re in (roughly), and beyond that, the novel is filled with actual illustrations of things, from Shallan’s sketches of strange flora and fauna, to fashion sketches of other peoples in other places, which enrich the work.

The thing that truly makes the experience a great one, though, and contributes to its feeling of “epic-ness” is the worldbuilding.

I was thrown for a while in The Way of Kings by the complexity and strangeness of Roshar. It took a little time to get used to, appreciate and then really enjoy its wonderful and well-thought-out weird. But I honestly think it is one of the greatest fantastical settings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve come to love the simple things, really, that make you feel you’re in a completely different universe; the way the grass, trees and shelled creatures, for example, retreat into the ground at the slightest hint of danger, having evolved the protective mechanism to survive the frequent and ferocious highstorms that sweep the world. Touches like this are what makes the world come alive. Need I mention spren, Stormlight, Knights Radiant, Shardblades, Heralds, Desolations, Voidbringers?

Another facet of the story that makes the experience great one is the characters. Imagine the smile on my face then, when I found the story opened with the perspective of Jasnah.

Now, before you read a paragraph further, if you haven’t read it, go read The Way of Kings. No, really. Go read it now. There be TWoK spoilers ahead.

The prologue opens with Jasnah Kholin, Princess of Alethkar, scholar, soulcaster, surgebinder, heretic, and daughter of the assassinated King Gavilar…Need I say more? TWoK showed us the mystery that was this enigmatic, oh-so-bright woman (through the eyes of Shallan), and left us with so many questions. Here, as we flashback six years to the night her father King Gavilar was assassinated (a handy way to reorient the readers and situate those who have not read TWoK into the story), many of those questions are answered. Believe me, this first scene is awesome, there’s so much going on that furthers the story, and this slightly less sure Jasnah, with some of the mystery removed as her wants and motivations are revealed, is a pleasure to inhabit. She is humanized, which is important for the events that follow.

The story proper opens in present day with Shallan on a ship with Jasnah going to the Shattered plains. I loved the way Shallan is apprenticing in scholarship–the way women have a place outside of traditional roles of court and home in this pseudo-European feudal society, in general; but the fact that they’re scholars and thinkers, the brains behind their society, complimenting the men’s brawn, is another worldbuilding quirk I enjoy (not to mention the “safe hands” that seem an acknowledgement of this). I also love Shallan’s wit and her smarts, her simple curiosity, her love of drawing and the fact that she has a kind of photographic memory.

She really takes the stage, here, finally getting her own spren and figuring out through experimentation and observation (she is a scholar’s apprentice after all) not only what her powers are (soulcasting and others) and their uses and limits, but also, through Jasnah’s teaching, the types of power, types of surgebinders/Radiants that can exist. And the revelations are awesome. Truly.

Revelations in general come thick and fast, on a diverse range of topics, the most notable being not everyone is as ignorant of the Knights Radiant and the coming Desolation as we were first led to believe. The mysterious Ghostbloods, would-be assassins of Jasnah in TWoK, and the ever present threat to Shallan’s family, seem to know more than most. And they’re not the only ones working towards goals whose ends are shrouded in mystery. Also, and perhaps most satisfying, is that we finally get a little insight into what Gavillar was up to and why the Parshendi had him assassinated, starting the story in the first place.

Kaladin is still a huge force, though this is Shallan’s book (something I’ll speak on later), and I enjoyed his arc, the way he’s having difficulty not only gaining his footing in the new situation in which he finds himself after the events in TWoK, but also his increasing difficulty accepting the artificial social division between light- and dark-eyes and the injustices that occur because of it.

Kaladin’s journey is a difficult and complex, often dour but also an enjoyable one. Thanks, in large part to Syl, wonderful Syl (I love his relationship with her: she’s a huge part of the magic of his perspective), and the great cast of characters he’s surrounded by. They often lighten the mood through humour, even as they help him figure out his powers through trial and error and what he does best: training and fighting.

