It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. I’ve stated that many times here, and I often use him as a yardstick for my own writing skills. Why? Because he’s one of the few authors out there who is popular and accessible, but also takes worldbuilding seriously. In other words, he’s a kindred spirit, an idealized version of myself in one specific aspect.
I felt that way when I got hooked on Mistborn. His series that started with Skyward filled a need I didn’t know I had. And then there’s his in-progress magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive.
This thing is massive. It’s comparable to the Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire novel series in sheer size and scope, but it’s really nothing like either in the details. No, this is something else.
So far, the series comprises four enormous tomes. The first, Way of Kings, clocks in over 1000 pages, and this is no simple text. I knew that when I saw the table of contents, which included not only two different prologues, but also an “Ars Arcanum” section (a common feature of Sanderson’s writings, where he describes the book’s magic system through the eyes of a character) and illustrations.
That’s a trend that has carried through the series. These books are works of art, and I encourage anyone who wants to read them to pick up the hardcovers. They’re just worth it.
(Note that I will be spoiling the first three books of The Stormlight Archive. That’s kinda hard not to do when you’re discussing the fourth entry in an epic fantasy series.)
Rhythm of War picks up, following a prologue that is the fourth retelling of a pivotal event in the series, shortly after Oathbringer leaves off. The world of Roshar is at war, as the dark god Odium has resurfaced after thousands of years. His malign influence turned the enslaved Parshendi into the demonic Voidbringers, powerful beings from such a distant past that they were thought to be legendary.
Standing against the tide of darkness are the Knights Radiant, a small but growing group of humans with divine powers of their own, granted when they bond with beings called “spren”, fairy-like creatures that represent emotions, forces, elements, and essentially any other part of the world.
Odium’s forces control much of the world, while the Radiants and their followers have retreated to the lost city of Urithiru, and it is here that most of the book’s story takes place. For the Voidbringers have found a way to not only locate the lost city, but turn its magical defenses on the Radiants, shutting them down.
The secondary plot of Rhythm of War concerns the spren themselves, specifically those representing honor. These are some of the most powerful, as they are closer to divinity; Honor is another deity of the setting, specifically the one worshipped by humans as the Almighty. Problem is, he’s dead. The circumstances leading to his death were revealed in prior books, and the fallout has been on display ever since.
Honor’s spren “children” consider humans to be oathbreakers, owing to events of ages gone by, and they have begun to refuse the bonds that create knew Knights Radiant. That weakens the war effort, obviously, so getting them back on the good guys’ side is paramount. Doing that, however, requires meeting them on their own terms, in a kind of parallel dimension called variously Shadesmar or simply the “Cognitive Realm”.
This is one of those Sanderson conceits, and I have to pull you aside to explain the gist of it. Many of his works are in a shared setting, the Cosmere—this inspired my own Paraverse, as I’ve stated before. Rather than a single planet, however, the Cosmere is something closer to a whole galaxy. Roshar is merely one planet. In fact, it’s one of three in its system. The other two, Ashyn and Braize, are not physically inhabitable (Ashyn used to be, apparently), but have a kind of spiritual presence; humans in the series consider them heaven and hell, respectively.
Other books in the setting take place on different planets. Mistborn, for instance, is set in the world of Scadriel. For the most part, this is nothing more than flavor, a background detail put in for more serious readers to drool over. Each world has its own characters, its own history, its own magic system, and they’re mostly separate.
With Rhythm of War, that’s starting to change. I don’t know if this is because The Stormlight Archive is meant to be a series that “connets” the Cosmere as a whole, but it certainly seems that way. Flavor text, in the form of opening quotes, talks of the various “shards of Adonalsium”, some kind of divine artifact that effectively turns people into demigods. Odium has one, that of Passion. Honor’s was, well, Honor. Sazed, a character in Mistborn, gets two of them, uniting Preservation and Ruin into Harmony.
It’s all very interesting, if mostly because it’s so maddeningly vague. We get a few tantalizing hints that some of the Stormlight characters are from other parts of the Cosmere. One, known only as Wit, actually is: he’s some kind of world-hopping author insert who has cameos in all the setting’s various novels. Obscure references from him and the chapter intros point to something big happening in the universe at large. As Sanderson has repeatedly stated that he’s a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I can imagine what sort of reckoning that would be.
So Roshar is part of a larger setting, but that doesn’t mean it’s bland. Not by any means. As usual for a Sanderson world, there’s a lot of thought put into it. The world map is a rough approximation of a Julia fractal, for instance, and this fits with a number of references to mathematics and aesthetics that permeate the series. The original Knights Radiant all have palindrome names (e.g., Kelek) as did their cities—Urithiru counts if you treat “th” as a single letter.
The biggest feature of the world is the storm. Something of a supernatural hurricane, it repeatedly crashes into the east coast of the Roshar continent at somewhat regular intervals, bringing heavy rain, damaging winds, and the magical essence of Stormlight.
In typical Sanderson fashion, the storm defines the cultures, the kingdoms, and every aspect of life. The word “storm” itself can be used as a curse. (The author prefers not to use English profanity due to his religion, so this is his way around that.) Calendars are oriented around the storm schedule rather than the sun and moon—moons, rather, as Roshar has…two, I think? Cities, towns, and even villages have to bear the brunt of constant battering, so they’re designed to sit in the lee of walls or natural rock formations. And so on.
