Tue
Feb 25 2014 10:00am

Worth the Wait: A Non-Spoiler Review of Words of Radiance

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.

 

Words of Radiance is available March 4th from Tor Books
Read excerpts from the novel in The Stormlight Archive here on Tor.com


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.

36 comments
John Hatteberg
1. Oronis
In the voice of Captain Kirk I scream, "CAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARL!"
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
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.
(headdesk.. thump) He learned too much from WoT!!!
So looking forward to this!
Eric Wyatt
4. SunDriedRainbow
@2 Braid_Tug

augh my exact reaction to that line

is it march fourth yet
John Hatteberg
5. Oronis
@2 Haha, I didn't *headdesk...thump* but I did let out an audible sigh.
John Hatteberg
6. Oronis
Shallan has GOT to be a voidbringer. How much do you want to bet?
Anastasia Burina
7. Radda
Every time I think I can't get more excited about this book tor proves me wrong. But...

But...

Characters not talking with each other. Damn!!! Nooo!

Oh, and Carl "picking up all the plots from the end of Words of Radiance and introducing even more" - I believe you've meant The Way of Kings here.
Katie Frey
8. TalithaSedai
Sounds like a fun LARP experience!

I am so excited to read about Shallan! I've actaully been taken by complete surprise hearing that some readers dislike her... she was whole heartedly my favorite character in Way of Kings. Based on the previews, I don't think this will change one bit. Sad to hear that Kaladin is a bit of a jerk in this book, although, again based on the previews, I don't find this too surprising.

One week to go!
CaRoss
9. CaRoss
It's awesome to hear that the book is quite good. I love The Way of Kings. However, it's disappointing to hear that Dalinar's not playing as large of a POV role in this book. He was my favourite character in the first book, so this is a bit of a disappointment.

It does make me wonder though... With how each of these books seems to have a backstory to guide it, I wonder if we'll ever get one focused on him? That would be pretty cool, even if I have to wait till a, much, later volume in the series.
Lauren Hartman
10. naupathia
I admittedly did hate Shallan at the start. And this being from a female perspective - mostly because, upon first read and introduction, she was the EXACT SAME CHARACTER as Vin, Sarene, Siri -- basically every female protagonist in every Sanderson book. I was getting a little tired of the "beautful (but doesn't know/admit it) and snarky" stereotype. Especially when the "jokes" they make just get a little tiresome.

And Shallan started out in that same vein. Too much of a smartass for her own good. Amazingly talented and special (verging on Mary Sue status) but self-concious despite all that, etc, etc.

But then at the end of the book, after you get hints of her backstory, she was starting to get a little better. And then I reread the books (several times) and I like her more each time. I think once I understood her motivations on the second+ read, I was able to see her actions less as the typical snarky and shallow character model and more as having actual purpose for being there. And she definitely backed off the Ledge of Mary Sue.

So yes I think Sanderson's writing has matured a lot, since I can like this character even though superficially she is the same as all the others.

Also, Jasnah. I heart Jasnah so much. For me definitely a Even the Girls Want Her .
Andrew Phillips
11. APTimes2
@9 CaRoss

I believe Sanderson has said every major character will have their own flash back book. I want to say Dalinar is like the fourth book or something like that. There was a rumor that is was actually supposed to be this one, but Sanderson changed his mind and made it Shallan's instead.

I think the reason I had a hard time with Shallan in the first book was because she took us away from the action on the shattered plains. Everything else (Dalinar, Kaladin) was focused there and I just wanted to continue that story. But, I have heard others say they like Shallan because it did give you another aspect of the world.
Carl Engle-Laird
12. CarlEngle-Laird
@7 Thanks for the catch.

@1 But I was trying to be nice this time though!
Kimani Rogers
13. KiManiak
Thanks for the review Carl. I'm definitely going to make the choice to purchase this (and every Stormlight Archive) book.

Like @2, @4 and @5, I also associated the "characters not talking to one another leading to unnecessary complications" with the WoT, and was slightly exasperated. Let's just see how this unfolds; it can't be anywhere near as bad as the Superkids from WoT, hopefully.

1 more week...
Tricia Irish
14. Tektonica
I'll be missing Dalinar and I'll be mad at Kaladin, but I do look forward to seeing Shallan fleshed out. I'd like to understand her better.

Braid_Tug@2: You have the right of that!!
Nick Hlavacek
15. Nick31
There was never any doubt in my mind over whether I'd buy this book. It's already got a spot waiting on the bookshelf. Thanks to this review I'm even more excited to get it and start reading. Can't wait to see what new discoveries about the Cosmere are hidden inside!
John Brown
16. Seerow
Agree the first thing I got out of that was Wheel of Time Flashbacks. But I'm also optimistic it won't gum up the works for as long as it did for Wheel of Time. (If we go through 9 more books before everyone finally comes and works together then I'll give up, but I can deal with a book or two of it no problem).

