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The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

March 30, 2014 5 comments

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

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.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

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.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

January 12, 2011 2 comments

Jacket artwork by Michael Whelan

Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.

 

Before

 

I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?

 

After

 

Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.

 

This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.

 

The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.

 

That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.

 

At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.

 

I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.

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