But the worldbuilding goes deeper than this, because you also have to take into account the geography, the ecology, and here is where Brandon Sanderson shines. Roshar is a harsh planet with harsh terrain. Except in the far western land of Shinovar, where storms are far weaker, the land is cold, rocky, and downright alien. There’s no topsoil, because it’s all been eroded away. Permanent rivers are rare. And the native life reflects that. Instead of trees, plant life mostly consists of short, stout organisms, most of which have adapted to encase themselves in hard shells. Animals do the same; some also have gemstones within, a nod to oysters and the fabled bezoar that serves as a major plot point.
Natives to Roshar don’t see anything wrong with this. To them, it’s life, even if it’s a life unlike ours. In much the same way, Mistborn‘s inhabitants think nothing of a sky full of volcanic ash or a land so brown it could be a map in a Quake game. The inhabitants of Skyward‘s devastated planet know only their world, their life of eternal aerial warfare and a life lived underground.
That’s what draws me to Sanderson’s works. He doesn’t make a big deal about his worlds. They’re different, sometimes so incredibly different that we find it difficult to imagine them. But to his characters, they’re home. And home is nothing special. It’s just where we live. It’s part of who we are.
If he has any weak spots, writing good characters definitely comes close to the top of the list. Kaladin is exactly like Vin, Spinsa, and almost any other protagonist Sanderson writes. The troubled youth with a checkered past who stumbles into a superpower. It’s so cliche that you want to cringe, but he plays it well, and the worldbuilding more than makes up for it.
I will say that he’s getting better. Rhythm of War‘s ensemble cast at least offers variety. It’s also pretty much the DSM-5 in novel form, though. Kaladin is now suffering from severe depression and anxiety, which resonated with me so strongly that I sometimes had to put the book down. Shallan has multiple personalities (whatever that’s officially called these days) that get confusing in the narration. Taravangian, a relatively minor character who ends the novel in a much different position, is a bona fide sociopath.
It goes on from there. Kaladin mentors a small number of men who clearly have PTSD. The Lost Heralds—four of the original Knights who found immortality at some point—are varying degrees of insane. Adolin is a narcissist, though he is getting better; one of his subplots turned out to be my favorite part of the story, even ahead of exploring the lost city and waging a resistance against an occupation force. Schizophrenics, psychopaths, and sadists are all represented in the cast. One of the heroes has a developmental disorder, but pretends to be mute so no one will hear his “slow” speech.
In other words, it’s almost like everyone in Roshar is damaged in some way. Nobody’s perfect, and this setting shows the truth of that in all its naked glory. That said, these characters aren’t defined by their mental state. They’re people. Kaladin, for example, has a very good reason for his depression: he blames himself for his brother’s death eight years ago, and losing his friends in battle only reminds him of that. His father pressured him into becoming a surgeon, someone who saves lives instead of ending them, but fate put him in this position.
There are other good characters. I greatly enjoyed Navani’s story of invention, experimentation, and quiet resistance. The spren, when seen in their native realm, are a fascinating take on fairy and “daemon” myths. Most of all, the people interact in ways that seem logical. You don’t always understand their reasons, but you get that they have them. It’s a rarity in today’s hyper-politicized fantasy landscape.
The fatal flaw
I’ve said this one before. If I have any problem with Sanderson’s writing, it’s not the worldbuilding. No, that’s top-notch. It’s not even the character development, because I can see that he’s getting better at that. Book design? Rhythm of War, like its three predecessors, is a masterpiece in that department.
But the prose. Oh, the prose.
I will freely admit that I’ve never taken a class on writing. I scraped by in English class in high school, even if I somehow managed to be #1 in the school on standardized writing assessments. (20 years later, and I still can’t figure that one out!) On top of that, when I write a novel like Nocturne or Innocence Reborn, I’m doing it without an editor. I’m my own proofreader. You’d need a microscope to find my self-esteem, a miracle to get me to praise my own work.
Despite all that, I can say with no reservations that my prose is far better than that of my favorite author. Yes, Rhythm of War is 1200 pages, but he could probably cut a hundred or more off that if he just learned how to use a pronoun every now and then. His word choices leave a lot to be desired, and leave what would be an otherwise impeccable book with long stretches of repetitive dialogue or narration. And all that isn’t getting any better. It was the same in Mistborn—the prologue of Shadows of Self left me literally wincing at points.
Unlike many, I won’t criticize Sanderson for avoiding profanity. I do the same thing in my works. It’s a personal decision that contributes to an author’s style. For the same reason, I had no problem with Peter Brett’s use of dialectal speech in the Demon Cycle series, to name one example. It fit his style and the world he was building.
Yet there’s no excuse for some of the cringeworthy prose in these bestsellers. (Worst of all, in my opinion, was the random use of “okay” by a character in Oathbringer. I have never in my life lost suspension of disbelief so fast.) What is the point of a professional editor if not to polish these things?
Take that away, and Rhythm of War is a solid 10 in all respects. Sure, the series as a whole is a huge time investment, but it’s one that pays out better dividends than buying GameStop stock. You’re getting access to a beautifully made world, a creation that rivals Middle-Earth in its complexity and sheer gravity. The story is truly epic. The characters are, in some cases, perfectly imperfect. Sanderson knows how to write.
I just wish he’d learn how to write.