The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014) produces mixed emotions. This is the second of a projected ten volumes in a fantasy epic called The Stormlight Archive. There’s just one problem. At slightly under eleven-hundred pages in length, the author has already delivered enough material for five ordinary fantasy books and yet this is only book two. To call this excessive or sprawling would not be an exaggeration. We meet up with characters from the first volume as expected. They are spread around the environment and, in the first instance, not really interacting. Again, I suppose this is to be expected. If everyone got together for a meeting over beer and sandwiches, the series might be over before it has a chance to get epic. So everything that happens in this book is just edging us further forward in our understanding of the world and how the individuals from the different races relate to each other. With eight more books to go, we’re looking at a vista of fantasy unrolling across thousands of pages. It will take years to write and, from a reader’s point of view, endless patience. Indeed, without wishing to be unduly pessimistic about my life expectancy, I will probably die before the series is finished.
At this level, the world building is spectacular in its detail and internal consistency. However you choose to place a value on the craft of writing, Sanderson continues to deliver a world of incredible complexity, both in the flora and fauna, and in the various races that inhabit it. Taking the physical environment which is constantly at risk from the storms, the idea of plants that can withdraw into the ground or surrounding rocks is but one of hundreds of similarly pleasing examples of Darwinism at work. It would be a natural adaptation for the survival of all the different species. Animals also come with shells that can protect them from the wind. There must also be gills because some areas experience flash floods of considerable force and an amphibious adaptation would help them survive. I could go on, but not only are the words themselves ingenious in delivering a picture in the mind’s eye, the publisher has also commissioned internal illustrations from Dan Dos Santos, Ben McSweeney and Isaac Stewart to illustrate the qualities of the different plants, animals, sword fighting stances, and so on. The whole book package is a work of some beauty including the jacket artwork by Michael Whelan which I have set out above so you can appreciate its quality. I only wish it was less heavy to hold.
The political situation also progresses with the human kingdom still riven by warring family disputes. Since the assassination of the old king, the replacement has been struggling. It’s not that he doesn’t have some of the right instincts. Rather that he’s petulant and easily led by the wrong people. This forces his son to assume a de facto position of power. His is a heavy burden. Not only does he have to compensate for his father the king, but also try to bring the families together again. Unfortunately, the politics is clouded by an anticipated change in the world. The history shows there have been previous civilisations which have fallen. So far, enough people have survived to rebuild. But this time it may be different. All of which brings us to the central fantasy which powers the narrative. There’s a form of magic available to some people. Essentially, this works when “spirits” called spren from an adjacent dimension bleed through and begin interacting with the humans that can see them. Over time, this produces a bonding and delivers significant powers to the individuals. They become the Radiants. However, this power depends on the continuing relationship between the Radiant and the spren. If the human does not keep his oath, the sprem will die and the radiance will be lost.
This book is largely taken up with two characters as their relationships with their spren begins to deepen. Both characters are broken. They have suffered extreme emotional pain. One finds it difficult not to give into anger, bitterness and nihilism. His is the more difficult journey because he has blinded himself to his potential and does not understand what form his oath must take and how it can be kept when difficult choices have to be made. The other has considerable insight into the practicality of some aspects of the magic, but doesn’t believe strongly enough in her ability to develop full powers. She’s content to approach the matter with the detached interest of an academic. Except, of course, she finds herself stripped of the opportunity to hide, becoming embroiled in an emerging subplot which introduces a group who first seem little more than a band of assassins, but are later shown to be something more important. So the enduring theme of the book is the process of personal transformation. Just as the other races, plants and wildlife have had to adapt, the rare humans with the potential for growth must also adapt to the opportunity to bond with their spren. Needless to say, a series of this length has a cast of hundreds and, to a greater or lesser extent, they are all given their few pages in the sun. So we meet with everyone from the lowest slaves to the king and high lords. All have their own problems to solve and a wish list for improvements in their quality of life. It proves to be a fascinating read and, because it’s an epic fantasy, it builds to a major climax in which there are some issues resolved, and other plot threads left dangling for future books.
I suppose you could read this as a standalone. It will take you longer to work out who everyone is and what their relationships are, but the narrative drive will keep you going. A lot of interesting things happen. The better route is to read The Way of Kings first. That will give you essential background, enable you to pick up the story more quickly, and enrich the reading experience as The Words of Radiance takes you deeper into this strange world.