Brandon Sanderson’s Rhythm of War: A Non-Spoiler Review

Three years ago, we were eagerly awaiting book 3 of The Stormlight Archive: Oathbringer. One week ago, we were eagerly awaiting book 3.5, Dawnshard. (I hope you’ve read that, by the way!) Now suddenly, here we are, a mere five days from book 4, Rhythm of War, and the tension is real. Will you love it? Will you hate it? Will you find it a worthy entry in the Archive? Come on in for a little chat about the book, all free of spoilers, and let me share my opinions on the subject.

Some of you may be wondering why you should be even remotely interested in my opinions on such a subject, so let me briefly introduce myself. I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s work since 2009, a beta reader for him since 2013, and a regular contributor to Cosmere discussions here on Tor.com since 2014. Oh, also, I’ve read this book all the way through twice, and have read pieces of it many more times than that. Is that adequate? Hope so, because we’re here to talk about a book, which is far more interesting than me.

What I’m about to say will assume you do not follow the “Words of Brandon” from Q&A sessions, Reddit, etc., so I’ll try to stick with the things you would know only from previous books and from well-publicized information. If you do follow all the things, you’ll notice that I’m hedging around some things you might already know (but others don’t). It’s okay.

Before we get into any analysis, let me say right up front, I love this book. No reservations, I love it. It hits all my buttons. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It has plot twists. It has characters (and character arcs) that I love, and characters that I love to hate. It has history, and mystery, and worldhoppers, and even engineering, for pity’s sake. It has answers, and it has new questions. It proves some of my fond theories right, and smashes others to pathetic little pieces. It…it just has everything I love in a book—and at 1229 pages, it has a lot of all those things.

But let’s get a little more detailed, shall we? I’ll hit a quick structural analysis, and then give you a little more sense of what to expect—but without spoilers. Check.

 

Structure

The structure of Rhythm of War follows the patterns (which you may or may not have noticed) established in The Way of Kings and carried through each book. The book title is also an in-world book. The titles of the five parts, put together, form a ketek. The initials of the titles are building another ketek. The back cover blurb is written by the Sleepless. And so on. Very quickly, then, here’s a brief overview of the structural forms to watch for:

Prologue

The prologue, as always, is another perspective on the night of Gavilar’s assassination. If you’ll recall, the previous prologues were from Szeth, Jasnah, and Eshonai. This time, it’s another “insider” view: someone who is intimately involved in the affairs and personalities of the Alethi court. The story goes deeper into Gavilar’s mysterious activities, but—of course—it still doesn’t tell us exactly what he thinks he’s doing. There are answers! And as a result, there are more questions. Of course.

Interludes

As you may have noticed, the Interludes between parts—in this case, four sets of three—serve a dual purpose. One purpose has always been to provide insight into aspects of the world that aren’t directly part of the main storyline. The Way of Kings’ Interludes primarily did world-building around Roshar; Words of Radiance continued with other locations, but also set up plots for the next book; Oathbringer drew closer to current events, with one interlude even coming to fruition in that same book. Rhythm of War’s Interludes, while still spread around the world like the others, are much more current-plot oriented. They not only take place at the same time, they directly interact with the main story lines. And the POV characters…let’s just say they might not be who you expected, okay?

Back to that dual purpose, though. Within the Interludes of each book, there is an ongoing novelette—a series of chapters which together tell a more personal story of one character who is involved in current events, but who gets no POV chapters outside the Interludes until Part Five. In order so far, these have centered on Szeth, Eshonai, and Venli.

Obviously I’m not going to tell you who the Interlude novelette character is in Rhythm of War. I also won’t promise that the novelette will give you much sympathy for the character, pathetic as the story may be. I will say, though, that I personally didn’t grok where it might be going until the last interlude, and the result as it played out in Part Five was a complete stunner. I’m talking mouth-hanging-open, wide-eyed, breath-catching, oh-you-didn’t-just-do-that stunner.

Well, it was for me, anyway. YMMV.

Flashbacks

Another integral part of the Stormlight Archive structure is the flashback sequence. Each book gives a look into the backstory of a specific character, leading to how they got to where they are in the main timeline. Since the identities of these characters has been part of the advertising for year, I’m not considering this a spoiler. In order so far, these characters were Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. In Rhythm of War, they center around Eshonai, the Parshendi Shardbearer first seen in The Way of Kings, and her sister Venli.

In a slight deviation from previous books, the flashbacks are shared by the sisters, and don’t start until Part Three. Some are strictly from one perspective or the other, while some alternate within a chapter. In both cases, they give us insight into the two characters’ personalities and motivations…and nothing is quite what I had assumed. Background information is highly illuminating, no? As a sweet bonus, we finally also learn much more of the history of the listeners. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been wanting that for a long, long time.

Epilogue

Again following the established pattern, the Epilogue involves Wit being somewhere he needs to be, at just the right time. It also involves him musing on some abstraction about creative arts, as usual. It does not, however, end with the meeting you might be expecting. And…I really can’t say any more, can I? This was a doozy. By design.

 

Plots Arcs and People

Okay. Now that the structure is confirmed, what else can we talk about in a non-spoilery fashion? What can you expect to see?