Also, I got goosebumps just reading Carl's description of Shallan's story. I am more than eager to pick up this book and get into it.
Jeremy Guebert
17. jeremyguebert
Not that I was ever going to not buy this book, but I'm just so excited for this. I hope the one day I booked off to read it will be enough, but I might end up being "sick" the following day ;)

Also, there's something mildly irritating about an article entitled "Worth the Wait" when it's written by someone who no longer has to. Just sayin'. Ah well, only one week to go. Seriously, though, Carl, I appreciate your insight, enthusiasm and involvement in the reread and various other Sanderson-related shenanigans.
CaRoss
18. Kenogu
@5 Why not a sniff? ;)
Katie Frey
19. TalithaSedai
I always felt like Shallan's interest in scholarship and the natural world really set her apart from the other characters Sanderson has written. Joel from the Rhitmatist comes the closest in my mind. Though I do see Shallan and Siri sharing traits being naiveness about the ways of world. That isn't enough for me to say that shes a carbon copy.... Well, if this backstory is all its built up to be (and I hope it is!), I'm sure everyone's opinion of her will be affected...
Jennifer B
20. JennB
Sounds good! Though I too have been overexposed to the characters not talking to each other plot device. It gets so tiresome. I hope Sanderson does not overuse it. He should know better from being a long time fan of WOT. Let's all hope.
Jonathan Zev
21. Sir_Read-a-Lot
Joining the club of "I hate characters who don't talk to each other." As Tom Lehrer said, "Speaking of love, one problem that recurs more and more frequently these days, in books and plays and movies, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love: husbands and wives who can't communicate, children who can't communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books and plays and so on, and in real life, I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can't communicate. I feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up."

Mistborn had a pretty big theme of trust, so I have some hope that Brandon won't drag it out too long. One can only hope.
CaRoss
22. Aaron Renfroe
I hate to be the odd man out, but this review has me worried. As
naupathia said, Brandon has a tendency of working very hard on making his women 3-dimensional, but doing so in the exact same way each time. Aloof, mysterious, fixated on hair and clothes, while being unaware of their own beauty or power. Having the majority of the sequel devoted to a character with a less-than-exciting arc in the first book doesn't sound interesting to me at all.

Fingers crossed that I'm wrong!
Bill Stusser
23. billiam
I know the whole characters not talking to each other annoys a lot of you but I find it very realistic. I mean, the reason it annoys us is because we know more than the characters do, we know what every other pov character knows after all. But out in the real world where we don't know what everyone else knows and we don't have all the information available to us, people don't communicate with each other. After all, a lot of the troubles most of us deal with in our lives is due to a lack of communication.

People keep secrets, even from those that they love. Even when they really shouldn't be keeping secrets.

Also, count me as one who did not like Shallan. Mostly beacause of the deceitfulness. Nothing turns me off to a character faster. I have liked her more in what I have read of WoR so far, but of course she is now not trying to pull one over on Jasnah. I'll take the dark brooding character like Kaladin over the lying, cheating, deceitful character any day. Vin really bugged me in the first Mistborn book too.
CaRoss
24. STBLST
Carl, you're causing me to have qualms about WOR. Kaladin was my favorite character in WOK and one of my favorites in fantasy literature. You appear to dismiss him in the forthcoming book with,"Kaladin spends almost the entire book being a paranoid jerk who won’t admit his fears or suspicions to anyone". Perhaps you're being too harsh. After all, he has the responsibility of protecting Dalinar and the extended royal family. That job would seem to require a suspicious attitude about those in a potential position to harm them. When some mysteries occur, such as the sudden appearance of disturbing writing on Dalinar's wall, Kaladin's self-criticism and suspicions become fully aroused. Kaladin is, of course, a very responsible, protective, and self-critical type to begin with. Hopefully such suspicions are either relieved or made concrete before long in this massive book. I have no problem with Shallan playing the leading role in this book given her dramatic, if not traumatic, backstory, but not at the expense of the ostensibly main character in the series.
CaRoss
25. Rachel Andrews
Yayayayayayayayay!!! Soooo... The "glimpses" of radiance coming to my emails are KILLING me... Ugh!!! Glad to know who's responsible ;)

Shallan drives me nuts but not in a Vin way... Lyft reminded me more of Vin. Shallan is just...annoying but shrouded in darkness.

Bummed that it's short on Dalinar, but happy to know he'll be alive in the 4th book if that's his POV book.... I can't wait!!!! Yay!
rad miletich
26. radrad
You guys are killing me. I've signed up for "glimpses" but so far nothing... and its not as though I'm afraid of spoilers. It's never stopped me re-reaidng a loved book 10 or more times... cover to cover!

The days roll by too slowly.

Maybe I'll hibernate.
Deana Whitney
27. Braid_Tug
@ Several: Glad I could sum up your reaction to Carl's comment.
People not talking to each other is common, just hope it doesn't drag on forever.

@26, radrad: Go to the Glimpses thread. All of them are posted in the comments.

@23, billiam, you and I have a different definition of "dark and brooding." To me Kaladin is downright depressed. Full blown depression that in our world would get him put on drugs to "cure" him.

