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Review: Words of Radiance [★★★★☆]

Words of Radiance Cover Art

Words of Radiance
by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: ★★★★☆
Read From: 18 March 2014 – 30 March 2014
Goal: Awards

Brandon Sanderson has made it abundantly clear that he is, first and foremost, a fan of the fantasy epic. This really shows through in Words of Radiance. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I finished The Way of Kings. I was even more interested after I read Brandon’s explanation of what he wanted to do with the book.

Words of Radiance and the Fantasy Epic.

Words of Radiance is a trilogy.

It’s not part of a trilogy. (I’ve said that Stormlight is ten books, set in two five book arcs.) It is a trilogy. By that I mean I plotted it as I would three books, with smaller arcs for each part and a larger arc for the entire trilogy. (Those break points are, by the way, after part two and after part three, with each of the three “books” being roughly 115,000 words long, 330 pages, or roughly the length of my novel Steelheart, or Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest.) When you read the novel, you’re actually reading an entire trilogy of novels bound together into one volume to encourage you to see them as one whole, connected and intertwined, with a single powerful climax.

Words of Radiance is also a short story collection.

I’ve blogged about my goal for the interludes in these books. Between each section of Words of Radiance, you will find a handful of short stories from the viewpoints of side characters. “Lift,” one of these, has already been posted on Tor.com. There are many others of varying length. Each was plotted on its own, as a small piece of a whole, but also a stand-alone story. (The Eshonai interludes are the exception—like the Szeth interludes in the first book, they are intended as a novelette/novella that is parallel to the main novel.)

Words of Radiance is also an art book.

Many book series have beautiful “world of” books that include artwork from the world, with drawings and descriptions to add depth to the series. My original concept for the Stormlight Archive included sticking this into the novels themselves. Words of Radiance includes brand-new, full-color end pages, as well as around two dozen new pieces of interior art—all in-world drawings by characters or pieces of artwork from the setting itself.

My dream, my vision, for this series is to have each book combine short form stories, several novels, artistic renditions, and the longer form of a series all into a single volume of awesomeness.

I want to mix poetry, experimental shorts, classic fantasy archetypes, song, non-linear flashbacks, parallel stories, and depth of world-building. I want to push the idea of what it means to be an epic fantasy, even a novel, if I can.

I think he nailed it. This book was long, but it never lost my interest. I loved the short story interludes. They added a ton of depth and breadth to his fantasy world. This world feels huge and it feels like it gets a little bit larger with each novel. He’s setting the story up for world changing events and he’s succeeding at making the world feel large enough that “world changing” actually means something.

I was moved by the Eshonai interludes. Sanderson successfully wrote a novella, interspersed with the main narrative, that brought the Parshendi alive as something more than just the enemies of the Alethi. I started out feeling sympathy for what the Parshendi were doing. I finished by feeling grief for what they had become. I’ve gone from thinking of them as the “bad guys” of the story to thinking of them as some of the biggest victims of events.

Moral ambiguity is another highlight of this story. There are multiple characters pursuing multiple goals, along divergent and parallel paths. At this point in the epic, I’m hard put to tell who is pursuing good goals with evil means, ultimately evil goals through good intentions, good goals from a pure heart, or evil goals from an evil heart. Right now, I think I know who the good guys are. But Sanderson has introduced enough ambiguity that I’m worried that that’s just a trick of perspective and that I may ultimately end up sympathizing with one or more characters that I would despise right now.

And then there’s the character arcs. My appreciation for just about every character deepened. Shallan proved to have surprising depths and an even sadder than we expected back story. We already knew she was strong and determined but I’m even more impressed after learning her history.

Kaladin. Wow. I thought I had his arc pegged after The Way of Kings. It looked like he’d survived adversity and turned into a hero of the story, on his way up. Then he spent almost the entire novel sliding right back down into the pit that he’d worked so hard to climb out of. He worked hard to alienate his friends and to betray the trust that he’d been given. He acted nothing like the hero that I had thought we were about to see.

Kaladin’s arc through Words of Radiance was entirely necessary. After everything he’s been through, it would have been far too easy for him to have ended up on the top that quickly. He needed to face the inner demons that he did. He’d banked a lot of hatred and anger during his life. Gaining magical powers couldn’t immediately erase that. His success at the end of the book was all the more exciting because of it. It would have been exciting in any case. But given what he went through, it was fist-pumping awesome. As much as Kaladin grew in this book, I don’t think he’s done changing and learning. I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes next.

Sanderson’s world is large. Gigantic forces are in play. Many different people are doing many different things, for many varied and complex reasons. This book was a non-stop, white-knuckle ride and I’m ready to pre-order the next installment.