One way in which Rhythm of War deviates from the previous installments is the time-skip between books. Instead of moving from the events of one book straight into the next series of events, the opening of Rhythm is roughly a year after the Battle of Thaylen Field which closed out Oathbringer. After the battle, each side drew back to lick their wounds and regroup from that unexpected conclusion; then they began to advance again. Rather than slog through a year’s worth of build-up, full of all the things you expect to happen but don’t really need to watch, Sanderson jumps ahead to where new strategies are being developed, then fills you in on recent developments as they become relevant.

In many ways, Part One reads like the climax to the unwritten book of the past year—and yes, it was intended to do that. It opens with an action-heavy sequence, and the aftermath of this early avalanche sets up the coming plotlines. By the time you get to the end of Part One, you know roughly what the major plot arcs for the remainder of the book will be.

Unlike some reviews, I’m not going to tell you what they are; I don’t see any way to talk about them without spoilers. To manage expectations, though, I’ll say this much: There are three major plot arcs which logically follow from the prior events of the series, up through the end of Part One. One of those arcs continues to weave through the remaining four parts. A second arc mostly takes place in Parts Two and Four with a final scene in Part Five, while the third is seen in Parts Three and Five. If you have a Special Darling Character who happens to be involved in either the second or third arc, resign yourself to this knowledge now.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed each arc in its own way. The first, with an unexpected combination of three lead characters and a handful of minor POVs, is honestly somewhat painful to read. Not because it’s poorly written, mind you—but because it’s so very well written. It resonates in ways I don’t think Sanderson expected when he was writing it. The lows are so very low, and it feels like every time hope peeks around the corner, despair rushes up to stomp on it, until you begin to wonder if you’ll survive the book, never mind if the characters will. The result is that when the climactic events arrive, the rewards make you cry almost as much as the painful price you paid to get there. The crazier part is the sheer number of characters who have their own mini-avalanche, all contributing to the big SanderLanche.

The second arc, while obviously not as prolonged, nonetheless had plenty of highs, lows, and surprises. Split almost equally between its two main characters, the stresses were real, if not as agonizing. For me, the culmination was…well, stunning. I laughed and cried together, both delighted and grieved that multiple expectations were fulfilled—and completely shocked by the way that happened. This arc definitely left some holes that must be filled in the next book.

The third arc…wow. I’m not quite sure what to say about it. Mostly told from a single viewpoint, the plot itself is fairly minor in context of the book—but some of the things that happen along the way blew my mind. Some were just really amazing scenes in their own right. Some were linked in powerful ways to the main storyline. And some…well, some set up implications for the following book that make me both excited and terrified.

Honestly, I spent so much time doing the dropped-jaw jig in this book. Can you tell how much I loved it?

 

New world-building

Just a few more things to mention. As you would expect from Sanderson, there is always new world-building. While the series started with its focus mostly on the Alethi people, it’s been expanding with every book, and Rhythm is no exception.

The Listeners, Singers, and Fused

As you should expect from a book whose flashbacks center on Eshonai and Venli, this book is going to reveal a lot more about the three cultures in which Venli is now enmeshed. She’s still got the listener background, and as I mentioned before, the flashbacks give us much more of their history—as do some of the things she learns in the present.

Through her eyes, we also see the singers, the former slaves, as they seek their own place in this world. They bear the cultures in which they served, but they’re being led by people who remember past times, when their people had cultures of their own. Now, they’re trying to find their own balance, their own path forward—but they’re also individuals, and they don’t all want the same thing. It creates some interesting conflicts.

More than that, though, we gain tremendous insights into the Fused culture, personal interactions, and history. We see more of what drives them—both as a group, and as individuals. Why are they here? What do they want? Not that we get all the satisfactory answers, mind you; there are still major gaps in the history, which probably won’t get filled until the “back five” books where we’ll get flashbacks for Talenel and Shalash. But we learn…more than we knew before. Much more.

Spren

If you enjoyed the trip through Shadesmar in Oathbringer or are fascinated by spren in general, you’ll be happy to know that we get more. MORE. Especially the sapient spren. What makes them tick? What do they love? What do they fear? And… why? I realize that not everyone enjoys the Cognitive Realm, but it is integral to Roshar, and you will definitely find things you didn’t expect.

Other Good Stuff

If you like the science of Roshar’s magic, make sure you read the Ars Arcanum. It’s got fascinating new information! Khriss and Nazh have been busy.

Finally, whatever you do, do not skip the epigraphs. You know those little bits in italics at the beginning of each chapter? Read them. Please. Read them all.

 

Conclusion

If you can’t tell by now, I thoroughly love this book. I want a fantasy book to make me care about the characters, about what happens to them, and about the world they inhabit. I’m a reader who can enjoy a character-driven book or a plot-driven book…but when you give me a well-crafted book with both, I love it. For me, that’s what Rhythm of War does. It engages my mind and my heart in equal measure. The answers I got made me happy. (Well, okay, some of them made me sad, but also they were good answers, so I’ll take it.) The new questions, and a few remaining old questions, make me eager for the next book before this one even has a chance to hit the shelves. Read it as soon as you can, and be sure to come back and join us for the reread, starting in January. There will be so much to discuss!

Alice is a long-time fantasy fan, and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two kids, her in-laws, and a big black dog. And rain. All the rain.

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