Words of Radiance

I wanted so much to love Words of Radiance; I wanted it to be the rebirth of classic epic fantasy that we’d all been waiting for (i.e., non-grimdark), a doorstopper tome that not only justified its size and its existence but that reawakened a passion in me lit by the likes of Tolkien and Tad Williams and early Robert Jordan.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  Maybe I’m simply at a different place in my life.  But as much as I liked the novel, the second installment in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I found that I could not love it.  Not unconditionally; not the way I love some others.

It’s hard to write about Brandon Sanderson without writing about epic fantasy as a genre, as he has taken Robert Jordan’s place at its forefront: his are the novels that fans wait for, the ones that hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, the ones that form the backbone of the genre.  If there’s a fantasy mainstream, Brandon Sanderson is it.  Bestsellers of this type are rarely examples of the literary avant garde–especially when it comes to epic fantasy–but the older I get, the less patience I have with bloated series that prioritize world-building over character and story.

Words of Radiance is an exercise in excess, even more than its predecessor, The Way of Kings, and its overwhelmingly positive reception is a perfect example of the growing tendency (among fantasy book bloggers, mostly) to excuse bloated, clumsy story-telling simply because epic fantasy is supposed to be that way.  Is there an argument to be made that you shouldn’t complain about epic fantasy being too long, because epic fantasy has always been too long?  That complaining about length in a ten-book series of thousand-page novels is silly?  Yes.  But that argument ultimately ignores the fact that we have accepted this gluttonous, kitchen-sink version of epic fantasy more due to a lack of other options than because it’s what we really want.

Which is not to say that there aren’t people who want what Sanderson’s dishing out: The Stormlight Archive is fantasy that rewards the true nerd, the one who reads the wikis and follows the rumors and has theories on every possible unresolved plot point.  Much like The Wheel of Time before it, The Stormlight Archive presents world-building so complex that only the most die-hard fan is truly rewarded, the one willing to reread it until things make sense, the one willing to comb through forum posts until each and every secondary and tertiary character is analyzed and discussed, every artifact catalogued, every magic system codified and cross-referenced.  Simply put, you need a Ph.D in Sanderson to truly understand Sanderson.

It’s not just that this is a big, long series; Mr. Sanderson has spent most of his professional career linking all of his adult fiction together into the overarching world of the Cosmere, the universe in which all of his books take place.  And it’s here that we really see the complexity of The Stormlight Archive, as much of the content references or at least relates to other characters and other books.  This series is to be something of a keystone for the Cosmere, and more so than any of the series that preceded it, it requires a working knowledge of Sanderson’s larger oeuvre. Can you read The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance without having read any of Sanderson’s other novels?  Sure.  But a lot of it won’t make sense to you.  The world of Roshar is vast and complicated enough to be overwhelming to those who have read the other, connected series; Sanderson neophytes have little hope of understanding the deeper, central conflicts that the books often refer to.  Some of the interludes and all of the chapter epigraphs will be almost nonsensical, and arguably the main antagonists of these two books are quite vague and poorly defined in the absence of external knowledge.  I’d imagine the experience would be similar to watching the film adaptations of The Hobbit without having read either The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit itself, or seen the Peter Jackson Rings movies.  You could enjoy the story, enjoy the action, but the foreshadowing and allusion and most importantly the central meaning of it all would be a bit over your head.

Despite these complaints, I did enjoy many parts of this book.  The world-building is creative and self-indulgent in a way that only an experienced reader of epic fantasy could appreciate, the action is gripping, and the climax is exciting. The pacing, however, needed a lot of work.  It’s almost a cliche to say this at this point, but boy, did this book need some cutthroat editing.  The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance might have a great fantasy story inside them, but in order to get at it you’d have to combine them into one novel and cut around two-thirds of the word count like Friday afternoon math class.

A big part of the problem is geographic: the characters are all still in exactly the same place as they were in the first thousand-page novel of this series.  There’s very little physical progression.  Instead we get a lot of will-he or won’t-he waffling as Kaladin, one of three main viewpoint characters in this book, struggles with a destiny that was obvious on page one of book one, and chapters of self-indulgent, meandering thinking from Shallan.  Both are bad habits he seems to have picked up from Robert Jordan: a lot of the supposed dramatic tension in these books is very reminiscent of that of Mr. Jordan’s later Wheel of Time novels.  Otherwise serviceable plot and character arcs–such as a hero struggling with his destiny, or a character investigating a lost, ancient secret–are treated as far more mysterious than they actually are and drawn out to the point of absurdity. Remember Rand al’Thor’s internal struggle about whether he should be “hard” or try to find some humanity and laugh again?  Remember how drawn out that was, how endless and stupid it became?  This isn’t quite that bad, but it’s in the ballpark.

In the same way, Sanderson’s Kaladin takes so long to become the Knight Radiant that he obviously is (around two thousand pages and roughly 800,000 words, by my count), that the pay-off, however gripping and dramatic, was always destined to be anticlimactic.  Words of Radiance and its predecessor are essentially two thousand pages of getting a few characters into a position where they have some idea of who their enemy is and what their capabilities are. Shallan Davar, on the other hand, is essentially a lens character, one whose “investigation” in the lost city of Urithiru allows the author to infodump about the world and its backstory without it seeming like that’s what he’s doing–except when it does.

Shallan’s main purpose in The Stormlight Archive so far seems to be that she has an idea of where this city is; to that end, we are treated to hundreds of pages of Shallan bathing, and talking to her familiar-like spren, Pattern; Shallan drawing, and talking to Pattern; Shallan thinking, and talking to Pattern; and Shallan ordering people around, and talking to Pattern.  Occasionally, she gets to be precocious and do something like get trapped in a chasm or active an ancient device. Her backstory, which takes up the flashback chapters of this novel (another indulgence that only adds to the word count), is another example of drawn out scenery-chewing that William Shatner would envy.  For two books now we’ve been reading about the shocking, mysterious event that occurred behind closed doors in Shallan’s family home, the one that resulted in her desperate situation in the first book.  In Words of Radiance, you find out what it is.  Be prepared to meh. And that’s just this book.  There’s eight more of these, guys.

There are some things to love about Words of Radiance: timeless moral struggles, brave knights, honor, gripping duels, indulgent magic, conversations with gods, an admittedly thrilling last act.  But they don’t make up for the novel’s flaws. And that, unfortunately, is how I’ll continue to think of this book and this series, until and unless things get a lot more interesting from here on in: as an epic fantasy great in concept, but flawed in execution, one that could have been truly legendary but for its tendency to drown in its own excess. It kills me to say that, because I think ten years ago my opinion might have been different.  But that was before I was a writer myself. I know I’m in the minority here, both from the book’s sales and from having talked to people who have read and loved it.

The whole process of reading it and thinking about it have made me think a lot about my own relationship with fantasy.  Have I gotten too old, too jaded, too snobbish for mainstream fantasy?  Would I think some of these same things about my favorite epic fantasies if I read them for the first time at this age–if I were divorced from the warm glow of nostalgia that comes from re-reading them?  I don’t know.  I hope not. To those for whom The Stormlight Archive is that life-changing favorite book, my sincerest apologies.  But it doesn’t matter what I think.  All that matters, when it comes to fantasy, is that sense of wonder, that sense of awe.  I felt glimpses of it in Words of Radiance, and because of that I intend to read the rest of the series.  I hope it will shine through brighter there.  If you’re already seeing it, don’t let me stop you.  Shine on.

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