Personally, I like Shallan. In part it's because she's a scholar, and in part because I couldn't tell where her story is going. Kaladin is the classic "low born hero on the rise."
Mike I
28. MikeyRocks
Carl, great pervy minds think alike, I've been hoping for a Shallan and Syl romance, let’s hope Sanderson is progressive enough to write a human & spren love story.

I love the Ishamael drop, he's by far my favorite forsaken.

I am going to hate the lack of communication amongst allies angle but hopefully a >1000 pg book will have enough other things to distract me.

I already took the 4th off, and depending on whether I get withdrawal shakes, I just may take the 5th off to continue reading. Sanderson has a monster in his hands.
Rob Munnelly
29. RobMRobM
@21 - Tom Lehrer FTW. One of the greatest - wonder how many people here know who he is.

Vatican Rag may be the cleverest song ever written. (How about this for a rhyme set: "Get in line in that processional...Step into that small confessional...There the guy who's got religion'l ...Tell you if your sin's original...If it is, try playin it safer...Drink the wine and chew the wafer...2-4-6-8, time to transubstantiate.")
Michael Church
30. Airsicklowlander
@28 - Sorry but the Shallan-Syl ship is comedic in nature; not romantic. :)
I also really liked Shallan in the WoK. I only found her worries of romance annoying; though not unfounded. She is one of my favorite female leads in Sanderson novels.
rad miletich
31. radrad
@27 Braid_Tug: Thanks for the tip. Much appreciated.
CaRoss
33. RGK
I will of course buy this, but I am upset to hear that this is a Shallan book. She was an annoying character in Book 1. I spent 1000 pages getting beind Kaladin, and it sounds awful that I will have to read 1000 more pages where he is a prejudiced jerk. I know that this series is supposed to be long, but characters like Shallan do not deserve their own book. Amost every POV character in the book was more interesting than her, and even some of the nonPOV characters (uh, Sadeas anyone?). I hope that brandon learns from the mistakes of modern authors of titanic series (Jordan, Martin, etc), and does not get lost in interesting side plots to the detriment of the series.
Alice Arneson
34. Wetlandernw
It's a bit weird to read all these comments of people who dismiss Shallan as an annoying character who was kind of boring. I suppose that's partly because I always assume there's a good reason for someone to be such a major character, and partly because I've already read WoR, but... it's just weird. Even in WoK, if you really take a good look at her, there's clearly a lot hidden about why she is who she is, and there are some hints as to the why.

And no, Shallan's arc is not "an interesting side plot." As for getting lost in them, when people asked Brandon how he was going to keep that kind of thing from happening, he said, "I have an advantage over Robert Jordan: I've read Robert Jordan." He's fully aware of the effect of too many interesting side plots, and has very carefully structured the Stormlight Archive with exactly the plots he needs to make the whole thing work.

There's no guarantee that every reader will like every character, or every plot arc, but they are all there for very specific reasons. And I guarantee you that when you've read WoR, you won't see Shallan the same way you did before. You might still not like her, but you won't see her the same way.
CaRoss
35. Joyously
I liked Shallan a lot--probably because I am a young, female student studying science. I do admit that I've never found Sanderson's "banter" particularly funny, though, so that's a strike against her.

I'd also argue that, though his young heroines often have elements in common, so do his young heroes. Consider Raoden, Elend, and Kaladin--idealistic, thoughtful young men who are leaders in a "I-care-about-each-of-you" way rather than a Big-Man way. My brother even guessed that Kaladin would pull the same trick as Raoden by transforming the horrible situation through comradery. Of those three guys, Kaladin has the most layers--depression, Kelsier-esque resentment of lighteyes--but Shallan also has more layers than Vin or Sarene--for one thing, her entire arc in the first book was about lies, betrayal and deceit.
CaRoss
36. McKay B
I'm late to the party, but ... I'm a little miffed at the suggestion of all of Brandon's female protagonists being the same.

OK, Sarene and Siri are pretty similar to each other, and pretty middle-of-the-road compared to the other female characters. I don't give Brandon any major props for their characterization.

But Vin was definitely her own person, her own character. She was not glib like the others. Yes, she was beautiful and oblivious of her own beauty, and quick-witted, talented, powerful, but those aren't what I really think of as her major character traits. Those have more to do with her thief mindset, her paranoia, her lack of self-confidence.

Shallan (as portrayed in TWoK, before we learn how much her personality is in spite of her past traumas) is a little more similar to Siri and Sarene, but still unique. Her drawing compulsion, her memory power, her worry over her brothers, her secrets, her mission to become a special kind of criminal, and the way her snark gets her into trouble rather than being a lesser aspect of the character.

And then there's Vivenna, Blushweaver, Jasnah, Navani, Allrianne, and Tindwyl. They're not as major of characters (except Jasnah and Vivenna), but they're still "protagonist" enough to be 3-dimensional. And they're very diverse. (To wit: I can't stand Vivenna. So, that's different.)

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