Humour suffuses Words and often comes as a welcome change of tone. A lot actually comes from Kaladin’s end, lightening some of the brood, as he gets into a plethora of confrontations–with Adolin, amongst others. And there is this one incident with a horse…

Anyway, wherever it comes from, the humour is almost always welcome and often forms highpoints in the story. The same can be said of Wit (definitely one of my favourite characters), and whatever scene he’s in. One in particular I have to say is probably my favourite of the book if not the entire series so far, and no, it’s not a fight scene, just a particularly inspired and inspiring one with Kaladin: a story is told, music is played, magic is made. You’ll know when you get to it.

Anyway, all the while Kaladin is finding his footing with his powers, we know the Assassin in White, Szeth son son Vallano, the unstoppable assassin of rulers all over the world, is coming, his latest assignment by the devious Taravangian the assassination of Dalinar. And every step Kaladin takes towards the protection of the Alethi king-in-all-but-name puts him closer to a confrontation with the assassin and his fearsome powers which seem to afford him control over gravity itself. For those of you who have been waiting, praying to see what happens when two people with surgebinding powers clash–Ha! Let me just tell you: wow. It gets seriously awesome.

Dalinar plays less of a role than he did in TWoK, though still a hugely important one, and the more he reveals of his plans, the more it becomes clear we cannot lose him. His focus is on the macro–unification–but on one hand lies the problem of the Parshendi, and on the other, the highprinces, particularly Sadeas, whose scheming, even after his epic betrayal of Dalinar and Adolin in TWoK, is far from over.

Sadeas is Adolin’s greatest concern, however, particularly as Dalinar’s plan to bring the highprinces to heel involves removing the shackles from Adolin’s duelling arm. This allows Adolin to do what he seems to love most, what he was born to do: duel–and do it for Shards. Trust me, Adolin is pushed until he steps into his own and his awesome is revealed.

A duel scene in particular comes to mind that I have to say is probably one of the best I’ve ever read. Sanderson keeps upping the stakes and tempo until you’re almost breathless and too excited to keep your gleeful outbursts to yourself. So many things come out of left-field and pile one atop the other to build a truly remarkable fight scene. Believe me. Again. Wow.

Now, I’ve mentioned many brilliant things above, but perhaps the most brilliant, at least I felt, in the entire book, was the perspective of Eshonai, the Parshendi Shardbearer Dalinar was lucky to escape from at the climax of TWoK.

When I read TWoK, I was a little disappointed with the portrayal of the Parshmen/Parshendi, seeing them in part (particularly because of the lack of clearly black characters in the main) as analogues to the old stereotype of black people: slaves, dull of mind, less than human, if strong and obedient and easily led/savage others. However, WoR went some way to dispelling such notions as the Parshendi are given a story, an arc, a role all their own, that in a way rivals the centrality of the role Sanderson gives women despite the faux-European feudal society of the setting.

Eshonai’s was one of the most surprising and important perspectives in the entire book, and through it, we are not only led to like her, but (very importantly) to sympathize with the Parshendi: the way they have nearly been wiped out by the Alethi, the way they are being forced to change, to find a new way, despite the dangers that are inherent within.

They become no longer incomprehensible others, nor easy to dismiss as latent monsters (if Shallan and Jasnah are correct) or disposable villains, but relatable, human-like people with their own wants and desires and way of life.

Indeed, through Eshonai’s eyes, I kind of fell in love with the Parshendi and the whole system of their being. The way they express emotion through attuning themselves to certain rhythms, the way they structure themselves into social roles, the way they interact with spren and the world around them. There are many great revelations here, and I don’t want to spoil them, so I’ll say only this: the insight we are given into the Parshendi is profound, eye-opening and, yes, again, awesome.

So far so good. In Part Two, I’ll talk a little about the things I didn’t like. Don’t worry. The list isn’t long.

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