I honestly think this is the best book I have read in the last year, if not longer.
My initial reactions on hearing about Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive was mostly dread. There was talk about a world ravaged by huge storms — which sounded uninteresting — and inhabited mostly by crustaceans — which sounded creepy — and had thirty (yes 30) magic systems… which frankly sounded exhausting. I thought for sure it was more than I wanted to chew on.
I finally got around to reading The Way of Kings last year and was completely overcome at the strength of the story being told. All of the things I mentioned about the series are true but in Sanderson’s hands they become a thing of beauty.
He deftly wove a story about characters struggling to survive in the face of grinding oppression into a narrative that started us on the path to discovering this fantastic world.
With that kind of beginning for the series I felt like hopes would be too high, anticipation too poignant for the second book to succeed. When the first book is as complex, emotional and fascinating as The Way of Kings was it leaves readers expecting something even better in the followup.
I have to say that Sanderson has me hooked with Words of Radiance. If The Way of Kings was one of the best series openings I’ve ever read then Words of Radiance is by far the best second novel… which might not sound like much, second novels are notorious for being disappointing. Words of Radiance is not only not disappointing it’s leaps better than it’s predecessor.
Sanderson has grown as a writer by leaps and bounds so that each book leaves me breathless. I do not love every Sanderson book but I’ve never been disappointed.
Words or Radiance is noted for a lot of the things that it does right. Sanderson has said that this series is intended to be ten books long. With that in mind a reader could be forgiven for thinking the series plot will develop incrementally in each book, after all it has to stretch over ten books. However, that is not the case. Sanderson has a tune to play and he hits the notes one after the other with perfect pitch.
If you were hoping for some rest for the characters of Way of Kings after the conclusion to that book then watch out. The resting doesn’t last long. Sanderson plunges Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar and Adolin into the crucible that is their world and makes them question their morals and choices in ever increasing emotional arcs.
About two thirds of the way through the book I almost put it down, not because it was bad but because I could see what was to come and I didn’t want it. I went into denial. I started thinking about going back to reading Star Wars books because at least those always end happy… I came back to it after just a few minutes, though, because this is a book that begs to be read… to be finished.
Sanderson writes with a message of resounding hope, throughout all his novels but what I find fascinating is the depths to which he can take his characters while still maintaining that overall feeling of hope. These are characters struggling with depression, post-traumatic-stress, trauma induced amnesia, and living in a caste system that systematically beats some people down and trods them into the mud while elevating others upon the backs of the trodden — because of the color of their eyes. In short, every character in these books is broken in some way, emotionally, mentally, even morally. But through all the darkness and despair and very real depression there is hope. That one thing is probably what keeps me coming back to him over and over. As dark as things get they never get gritty or gratuitously violent.
Words of Radiance acts as both a trickle and a torrent of information. We learn only a little about the magic and the history of the world but the plot jumps past events that I was expecting to wait five or six (or maybe ten) books to see. This works brilliantly. The revelations about the magic systems seem organic and leave a great deal of mystery about what is possible while the plot plunges on ahead and carries us away.
Words of Radiance felt like a book written just for me. I can count on one hand the number of books that I have invested in enough that I genuinely missed the characters when the books were over — the first of these was The Lord of the Rings during the summer between fourth and fifth grade, when the books were over I wanted to cry because I couldn’t spend any more time with them (if Tolkien had written books about Sam being mayor and playing with his kids I would have read them). Even fewer are the books that have gripped me so hard that they left me emotionally affected for days after. Like I said earlier parts of this book were so intense that I had to walk away, even if only for a few moments. For me this is one of the best books I have ever read.
Now let me add a caveat and what is probably the only point of criticism I have for the book. This book is really long. It’s longer than the Old Testament. That is part of the reason I love it so much, it’s written like a huge omnibus of three other books with climaxes happening throughout until the major ending. The length allows Sanderson to take his characters through arcs that are not possible with shorter works, and to build the world slowly and introduce the readers to a place that is at least as complex as our world and far more strange. However, it also means that it is over one thousand pages long… in hardback. Which means that if reading something long makes you want to cry or faint or run away screaming or roll your eyes then perhaps this book is not written for you (the audiobook is 48 hours long).
However, if you love an epic story with characters that you can really get to know and become intimately acquainted with. If you love watching emotionally broken people try to heal and face the truths that they have buried so deeply in their psyches that they don’t even know they are there. If you love a really good story about really good people facing something terrifying and unimaginably powerful then this book is for you…
…but you should really start with the first book.