Book Review: Rhythm of War, Brandon Sanderson

“Our weakness doesn’t make us weak. Our weakness makes us strong. For we had to carry it all these years.”

How Sanderson churns out these tomes so quickly, I am not sure. But he does and he rarely disappoints: all the pleasure of a Marvel movie, a popcorn novel. Not a guilty pleasure – no read should be guilty – but an unapologetically fun one, in an unapologetically vast universe.

And I find that by the time we reach Book Four in a series, it becomes a little tricky to review: obviously, I am not going to include spoilers for this book, but I will be including spoilers for books 1-3 in which the intricate worldbuilding is developed. But if you are stumbling across this review not having read the previous books, characters and concepts such as spren and Fused and Shards will be baffling!

Perhaps a brief tl:dr might be that this fourth book in what is planned to be a ten book series is vast and complex; it is inherently character driven and full of intriguing characters, but also deals in mindblowing universe level concepts that I am barely able to keep track of not having read all of the Cosmere books.

Perhaps this is less of a review than my thoughts and observations of this installment.

Let me start with some concerns and quibbles.

And let me say that I also have the problem here that I often do with fantasy series. I loved discovering the world in The Way of Kings, and watching Kaladin and Shallan explore their new powers, develop their relationships with the spren that grant them. But where do you go from there? Once the core basis of the Knights Radiant have been established and Windrunners, Lightweavers and Edgedancers are zipping around the world, how do you keep things fresh?

In this novel, we remain on Roshar, that rocky world dominated by the vast storm – now storms – that sweep over it. We remain in the war between the Parshendi and humans, a war whose motivations seem increasingly vague despite our returning to Gavilar’s death repeatedly – but I suppose when your antagonist is a Shard named Odium, what motivation do you need for conflict save for having it for its own sake? The Parshendi are now bonded to voidspren which grant the Regals enhanced forms of power, or taken over by the souls of ancient Fused which grants them similar powers to the Knights Radiant. Each boost in power on the human side seem matched in the next book by a parallel boost in the Parshendi.

Did I approach this book with a slightly weary sense of more-of-the-same? I fear I did a little but there was a different tone and feel to this one.

Things I liked

Things I liked: Kaladin

But if three books runs the risk of things becoming too familiar, they are compensated by the investment we feel in the world and particularly the characters. You can’t help it with Sanderson’s books: his characters are complex, multilayered and challenging. Kaladin Stormblessed remains clearly the hero of the series – perhaps being set up for a Kelsier-like role from the Mistborn trilogy. More on Kelsier later, perhaps. It is hard not to root for Kaladin – he is so intense, but intensely vulnerable at the same time and a consummate and honourable warrior. His interactions with Leshwi in this book were strangely touching. More on her later too!

This is a series that has never been shy about trying to represent mental health issues: Kaladin has had depressive and suicidal episodes from The Way of Kings and is thrown back into one of those in the opening part of this book – prompted by his erstwhile Bridge Four teammate Moash’s goading. He is, as Dalinar comments,

A soldier who has been on the front lines for far, far too long. A man who has survived so many horrors, he now finds himself staring at nothing, his mind going numb so he doesn’t have to remember.

Each book so far has seen Kaladin reaching for each of the first three Ideals of the Windrunners, oaths that bind them and grant them their powers, and this book sees Kaladin struggling to form the words of the Fourth Ideal – a struggle that he had and failed in Oathbringer.

There is always a concern with fantasy that you can overpower your heroes with magic until there is very little threat – the Superman syndrome. Sanderson avoids that here with a couple of devices that deprive Knights Radiant of their powers: in the midst of battle, Kaladin finds himself with no healing, no flight, no lashing; and once Urithiru is taken over by the Fused he again has his powers (mainly) suppressed. And remains utterly capable – his fights with The Pursuer take place when he is underpowered and he defeats him if not with ease, then with drama!

Things I liked: the defections

It has always irked me in fantasy that entire races are seen to be homogenous. I found the way that Rlain was slowly accepted into Bridge Four as credible, moving slowly and painfully from suspicion and resentment to resignation to acceptance and friendship – and his joy at the prospect of becoming a Windrunner was wonderful, if briefly lived! And Venli’s bonding to Timbre – and her revelation of that bond to Leshwi which led to one of the more moving scenes in the novel was gorgeous.

