Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson has become the obvious heir to epic fantasy of this generation. Sure,
there are plenty of great authors writing in the epic genre, and many more
picking at or blending the edges, but when it comes to pure epic fantasy,
Brandon Sanderson is King and in no danger of being usurped anytime soon. The
focus of this effort is The Stormlight
Archive, a projected 10-book series. Words
of Radiance is the second book in this series, following The Way of Kings.
called Brandon Sanderson the King of epic fantasy, I very much believe he
deserves the honor and has earned it through work and dedication to the craft
and just a bit of luck and goodwill along the way. King Sanderson* has
benefited greatly from the unique opportunity to complete The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan’s tragic and untimely death.
His efforts to complete the final 3 books in the series based off writing
fragments in various states of completeness, rough outlines, dictated scenes,
thousands of pages of notes, and his own interpretation to bridge the gaps
provided him with a view into a nearly completed work of the immense scale
common to multi-book series of epic fantasy and the challenge of finishing the
series in a satisfying way. As a result, he gained a great understanding of the
consequences of choices made earlier in the series that become amplified in
later volumes. This in turn provided King Sanderson the chance to set his own
massive series up in a way to avoid such consequences (in theory), or to put in
a few other terms, avoid jumping the shark or becoming tangled in a Meereenese
Knot. Of course, it’s far too early to judge the ultimate success of this when King
Sanderson is only 2 books into his projected 10-book series, but initially I
think the signs are there showing that he could pull it off – particularly with
the way that Sanderson has chosen to juggle character points of view, keeping
it to a relatively bare few (just 2 or 3 per book), with brief interludes where
others can be thrown in to expand the breadth of the story at hand.
liberally used the term epic fantasy and I will continue to do so throughout
this review. This is because of the importance of acknowledging what this book
(and series) is, and therefore, what it is not. The Way of Kings is 1008 pages long in hardback (US). Words of Radiance is 1087 pages (US
hardback). These books are back-breakingly big and capable of propping open a
ten-ton vault, let alone stopping your door. In other words, they are big and
they are bloated. The pacing reflects this – not everything included is
strictly necessary (though this opinion of mine could vary greatly by one’s own
point of view) – with events playing slowly and deliberately. The primary
characters are explored in great depth, dwelled on in ways that are often mind-numbingly
blunt and repetitive. Brevity is not the soul of Wit in these books (though Wit
is the most interesting character, of which we see relatively little, though I
digress). These books are for people who want to dive in, staying immersed for
hours on end, and experience all possible aspects of the story. The eloquence
of word count plays out in the epic way of King Sanderson and fans will flock
to rule. (OK, I’ll stop now with my attempts at radiant word play).
200+ word paragraph above basically boils down to knowing what you’re reading.
If you don’t like big, bloated epic fantasy of the likes of Steven Erikson,
Robert Jordan and George RR Martin, then don’t read these books. They are long
and could be edited down to a fraction of their end size, but that’s not the
point of epic fantasy – at least not this epic fantasy. Enjoy it for what it
is, or move on. Because complaining about the word count of book 2 in a
proposed 10-book series in a genre notorious for large page counts is just
silly. (But friendly mocking of that word count is encouraged, at least by me)
If you are
beginning to wonder about where I intend to talk about the plot or specific
characters, let me spell it out that I have no intention of doing so. There are
plenty of other places that do a wonderful job of that, and I have plenty to
talk about in my thoughts on this book without ever going there. Basically,
with Words of Radiance being a book
within a series that isn’t the first book, I think that those discussions are
largely pointless in a review like this – or at least I have no interest in
them. I prefer to talk in bigger picture terms on whether or not I think it
works or not.
mentioned three other epic fantasy authors: Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, and
George RR Martin. These three were chosen with intent as I think that there are
similarities to be had with each. Robert Jordan is obvious and clear in his in
influence and Sanderson has talked in detail about it in many places as he
completed Jordan’s series. George RR Martin may seem like me just pulling out a
popular name with little more than surficial similarity for extra SEO. However,
I do see some similarities and influence through how points of view are
utilized and how, ‘petty’ human struggles dominate early in the series, with
the ‘true evil’ or ‘big bad’ only becoming a bigger focus as things progress.
