The hardest part of sitting down to review Words of Radiance, this massive tome Sanderson gifted the world, is figuring out just where my thoughts end and other’s have seeped in. As the Wheel of Time for this generation (beloved by many, panned by a few, but certainly known by all), it is almost impossible to go in with a completely blank slate. Ultimately I realized the futility of it and will instead freely admit that while all the thoughts here are my own some of them were certainly influenced, crafted, or put into better words by others before me.
I start with a confession. I was not overly excited to read this book. I gave The Way of Kings a three star rating and as I look back that still feels right. It was good enough to consider reading more but nowhere close to where the hype suggested it should be. I was put off almost immediately in that outing; an early scene showed what should have been an exciting assassination attempt completely thrown off of any kind of flow as the author inserted complex explanations of his magic system. So I put off Words of Radiance for a long time. And then, when I finally picked it up? I put it back down not once but twice for other books.
But I have finally finished and surprisingly despite putting down this monster twice I am not going to pan it. Don’t get me wrong, high praise is not forthcoming, but ultimately I finished this book with many of the same feelings as I had for the first. That is that it is good enough that I will most likely continue to the next one, but still consider a good portion of the fantasy fandom nuts in their exultation of this series.
The Stormlight Archive is certainly an original world. A land of magical storms, unique flora and fauna, and of course, that special magic system. Even the war that has sat at the forefront for two books feels different; with food almost inexhaustible due to the creation magic employed the fight over crystalist feels even more petty than the usual noble games. Everything is thought of it seems. There are language barriers between people (and the communication songs of the Parshendi are actually pretty awesome), and customs that affect everything from dress to education. And while it contains a man’s rise to power from the lowest of the low and includes truly epic stakes it is quite obviously NOT your typical farmboy, faux-European fantasy.
So why does it feel so damn familiar? Again I wish I could credit whoever I first saw pose this question but it is just so valid. New customs, same game. A highly patriarchal society but with a few habits that don’t quite fit. For while there are various women who show real power (and you can’t say the narrative is lacking in strong characters of either gender) so many of the roles feel forced. I still can’t fathom while a patriarchal society with a major power obsession would allow the flow of information to be taken completely out of their hands. It defies reason and tradition doesn’t hinder more serious crimes (murder, betrayal) yet only one character in this book seems to have broken this taboo. It all feels like the book wants to have its cake but also eat it.
We still get a fight against a mysterious ‘other,’ this time with the Parshendi playing the role of a more relatable orc. Through two books through the light eyed humans are strongly playing the role of savior to the world. Likewise we still have a feudalistic society at the core with rich slave owners funding the knight-classes, and the idea that the right king in his place is better than the chaos of no king brokering no arguments at all. Minor spoiler, the changing eye color of one character even suggests that this whole system doesn’t just stem from tradition, it very well could be right and just. And just where the hell do the horses fit in anyway? I hundred new and exciting animals in this world and the mounts are still horses? Maybe Hoid brought them in from another land or something.
“I have no idea what to make of you.” Adolin regarded her. “You’re not like anyone I’ve met.”
“It’s my air of feminine mystique.”
The overly familiar setting may seem like a complaint, but in reality it was just a rambling observation. No the reason I kept putting Words of Radiance down is because of the characters and their conversations. Pages upon pages of conversations that to were the book’s weakest link. Dialog doesn’t flow, jokes are forced, and it often feels like a high school drama production. Shallan, who otherwise was probably my favorite character, is especially egregious with her constant banter. I rarely found her funny. And I know not everyone feels this way but puns made in English often take me right out of fantasy land and place me back on earth. Especially when the character then takes even more time to explain the pun to others.
Enough with the negative, there was a lot to this book I liked. Despite occasionally feeling that I should be figuring out the finger placement on a controller when it is explained I do enjoy the so called magic system. I thought the Truthless assassin was one of the best parts of book one and enjoyed his almost absurd power again here. The slow revelation of what is coming, both from the ever changing enemy and in Dalinar’s search to re-found the knights was handled superbly. Never was I bored by the story that was being unveiled, only at times by the delivery. Shallan’s back chapters were especially enjoyable to me, and had a twist I missed coming.
Sanderson’s characters are easy to root for. Their motivations usually feel real, even when they defy logic. I now some had issues with Kalidin’s brooding throughout this book but I never thought it out of place; this is a man who has incredible expectations of himself that no one could possibly live up to. When they were not engaged in banter I enjoyed the way Shallan and Adolin’s relationship grew. Shallan proves to be one of the smartest characters in the book and her path was the most fun to follow.
Lucky for me it feels like I am the last person to read this book. I therefore don’t have to worry about people asking me whether or not I recommend it. But if I were asked I would simply turn the question around. Did you enjoy The Way of Kings? Then be ready for more of the same. Sanderson is nothing if not consistent.