Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in Brandon's Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series. While projected as a ten-book series, it is already very strong and has a healthy community of speculation as readers try to decipher secrets and hints as to what may come next. Fortunately, Sanderson has shown his skill at writing quickly and efficiently so we have not had to wait too long between installments of his series. Hence, I highly recommend people give this series a try.

Read on for the full review, spoiler free (at least for book 2).

Overall Impression
Brandon Sanderson has achieved another epic masterpiece with Words of Radiance. The 2nd book of The Stormlight Archive series is thoroughly enjoyable. You do need to have read the prior book to understand what's going on, but it is totally worth it. I'm actually surprised I haven't reviewed The Way of Kings here; it's one of the few books I've read where right after finishing I have wanted to start all over again. Words of Radiance continues where it left off with some of the same strong characters, plot, and magical settings.

Plot
The book starts of a little bit slow, but maybe that's just in contrast to the prior book. In particular, this book starts just after the events of The Way of Kings and so I expected some of the momentum from the finale to continue, when it actually doesn't. Nevertheless, the pacing quickly speeds up until you are left gasping for breath. The book is divided into 5 parts and the end of each part is a powerful conclusion that only gets better and better for each subsequent part. While the chapters are short and mostly make natural breaks, the endings of the parts leave you wishing for more. This is a very hard book to put down. As if that weren't enough, between parts there is a short interlude with what are effectively short stories of other characters in the series. After the hectic finales of most parts, they are a way to cool down while also revealing more of the world. Very interesting are the ones revolving around Eshonai.

In addition to the main plot that advances the story line, we also get plenty of flashbacks. In this book, these are all about Shallan. These help us see her past and what she went through to become the woman she is now. I feel, however, that the Kaladin flashbacks in the first book where handled a little bit better, but that could be since there is a little more action regarding Kaladin than Shallan in general.

Characters
While there are plenty of characters in The Stormlight Archive series, there are not yet that many that one is overwhelmed. Given Sanderson's style, we may be spared a huge cast as well, which is fortunate. The characters are brilliantly portrayed, in my opinion. Sanderson's characters tend to skew towards the clever and witty and this is no exception, though he also has a handful of dark, mysterious, or plain evil characters as well. The best part, though, is the interactions between characters and the frequent witty banter between some of them. Here's an example of just one of those scenes:
“I think hanging people is a poor choice of professions for an executioner. Better to be the guy with an axe.” 
He frowned at her. 
“You see,” she said, “with the axe, it’s easier to get ahead.  .  .  .” 
He stared. Then, after a moment, he winced. “Oh, storms. That was awful.” 
“No, it was funny. You seem to get those two mixed up a lot. Don’t worry. I’m here to help.”
(yes, I love puns!)

This book is mainly Shallan's book, though it feels like Kaladin grew almost as much, if not more than her. I don't see how much more can come from Kaladin, but I expect a lot more from Shallan in the coming books. Additionally, we have some cool moments with Dalinar (particularly the implications near the end), Adolin, and even Renarin and some of the former slaves of Bridge Four. Sanderson has really set the stage for an amazing cast of characters. Even the minor ones are cool; in particular, there is some interesting speculation out there about one minor character who may have also been in Warbreaker... (Sanderson has said most of his works take place in a single universe, the Cosmere, and that at some point in the future, the connections will be made clear. At the moment, it's not relevant to know this to enjoy any of his books, but it's fun to speculate and spot links in the stories.)

Setting / World Building
This book expands upon some of the ideas established in the first novel for the world of Roshar. We see a little more of Surgebinding, both from the characters in the main story and from some of the Interludes. This is the practice of binding forces or aspects of nature, such as gravity, pressure, friction, or light. Surgebinders form the core of the Knights Radiant, an ancient order that fought the evil Voidbringers in the distant past. The Voidbringers are coming again and so too are the Knights Radiant. There are ten orders of Radiants, each controlling two of the ten surges. We've seen some names of orders mentioned, like Windrunners, Lightweavers, Edgewalkers, etc. At the end, in the Ars Arcanum appendix, we see the listing of the ten surges and some useful, if brief, explanations. We also see a brief mention of "the ten levels of Voidbinding [and] its cousin the Old Magic" which suggests there is even more magic out there in Roshar.

We also learn a lot more about spren. These are the mysterious creatures that sometimes pop up in response to things in the world, such as feelings, like painspren, angerspren, but also others aspects, like rotsprent or windspren. The explanation behind the sprens feels a lot like Plato's Theory of Forms, so if you're familiar with that, you should have no trouble visualizing what they represent. That's something I learned in college, so it was fun to see it influencing Sanderson's work. Some of the cool things we learn about spren are their connections to the Surgebinders and Knights Radiants. Let's just say that some of the speculation out there was correct all along.

There are many fantastical creatures in both this book and The Way of Kings. Fortunately, the book has a ton of illustrations (part of the reason why it's so long!). I think some interesting secrets were hidden in the illustrations of the first book, so I'm sure something similar may be true in these. They are a bit hard to scrutinize from the small Kindle screen, but Sanderson has put all of them in HD quality (and in color, sometimes) on his website.

Final Thoughts
Brandon Sanderson has done it again: this is an amazing book! I sincerely hope that Sanderson dedicates more of his time to growing these series. I wouldn't mind a longer wait for the second Mistborn trilogy if we get more Stormlight books! It seems like Sanderson is now working on Firefight, the sequel to Steelheart, which was another good book. Sanderson has certainly earned his way into my list of favorite authors.

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