The Parshendi are not a homogenous enemy race in any sense and the speed with which Leshwi turns to protect the human Knights Radiant was great!

THINGS I LIKED: the smaller scale

The Battle of Thaylen Field at the conclusion of Oathbringer was a large scale epic Lord of the Rings style battle which was a little overwhelming. In contrast, Rhythm of War dials back on the epic for the human and individual stories. The human army and most of its Knights Radiant were sent out on an military assault early on, allowing for an incursion into the tower of Urithiru by the Fused which secured it and disabled (almost) all the Knights Radiant. The remaining humans were forced to survive and adapt to life under the Parshendi rule. And despite an underlying sense of threat from some forces, that accommodation was generally successful.

But it left Navani – whose journey is the focus of the novel – and Kaladin and Lift separated and isolated within the tower, essentially forming a resistance and engaging in guerilla warfare.

I did miss some of the wider worldbuilding which we saw in the other books and Urithiru despite its size started to feel a little claustrophobic – and it did make me wonder how much the effect of covid-19 lockdowns were playing in Sanderson’s writing.

Things i liked: Raboniel

The Fused leader who led the invasion and her interactions with Navani as something like a prisoner and something like a colleague and fellow scientist was wonderful. Her unscrupulous manipulation alongside what seemed to be her genuine respect for Navani – and overarching desire to end the war – was very well judged.

Things I liked: Finding your voice

Sanderson does use repeatedly here a trope that I do have a particular weakness for: the finding of a voice. I remember Juli Berry’s All The Truth That’s In Me which also shows a main character whose tongue had been removed finding her voice by the end of the novel. I’m not sure why this resonate with me so much – probably the issues that my daughter has with speaking and language are a big part of it!

Dabbid – I’d forgotten all about him! – had been assumed to have been rendered mute by battle shock. The Sibling – the spren of the Tower of Urithiru – was silent and assumed dead or slumbering. In Shadesmar, Adolin’s shardblade deadeye Maya was assumed incapable of thought, feeling or speech. And all three found their voices – Maya’s in a particularly poignant (and timely) way. And they were all wonderful.

Things that worry me:

Things that worry me: Wit / Hoid

There is much about Wit or Hoid that I loved in the book – his rescue of Kaladin in his feverish, Odium-fuelled nightmare and the story of the Dog and the Dragon was lovely.

But somehow, his being in a relationship with Jasnah feels strange, and his having bonded a spren feels odd too… his character is bigger than Roshar – he has appeared throughout the Cosmere and is immortal, albeit neither a Herald nor a Shard. And becoming a Knight Radiant seems to limit him and his potential somehow…

Things that worry me: The Ghostbloods and the Lord of Scars

I am no expert on the Cosmere. But I assumed that the ghostbloods were just a gang picking what they can in a wartime situation: thefts, assassinations, espionage and information trading. But they seem to be growing in significance and widening in scope taking on a Cosmere-level presence like Hoid.

Shallan’s involvement with them seems increasingly dangerous…

And there is a lot of speculation that the Ghostblood leader being Kelsier… the Lord of Scars comment is suggestive but… but… Kelsier died! I suppose I need to read Mistborn: Secret History which seems to suggest that Kelsier may not have quite died fully becoming a cognitive shadow instead and meeting (and fighting) Hoid. I did not read anything conclusive in this book to suggest that the Lord of Scars is Kelsier, and the stated desire of the Ghostbloods to make money seems at odds with what I remember of Kelsier.

Things that worry me: the plague

Mentioned a few times in the opening chapters, there is a plague moving through the west of Roshar.

Fragments of old manuscripts—translations of translations of translations—mentioned quick-spreading diseases that had killed tens of thousands. Such things hadn’t been recorded in any modern texts he’d been read, but he had heard rumors of something strange to the west—a new plague, they were calling it. Details were sparse.

Whilst this might be a small nod to covid, there is a strong possibility that this plague might become a serious threat to Roshar: Sanderson is not one to throw in a small detail like that unnecessarily and was Raboniel not responsible for a plague previously?

Things that worry me: Mental Health representation

I’ve mentioned Kaladin’s depression earlier and Shallan appears to have some form of dissociative identity disorder – her three distinct personalities that coalesced during Oathbringer, Veil, Radiant and Shallan allow her to operate after a traumatic childhood in which she killed both her mother and father. Teft suffers from addiction. Renarin appears to have some form of social anxiety or neuroatypicality. Dalinar was out of control and overcome with grief and pain at the atrocities he caused. Navani seems to be struggling with her self esteem.