comparison to Steven Erikson is a bit more nuanced, and perhaps, more worthy of
discussion. In my opinion, Erikson is the first author to truly pull off what
could be considered a post-modern epic fantasy (in many ways the term
‘post-modern epic fantasy’ is a complete oxymoron). In the past Sanderson has been lambasted for calling his Mistborn
series post-modern. And while he did backtrack a bit on that, I still think that
King Sanderson really believes in the idea of him being a post-modern epic
fantasy author. Honestly, I can see where that comes from – King Sanderson’s
epic fantasy is an answer to what has come before, and there is a bit of
commentary built into it. In The Way of
Kings and Words of Radiance, look
no further than Wit (or Hoid of you prefer). Now do I think that The Stormlight Archive will ever rival Malazan in a postmodern view of fantasy
– NO. But I do think it’s an interesting perspective to view this series through.
The Way of Kings was released in 2010 and with 4 years between releases, people
may be struggling with the idea of whether or not they should re-read the 1000+
page first book in the series before moving on to the even bigger second book.
I did not re-read and I did not look up any of the many summaries available
online. I wanted to see how Words of
Radiance held up given the time gap (plus I don’t have that sort of time
these days). In general, I don’t feel that I was held back by my choice not to
re-read, however there are of course caveats to this. I’ll start with the good –
with The Way of Kings being a
standard intro book and Words of Radiance
being something of continuation and transitional book, it’s pretty easy to
catch up on what’s important to know. But, one of the most popular aspects of
this series does make it difficult to not be up-to-date with a full
understanding of people and events – this series is huge and is meant to be
huge. It is meant to be full of mysterious details and open-ended ideas that
encourage ‘theory-craft’ to develop. King Sanderson absolutely wants his fans
pouring over minute details to see what they may say about events to come and
events that have already happened. And this does put the casual fan at a disadvantage.
So far, King Sanderson balances things well enough to satisfy both, but he runs
the risk of tipping one way or another as the series continues, and I doubt
that potential tipping will favor the more casual fan.
me to The Cosmere. King Sanderson is
nothing if not ambitious, and from the start of his professional career he has
developed an epic within the epics where most of the books he writes all take
place in the same universe and all relate to each other in one way or another
and an ultimate confrontation that is occurring. A single character known most
often as Hoid (Wit in The Stormlight
Archives) is present to one extent or another in each of these books. Up
until now, this epic within the epics has been subtle and in the background,
with only dedicated fans having much of a clue of what was going on. In Words of Radiance, it becomes clear that
this series will become a central component of The Cosmere, and that the whole concept will grow and become much
more important. This is another blow to the casual fan as only dedicated fans
who read and digest all of books in The
Cosmere will be able to fully enjoy and appreciate King Sanderson’s edicts.
Or, from another point of view, this is a huge boon to King Sanderson’s fans as
they get enjoy the epic within the epics as he brings something truly new to
the genre. I suppose it’s time to throw Michael Moorcock into the mixing bowl
of what has come before.
So, all you
dedicated readers who have made it this far into the review may be wondering
whether or not I liked the book and what I actually thought of – this is a very
valid point to make considering I’ve rambled on for over 1600 words at this
point and still haven’t really discussed this yet.
Yes, I liked
the book – quite a bit actually. King Sanderson continues to improve as an
author and I think this is one of his strongest efforts yet. Even though the
book is so long, the pacing is remarkably consistent throughout and the writing
is engaging enough to keep the reader (at least this reader) interested and
entertained even while events progress at a measured pace. I believe that The Stormlight Archive is on pace to
become the defining epic fantasy series of a generation and I will be along for
the ride. Fans of epic fantasy and King Sanderson are getting more of what they
crave with Words of Radiance – and likewise,
those who aren’t fans of epic fantasy and/or King Sanderson should probably
pass this one by.
So, all hail
King Sanderson, overlord and archivist of The
Cosmere…he’s earned it. But…
soul has brevity not.
works just fine for King Sanderson.
*I refer to
Brandon Sanderson as King Sanderson throughout the review. I do not do this to
mock Brandon, as I have the upmost respect for what he does and my personal
interactions with him have always been wonderful. I do so partially to
reinforce my point of him being at the top of epic fantasy at the moment, to
help keep my rambling review somewhat cohesive, and because it amuses me.