Fantasy is a difficult genre to keep fresh. Tolkien looms as an edifice; George R. R. Martin, similarly. Sanderson is a fresh voice within that genre: like Martin, he eschews the vague mystical nature of Tolkien’s magic and fantasy races; unlike Martin, the magic is a central facet of his world-building and he eschews the more human and secular politics of the great houses.
My problem with Sanderson is that his magic system actually takes centre stage and those small things like plot, character, dialogue and pacing come across as secondary.
Now, I have a memory – actually, more than that – with a quick google search, the article I vaguely remembered is linked here – that Sanderson has strong view on magic systems. He consciously crafts them as systems with rules and limits so that he can’t deploy them as dei ex machina to resurrect or rescue characters or to resolve plotholes. Well, that’s fair enough; I respect that.
So let’s look at Sanderson’s system in the Stormlight Archive thus far. The physical and emotional forces of this world are personified and given brief physical form called spren. Fire, wind and rain; fear, glory and creativity. These are mainly mindless manifestations but some spren it appears are able to bond with humans who exemplify particular ideals. So, Sylphrena, an honourspren, bonds with Kaladin who is honourable; and Pattern, a liespren (also known as a cryptic), bonds with Shallan who has deceived herself about her mother’s death. The bonding creates a symbiotic relationship: the spren gain sentience in the physical world; the humans gain the superhuman powers of the ancient and mythical Knights Radiant. Absorbing stormlight stored in spheres (or directly from the storms which ravage the world), Kaladin can manipulate gravity and bind objects together whilst Shallan can create illusions. It seems that all these bound characters are stronger, can move faster, and heal almost instantaneously.
Now, I understand that. It’s a comprehensible system with scope to expand: there were ten original orders of Knight Radiant and we’ve only really seen two although Sanderson’s Interludes often show us other bound characters briefly to hint at their powers.
What stopped the book succeeding, for me, was that there wasn’t much else apart from exploring this magic system going on here!
Let’s look at plot and character. Nothing much has really happened since the end of The Way Of Kings. Shallan has made her way to the Shattered Plains and met Kaladin. A number of duels were fought. Meetings were held. Rushed into the last five or six of the eighty-or-so chapters, Dalinar goes to war, discovers a lost city and chats to the spren of the storm. There’s an attempt to tempt Kaladin to become embroiled in a plot to kill the King whose safety (as a bodyguard) is his duty. Personally, I found that temptation utterly unconvincing: there was so much put in to try to give credibility to that temptation – the King is claimed to be responsible for some innocent deaths, imprisons Kaladin unfairly, then is revealed to have (indirectly) put in place a train of events that had led to the disgrace of Kaladin’s father, his brother’s death and his own enslavement. The piling up of these reasons smacked of desperation on Sanderson’s part, almost as if he or his editor found his decision to facilitate the King’s assassination just as unconvincing as I did.
So, Kaladin’s moral dilemma was not convincing. Let’s turn to look at Shallan, the other main point-of-view character. Just as flashbacks in The Way Of Kings revealed Kaladin’s backstory, in Words of Radiance, the flashbacks reveal Shallan’s backstory. There’s some interest in that: the young daughter of a bullying abusive father. It is not incomprehensible that such a victim could adopt a light hearted persona to protect herself. The fluidity of her identity – being a Knight Radiant, she is able to create illusory disguises and identities – is actually intriguing: one of her disguises is dubbed Veil and Shallan wishes Veil were with her at one point; and towards the end her dual-identity is discovered and one character tells her that Veil is her true character and Shallan the disguise. I’m hoping Sanderson develops that point.
So, despite some interest, I do find Sanderson’s characters very two dimensional and his capacity to add depth and conflict unconvincing.
What about the language though? Alas, for me, this is a massive problem: his language is cliché-ridden and repetitive and his dialogue awkward and unconvincing. There are only so many times that you can describe the tempest within when characters breathe in stormlight. Characters can only be described as broken so many times. Descriptions of dialogue overused the word said far more than I’d have allowed a student I teach. In fairness, I listened to rather than read this book – narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading – and I found Kramer’s delivery so ponderous I actually listened to it on 1.5 x normal speed! It is not impossible that his delivery may have emphasised things which the eye would have skimmed over. But Sanderson’s decision to use the storms as the central motif and linguistic theme does make his language repetitive.
I started this by talking about originality and giving Sanderson credit for originality within the genre. I am worried about how original he is between his own worlds. There are parallels between this and his earlier Mistborn trilogy: a similarly regulated magic system; a similar shift from a human story in the first book to a more cosmic scope by the final book; a similarly shattered world. The Mistborn world was revealed to have been earth-like once but reduced to an ashen world aeons before the final book reclaimed its verdancy. The Stormlight world is a stoney one inhabited by mainly crustaceans instead of mammals. There have been references once or twice to mythical creatures in children’s stories that resemble lions and questions raised about the use of the word hound to describe the reptilian axehounds kept as pets or hunting beasts.
Are these hints of a lost world which Kaladin and Shallan will eventually reclaim as Vin did for the Mistborn world?
Will I read the final book? Yes. Yes I’m sure I will when it is published, for the sense of satisfaction that completing a cycle gives. I am not, however, convinced that I actually like or care about Shallan or Kaladin as much as I’d like to.
One last observation: one criticism often levelled at fantasy (in addition to two-dimensional characters and weak dialogue) is the doctrine of the improbable resurrection. Tolkien’s resurrection of Gandalf the Grey as Gandalf the White is sometimes cited as an example. X-Men and Marvel heroes rarely stay dead. In this book, Sanderson gives us not one but two improbable resurrections.
For someone who dislikes dei ex machina, to use a piece of unexplained technology to resurrect a character is just as much a ‘cheat’ as Tolkien’s magic!