Obviously, I do couch those comments with “may have”s and “some form of”s because I am not going to forget that these are not real diagnosable people but literary constructs, and that neither I (nor so far as I know Sanderson) are qualified to make such a diagnosis. But the human emotional cost of war is a theme which is picked up in Rhythm of War. Kaladin discovers a number of men like him with PTSD, confined in cells in the dark, and he uses his position to liberate them and bring them into the light and create a talking therapy for them. Even if he has to be somewhat bullied into receiving the therapy he created in the first place. It’s an important theme, of course, but is this the right place to explore it?

I do worry though that this representation may not be not quite as healthy or as sympathetic as it appears. Is the depiction authentic? Is the association of mental health issues with the powers of stormlight – the association of neuroatypicality with bonding spren – healthy? Is it a case of romanticising mental illness? Or of placing narrative momentum above the representation?

Sanderson’s response is that

It’s not that the series is about people with mental illness—rather, I view it as a series where I’m trying to present the psychology of people in a more realistic way, and make their psychology interact with the magic and the setting

and I am willing to accept this at the moment. But as the novel progresses over the next six books I do hope that he continues to manage those psychologies sensitively. It is certainly refreshing to see mental health representation in fantasy.

Things that worry me: sexuality representation

So within this novel is is made essentially explicit that Jasnah is somewhere on the asexual spectrum; it is also stated that Rlain’s sexuality is hinted at being complex when we are told that

the times he’d tried mateform himself, things hadn’t gone the way he—or anyone really—had expected.

And The Sibling when they do speak, seems to be agender and referred to with third person plural pronouns.

As with the mental health, part of me wonders how sensitive this representation is. In a series that seriously sidelines sexual relations in the narrative – to the point where Kaladin has a romantic relationship which begins, blossoms and breaks up between books three and four – there is a small part of me that wonders whether this is representation for the sake of representation…

And readers do like to ship their characters an awful lot!

Things that I did not like

Things I did not like: the contest of champions

The whole premise of a contest of champions is a cliche in any event: the fate of the world to be decided by a one-on-one combat? And the idea of drawing up a contract for it to bind a God (or at least a shard of a God) … even a contract drawn by Hoid should not be the crux on which this series of novels rotates!

Things that I did not like: the pacing.

Sanderson opened this novel in medias res with the liberation of Hearthstone and an extended fight between the Windrunners and the Fused shanay-im or Heavenly Ones. A very extended fight! In which The Pursuer is introduced – a Fused nex-im or Husked One capable of discarding a body and reforming another who doggedly pursues and kills anyone who kills him. Remember here that the Fused are immortal and take over a new Parshendi body when killed. I did like Sanderson’s cheeky playfulness, giving us a chapter entitled Severed Cords and meaning it as literally as possible! This was interleaved with Shallan’s infiltration (and possible assassination) of Ialai Sadeas who had continued to plot against Dalinar, the subplot bring Mraize and the mysterious Ghostbloods much closer to the foreground of this novel.

But for me the novel falters a little after the return to Urithiru and Kaladin’s removal from active service, as he struggles to find himself a new role, eventually submitting to life as a surgeon with his father, Lirin. That middle section of the novel where Dalinar is going to war, where Kaladin vacillates, where Navani is tinkering with fabrials, where Adolin and Shallan head out to Shadesmar to persuade more Honorspren to bond, felt a little slow.

It felt like moving pieces on a chessboard.

Which it essentially was: Sanderson wanted Navani and Kaladin isolated in Urithiru and the tower made vulnerable, so he needed swathes of his characters to be elsewhere. But as a result, the initial chapters in Shadesmar with Adolin became a little tedious (it is not my favourite locale in any event), and the war effort seemed like what is was, a distraction from the core of the narrative.

Things I did not like: Lirin

This is Lirin, Kaladin’s father. There were things said between them that Lirin as a surgeon and a healer, let alone as a father, should never have said to a vulnerable man. Sorry, but Sanderson’s efforts to make us see that he loved Kaladin despite his words did not work for me.

Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.


Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.

Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.

This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!

So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!

Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!

RATINGS:

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Page Count: 1232

Publisher: Gollancz

Date:  17th November 2020

Available: Amazon, Gollancz

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