Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
I'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has ended, but the winners aren't announced until August, so I'm pressing on...
Words of Radiance (2014) is the second volume in the Stormlight Archive, a projected ten volume series. Its predecessor, The Way of Kings (2012) was a previous DGLA winner, and, although I had some reservations, it was certainly a worthy one. As I noted at the time, it is "as good as a book can be without being exceptional" - and I bandied around words like "entertaining" and "hugely dramatic". Faint praise, but praise.
I've reviewed Sanderson a lot, thanks to his DGLA dominance. And those reviews have more or less gone from 'not so great' (The Alloy of Law) to 'good for what it is' (A Memory of Light) to 'pretty good' (The Way of Kings, The Final Empire). I don't seek his work out, but I've never needed to, as his annual fantasy book always winds up on the DGLA list. It is fair to say that I've grown accustomed to a certain standard of decency.
I say all this to establish a baseline. I'm not a Sanderson fan, but I daresay I've got a proven track record of not being a hater. So please don't immediately disregard my opinion when I say Words of Radiance is a very bad book.
(Oh, spoilers everywhere. But that's the thing about Words of Radiance - as the second book in a ten book series, and a book that's already 1,000+ pages into that series, the readership is entirely self-selecting. Which explains, for example, the 4.76 average rating on Goodreads. The vast, vast majority of people who aren't going to like this book will have never picked it up. Which is to say, I'm not going to be shy about spoiling it.)
The Way of Kings set up a vast new universe - a setting in which concepts (abstract and physical) take life as fairies called spren and technology and magic are fueled by the energy from magical storms, as captured in fragmented gemstones. Over the course of its 1,000-odd pages, we learned about the hierarchical Alethi society, and their perpetual competition for nests of valuable gems. Gems guarded by another humanoid species, the Parshendi.
Our protagonists in The Way of Kings were Kaladin, a dark-eyes (sort of 'lower caste' Alethi) who gets pressed into a suicide squad of 'bridgemen' and, much to his surprise, starts to develop magical powers. The other two major point-of-view characters were Dalinar, a light-eyes noble who learns his capital-c-Cause from a higher being and Shallan, who studies history and also starts discovering magical powers of her own. At the end of the book, we learn something big and evil is coming, but, that's ok, because Dalinar, Kaladin and Shallan are all clearly developing the superheroic magical mojo to resist it.
Guess what? 1,100 pages of Words of Radiance later, we are in exactly the same place. Evil: big, coming. Dalinar, Kaladin, Shallan: super-special. Conflict: on the horizon.
And that's the first and most obvious of Words of Radiance's problems: it is way too long, and it somehow feels even longer because it goes absolutely nowhere. This is a book - a second book! so it starts with characters and a plot! - with a similar word count to the entirety of The Lord of the Rings (and over twice the length of Dune!). And yet, arguably, you could append the final chapter of Words of Radiance to the tail end of The Way of Kings and not miss out on a thing.1
That's not to say Words of Radiance lacks progression. That's certainly there, but not in the traditional, literary sense. The vast majority of the book is focused on Kaladin and Shallan experimenting, exploring and unlocking new powers. Even the much-built-up-to battle sequence is less cathartic than it might seem, possibly because it along clocks in at almost 200 pages.
The length also calls attention to the book's other issues. For example, the writing is heavily reliant on repetition. Similarly, the absence of emotional engagement and compelling prose is masked by made-up words, exclamation marks and all-caps bellowing.
For example, one of the more dramatic passages:
Not just a Shardbearer. Radiant. A knight in resplendent Shardplate that glowed with a deep red at the joints and in certain markings. Armor did that in the shadowdays. This vision was taking place before the Recreance. (73)
Don't get me wrong. Paragraphs like this demonstrate impressive world-building. But the book hammers away with fake SFnal jargon instead of piecing together existing language in an evocative way. Certainly fantasy has worked with imaginary tongues before, but this lacks the rhythm of Beowulf, the ethereal beauty of Tolkien's Elvish or, hell, even the rasping brutality of Klingon. By comparison, this is epic fantasy baby-talk.
