I was concerned about the shift in tone from the end of the second book in The Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance: Kaladin and Shallan had been lost characters slowly discovering their powers and paths in their own way, interracting with their spren and learning in a softly organic way; as Words of Radiance ends, Knights Radiant seemed to be popping up everywhere! And tentatively being drawn to and organised and systematised by Dalinar who himself had bonded the Stormfather himself.
Individual stories in the first two books looked like becoming institutionalised; human conflicts looked like growing to global and divine conflicts.
And, personally, the individual story is always more powerful than a global one; the human more intriguing than the world.
The headline to this review is that I most certainly did enjoy the novel. Sanderson delivers vivid characters as always, returning to Shallan and Kaladin in particular; his world building and magic system is as intricate and detailed and precise as it always is; his action scenes are intense and thrilling; it delves into elements of socio-economic commentary – a little heavy handedly perhaps with the divisions between light and dark eyes, and male and female roles; significantly more thoughtfully in Moash and Kaladin’s sympathy for the Parshmen and Parshendi. It is most certainly a novel on the strength of which I will be continuing with the series.
It is not without its issues though.
Dalinar Kholin is probably the central character in the novel and, as Oathbringer opens, has fled the Shattered Plains and set up a base in the mythical and lost Urithiru, with access to an Oathgate portal that, conveniently, allows him to access a range of other cities across the continent and, instantly, the world political expanded. Monarchies and city states which were mentioned previously are visited and invited by Dalinar to unite.
Sanderson continues his use of flashback chapters – as he did with Kaladin in The Way of Kings and Shallan in Words of Radiance – and here the flashback chapters show us Dalinar revelling in the thrill – and the Thrill – of battle in all its glory and gore and visceral delight. Sanderson does write these epic battle scenes very well and these are excellent and thrilling and sweeping. Almost enough for the reader to feel that thrill themselves – and satisfyingly giving the reader and Dalinar an explanation of his missing misremembered wife’s fate. And enough to make the present-day Dalinar’s somewhat half-hearted and inept attempts at diplomacy – and there is an awful lot of diplomacy and waiting and talking and negotiating in the book – feel wrong. He feels limited and impotent and constrained like a tiger in a zoo: the fabled Blackthorn struggling to fill the role of leader and High King and turn his back on the battlefield and succumb to the temptation of drink.
It does make me wonder whether, by book ten in the series, the flashback reveal of a major trauma for a character, might become something of a cliched trope.
I accept that this is a deliberate contrast but, as a result of this conflict – and of the sheer ambition of the series – the pace of the book does suffer, compared to the previous two novels – and they were not fast paced due to the necessity of world building. In a novel which revolves around the movements of massive stormfronts across the world, I suppose that the pace is appropriate, and the flashbacks keep giving us the drip-feed of action… but I wonder whether a little judicial pruning might have streamlined it. I wonder whether all of the pages – in excess of 1,200 – actually progressed the plot or the characters.
Sanderson explores a lot more of the nature of this world and the relation of it to others in his Cosmere – so much so that we have a fairly extended cameo appearance within it. Unfortunately, not from a novel I had read (imagine if Kelsier or Vin had passed through from the pages of the Mistborn Trilogy!); but fortunately not in a way which requires any prior knowledge. Odium is introduced directly as the vast Cosmere-wide threat; his followers, the ancient and twisted spren known as the Unmade, are fleetingly glimpsed – with one disturbingly Bacchanalian scene in Kholinar – and enigmatic; the ancient voidbringer Fused spirits taking over the Parshendi and the fate of the lesser Parshendi are explored in more detail. Venli and her sister’s spren, Timbre, in particular, are developing into increasingly compelling characters.
Our more familiar characters, however, seem to suffer a little in this novel: Kaladin came across as more two-dimensional than previsouly; and Shallan’s exploration of different personas through her Lightweaving was just a little too extended and repeated. Just as we think she has reached some sort of self-knowledge and reconciled the various aspects of her personality, off she goes again! And her love interests and possible love-triangle felt just a little awkward and forced for me.
My biggest issue, however, was the extended trip to Shadesmar, the spiritual realm. I’m going to say it. I don’t want to but I feel I have to. It’s a midichlorian moment. The spren as these strange manifestations of emotion and nature were a delight and a pleasure because of their ephemeral, shifting, capricious nature, which made Syl so special – and later Pattern. But when our point of view characters are trapped in Shadesmar and realise that the spren had a very human set of geography and technology and social structure deprived them of that mythic caprice which they had. The mystical became scientific. Hence, a midichlorian moment. To see the deadeye manifestation of Adolin’s Shardblade, compared to the conscious Syl, was powerful but the novel spent too long with the main characters out of reach. It was narratively necessary to put them there – and it led to one of the most thrilling moments for Dalinar in the series so far – but was it necessary to show them there step-by-slow-step?
And the other thing that irked me? Over-powered characters. Stormlight overpowers characters. They can fly and fight and create illusions, sure, but at a mundane and physical level they seem to be invulnerable: when the climactic battle occurs
The thunderclast’s palm crashed down on Renarin, smashing him. Adolin screamed, but his brother’s Shardblade cut up through the palm, the separated the hand from the wrist.
The thunderclast trumpeted in anger as Renarin climbed from the rubble of the hand. He seemed to heal more quickly than Kaladin or Shallan did, as if being crushed wasn’t even a bother.
Obviously, the stormlight can run out and characters have only a finite access to that power… but even so… I suppose that is why Odium was needed as a world-shattering character: anything less would pose no threat at all to our heroes.
So, in brief, yes a great read which does pay off dividends on the significant investment of time. Not without its issues, but generally a vast and sprawling epic with engaging characters. The sort of ambitious project which only a master of the fantasy genre could pull off even half so well.
Date 16th November 2017