Escalating Expectations, the Right Way – A Review of Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

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One of the most difficult things a writer writing a series of novels has to do is to make sure that the succeeding books in the series either meet, or exceed, the expectations set by the previous books in the series. From the reader’s perspective, this should come easily enough to the writer, who ought to know where the series begins and ends and how to get from Point A to Point Z, but that’s not always the case. A lot of series suffer from “middle book syndrome”: the tendency for the middle book in a trilogy to be weaker than either the first or the third book. Since writers are writing longer and longer series, though, it’s becoming clear that any book in a series can suffer from middle book syndrome, whether it’s the fourth or the fifth and so forth. Sometimes it can last for more than one book.

This isn’t to say that middle book syndrome is an absolutely terrible thing; it’s just something that one, as a reader, has to deal with and accept if one is reading a series. Some writers manage it better than others – a handful of my favourites seem to roll with it just fine, without really sacrificing overall quality.

But then there are the few – the very, very few, it sometimes seems – who seem capable of avoiding it altogether. One of those is Ursula Le Guin, whose Earthsea Quartet does not seem to suffer from the above issue, slow and gradual and achingly beautiful though the development is. Another is Lev Grossman: in no way does the The Magician King the second book in his Magicians series, feel like anything “less” than what he accomplished in the first book, The Magicians.

And then there’s Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn Trilogy had books that went from strength to strength, concluding in the massive fireworks of the third book, Mistborn: The Hero of Ages. Since that introduction to his work I’ve come to the conclusion that Sanderson doesn’t do “small-scale” very well, since the other one-shot of his that I’ve read, Warbreaker, felt too large for its boundaries (which he’s chosen to rectify by writing a sequel).

So what would happen if Sanderson was given, say, the space of ten books in which to tell a story? After all, that’s the projected number of books for what I believe is his magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive. The first book, The Way of Kings, was an amazing read, if slow – but that’s forgivable, when one has a story that will take ten entire books to tell. But would Sanderson be able to hold the amazing energy he’s launched in that novel all the way down to the last novel? Would he be able to avoid middle book syndrome completely?

Words of Radiance, the second book in The Stormlight Archive, is still too early in the series to show for sure if that’s the case, but it does indicate some very, very promising things about the series further down the line.

The novel picks up almost immediately where The Way of Kings left off, following the assorted point-of-view characters as their lives continue after what happened in the first novel. Kaladin is now a captain of the Cobalt Guard, bodyguards for Dalinar Kholin and his sons, Adolin and Renarin. Meanwhile, Dalinar has triumphed in being made Highprince of War, and is now preparing to face his visions and make them into reality. In the meantime, Shallan is making her way to the Shattered Plains with her mentor, Jasnah Kholin, all the while trying to learn about her abilities so she can help Jasnah in the latter’s quest to find the city of Urithiru, and to find a way to stall the coming storm.

But that relative peace doesn’t last. Kaladin finds himself constantly mired in the past, which brings him into conflict with his spren companion, Syl. Shallan, in the meantime, is forced to make her own way to the Shattered Plains after a terrible event occurs, and along the way pieces together the past she’s forced herself to forget. As for Dalinar Kholin and his sons, uniting the Alethi highprinces is far more difficult than they could have imagined, especially since Highprince Sadeas is actively working against them.

Like The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance is a long read. However, unlike The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance moves at a far faster clip – or at least, it felt that way to me. I attribute this to the fact that there’s more action and less setup in this novel, though there’s still plenty of setup going on. It just feels like that setup is occurring more as an integral part of the plot, helping it move along instead of existing in order to help the reader settle into the world.

In a way, I feel like The Way of Kings is a very large, book-length prologue, a way of introducing the reader to the world of Roshar and the characters they will be following for the rest of the series. Words of Radiance, then, is the “true” start of The Stormlight Archive, in that the conflict hinted at in The Way of Kings is well and truly ignited in Words of Radiance.

Which then begs the question: was The Way of Kings necessary? To that I say: yes, very much so. While it’s true that the larger plot points only really get moving in Words of Radiance, the only reason why Words of Radiance is such an engaging read, the only reason why it moves as quickly as it does, is because of the setup accomplished in The Way of Kings – not so much in terms of plot, but in terms of the characters.

One of the most wonderful things about Sanderson’s books is that he’s capable of making the reader fall completely in love (or completely in hate) with his characters. The way he writes about them – indeed, the way he writes his stories as a whole – is built around understanding those characters and seeing how their motivations and aspirations affect what’s going on around them. There is an interesting give-and-take between Sanderson’s characters and his plot, with one shaping the other. This is something only a handful of writers, whether genre or otherwise, are capable of accomplishing, and Sanderson’s one of them. And that means the reader has to really, truly understand the characters if they are to appreciate what’s going on in the plot.

In the case of The Stormlight Archive, The Way of Kings is, primarily, Kaladin and Dalinar’s book. It is Kaladin’s origin story, from soldier to slave to bridgeman, that are prominently featured in that novel, and the only way one can understand why Kaladin does what he does in Words of Radiance is to know what’s happened to him, in all its heartbreaking glory. The same applies to Dalinar: the old warhound with the god-given mission, trying to find a way to accomplish that mission according to rules that turn out to be not rules at all, but more like guidelines. It would be impossible to truly appreciate what happens to them in Words of Radiance if one isn’t aware of what happens in The Way of Kings – even if, in terms of plot, Words of Radiance does more than The Way of Kings.

If The Way of Kings is Kaladin and Dalinar’s book, Words of Radiance is very much Shallan’s. The other characters get developed, but Shallan’s origins are only explored in Words of Radiance – but why explore it in Words of Radiance, not The Way of Kings? Because Shallan’s story is only pertinent to the plot in Words of Radiance, helping to move it along while simultaneously developing her character. It is Shallan’s story that shows how closely Sanderson links his characterisation and his plot – which is, in my opinion, only as it should be.

And speaking of characters, one of the fun things about reading Sanderson’s books is that he’s always introducing new ones in every new book, even in a series, and he doesn’t disappoint in Words of Radiance. One of the most important characters introduced is Eshonai, the Parshendi Shardbearer whom Dalinar encountered in the climactic battle of the last novel. Through her, Sanderson develops one of the most intriguing – and plot points – of the entire series: the Voidbringers. Through Eshonai, and through her, the exploration of the Parshendi perspective, the reader comes to understand (and to a degree, sympathise with) not just Eshonai herself, but also her people – while at the same time, Sanderson builds the plot for further down the line in the series.

In terms of plot development, Words of Radiance is a big leap forward. The Voidbringers actually make an appearance in this novel, and the Knights Radiant actually begin appearing. Kaladin is one, as was made quite obvious in The Way of Kings, but a handful of other characters turn out to be Knights Radiant too. Certain characters are put out of the way, some temporarily, others for good (which may please some readers immensely). The main thing to remember is that this is a beginning, and from this point onwards, nothing is going to be easy.

Overall, Words of Radiance is a worthy sequel to The Way of Kings – more than that, I think it exceeds the first book in all possible expectations. It is, in many important ways, the true beginning of The Stormlight Archive, and what happens in this novel lays down the groundwork for what promises to be the primary conflicts in the novels further down the line. The characters, both old and new, are all beautifully developed, and what they do and how they react to what happens to them has important consequences for the plot itself – a hallmark of Sanderson’s writing, and one which is shown to full effect in this novel (especially with Shallan).

Whatever Sanderson might have planned, though, it will be big, and grand, and will most certainly end explosively. I expect nothing less – and I’m certain Sanderson will live up to those expectations.

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