In 2011, Brandon Sanderson was the Guest of Honor at Vericon, a tiny convention run by my college speculative fiction club, and I picked up a copy of The Way of Kings in order to have something big and heavy for him to sign. That volume is addressed to me by my secondary title, “Betrayer of Hope,” (long story). When I bought it, I knew that it was the start of a saga of terrifyingly large scale, the first and only published volume of a projected ten-volume series, clocking in at over a thousand pages before plot inflation. I knew that reading it meant committing to what could be a decades-long reading project. I didn’t know that the Stormlight Archive would be a pivotal stepping-stone in my career. (This will be my 35th article about Brandon Sanderson on Tor.com, almost all of which were about the Stormlight Archive.) You could call that a bonus, I guess!
Now the second volume, Words of Radiance, is upon us, and I’ve been asked to provide the non-spoiler review. Here’s my conundrum. How do you review something that you’re already read 1.7 times before release, that you’ve coordinated a giant promotional campaign for, a task that involved mercilessly winnowing the text down to tiny teasing snippets? How do you review something that you know you’ll be re-reading and writing about constantly for years to come? I am deeply professionally and personally invested in this book, and the way I engage with it will be vastly different from the standard reading experience.
Thankfully, my first reaction is still stark and present in my mind. Words of Radiance was worth the wait.
The thing that’s always stood out most to me about The Way of Kings is the relative depth of Brandon Sanderson’s characterization. He’s structured the heck out of this series, arranging each volume around a spine of single-character flashbacks. As such, The Way of Kings taught us more about Kaladin than we’d ever known about any previous Sanderson character. This approach had significant trade-offs; That book is huge, it’s slow, and not very much happens in it. But I think Sanderson was pushing himself to think more about his characters, to know them deeply and build up characters who are as intricate and interesting as his often-praised worlds.
Shallan Davar, whose backstory we learn in Words of Radiance, was already my favorite main character in this series, and this is her book through-and-through. I know that many fans dislike Shallan, finding her childish or flippant, or perhaps just boring. And while I’m sure many might still dislike her once this book is finished, I doubt there will be many readers who don’t come to respect her. Her backstory is heartbreakingly poignant. Sanderson masterfully weaves her dialogue with her past throughout the narrative, bringing her conflicted self-image into stark relief. As I read through the book, the pressure of her backstory grew and grew. Even when it became clear what Sanderson was going to reveal, the anticipation was not relieved. I teetered on the edge, waiting for the book to come out and say the devastating facts that I knew were coming, waiting for her to admit the terrors of her past.
Even as we reel at Shallan’s past, she faces challenges from every direction in the present. Words of Radiance cranks up the level of intrigue to dizzying extremes, picking up all the plots from the end of The Way of Kings and introducing even more. Where Way of Kings portends, Words of Radiance delivers, resulting in a much faster pace. Brandon Sanderson has shored up the biggest weakness of the first book, showing once again that he can write page-turners with the best of them, even on a massive door-stopper scale.
The book still finds plenty of opportunities for levity, however. While Shallan’s wordplay hasn’t really gotten better, Sanderson’s situational humor is in fine form. The romance plot is well-conceived, light-hearted, and convincing, even if it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I’m sure people will be waging shipping wars over this series for years to come, and I look forwarding to captaining fine vessels in those conflicts. Sadly, my favorite comedy ship hasn’t gotten any canon love yet. Spoilers, I guess: Shallan x Syl isn’t really a thing yet.
The book isn’t without its flaws. First, some characters get a lot less attention. Dalinar in particular is a much less frequent viewpoint character, with Adolin taking up much of his page-time. Adolin has improved greatly between books, but it’s sad to see Dalinar stepping back from the action. This is made worse by the fact that much of the tension in Words of Radiance is derived by characters’ unwillingness to talk to each other. Even when justified by character prejudices, as is the case in this work, I hate this device. Kaladin spends almost the entire book being a paranoid jerk who won’t admit his fears or suspicions to anyone, and it just makes me want to shake him. I can’t help but feel that Sanderson could have provided less irritating motivations.
You can’t really review Sanderson without discussing his world-building. Words of Radiance capitalizes on the groundwork provided by The Way of Kings, building up the world and system while revealing many more potential points of speculation. As a theoretician of Roshar, reading this book provoked wild fluctuations between embarrassment and triumph, as my carefully crafted speculations were either validated or ripped to shreds. All the while, Sanderson proves how vibrant and fascinating Roshar is by showing more and more of the world outside the Vorin cultural monolith. Even within that monolith there is fascinating cultural variation. Truly, Roshar is a fully realized world.
For every cultural assumption, Sanderson has provided an opportunity for re-evaluation, questioning, dissent. He shows how the systems of this world developed, and where they’ve gone wrong. Alethi culture in its present form is sexist, classist, racist, and oppressive, and we are invested in its survival. But Sanderson has provided his characters with abundant grounds to question their cultural prejudices, and shaken the roots of the system enough to enable change. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that pay-off.
Words of Radiance is excellent, which was a tremendous relief to me. Love or hate this book, I was wedded to it long before I read it, and I’m fortunate to say that I continue to love it. So to you, lucky reader, who have the choice of whether or not to buy this book, I give this advice. Sanderson’s experiment is working, and he gets better with every book. The journey will be worth it. Yes, you should buy this book. Yes, this is a series worth following to the end. I’m so glad to be taking this journey, and I hope you will as well.
Carl Engle-Laird was Ishamael in a LARP, but doesn’t actually plan to betray your hopes. He is the editorial assistant for Tor.com, where he acquires and edits original fiction. You can follow him on Twitter here.