As another example, here's an extract from the climactic fight scene:
He Lashed himself back away from Szeth, then forced Stormlight into his greying, lifeless hand. With an effort, he made the color return, but Szeth was already upon him with an airborne lunge. Mist formed in Kaladin's left hand as he raised it to ward, and a silvery shield appeared, glowing with a soft light. Szeth's Blade deflected away, causing the man to grunt in surprise. (1035)
This sequence, the book's ultimate conflict, is best described as mechanical. Superheroic fantasy combat! - but mechanical none the less. The one emotion conveyed - 'surprise - is explicitly told and not shown. Sadly, the telling is par for the course. The characters think a lot, always explicitly, and almost always in italics.
As for other moments of passion, the romance isn't much better. (Although it is, for better or for worse, devoid of Lashings.)
He tried to mumble something, but she kept on kissing, pressing her lips against his, letting him feel her desire. He melted into the kiss, then grabbed her by the torso and pulled her close. (1057)
I'm even not sure how this works. The chasteness (they're pressing lips!) is adorable, but the action is physically impossible. How do you pull someone's torso? Did he just yank on her breasts?! That would seem a bit forward after that closed-mouth lip-pressing. This is not sexy.
Words of Radiance is 1,100 pages in this style: repetition, fantasy jargon, and characters committing sequences of actions with all the emotional intensity of assembling IKEA furniture.
Finally, I found the subtext of this book to be really problematic. The Alethi begin the book (and series) as colonial powers. The princes are competing to harvest the natural resources of the Parshendi, up to and including enslaving the people themselves.
The big twist of the series so far is that the Parshendi are revealed to be agents of an ancient (essentially Satanic) evil. Which gives us the 'ticking clock' of Words of Radiance: can Dalinar convince his people to stop dicking about with the looting and slavery, and really commit to a crusade?
As Dalinar, the recipient of visions from God, says to his troops:
"I have been sent by the Almighty himself to save this land from another Desolation. I have seen what these things can do; I have lived lives broken by the Voidbringers. I've seen kingdoms shattered, peoples ruined, technology forgotten. I've seen civilisation itself brought to the crumbling edge of collapse." (972)
This is the core conflict of the book. Not whether or not the Parshendi are evil: that's a fact of the text. The challenge is whether or not the Alethi will recognise that fact in time.
There are two additional layers to this already uncomfortable narrative.
The first is, of course, that the Parshendi are dark-skinned, and described as athletic, primitive, superstitious and (literally) having a great sense of rhythm. In any context, this would be awkward. But in a book that's essentially about an apocalyptic race war, it disastrous.
The second is the way this story is presented. Words of Radiance is not written from a multi-faceted point of view: a colonialist narrative that is then balanced by a second, equal narrative from any other perspective. Indeed, its colonial point of view is never questioned. It is presented as objective truth. Dalinar does talk to God, the Parshendi are minions of the great evil, a potential slave uprising is a bad thing, and the challenge here is a race against the clock to commit genocide.
As Navani notes in one of the chapter epigrams, which is written as historical post-script:
"We did not take note of the changed pattern of our enemies... the true danger." (150)
The Parshendi themselves know it. Rlain is a Parshendi spy - the one 'good' Parshendi; the one who sees the light. He tells the Alethi:
"They hate you and your kind, sir. This new form... it is something terrible. It will bring something terrible." (958)
Rlain then agrees with Dalinar that the right thing to do - the "most important thing to do" is help the Alethi army annihilate his people.
The idea of forms, mentioned here, is another way that the Parshendi are uncomfortably portrayed. They can only be 'one' thing at a time, and whatever that is serves as their form - mind and body: warrior, mate or, as we learn, slave. It is, again, an uncomfortable and badly-dated notion: the idea that members of a race of people can only be certain things, and are limited to those roles. But, of course, in this case, this racialised 'science' is how the world actually works, and not just a very, very awkward parallel.
There's also the slavery. The omnipresence of Parshmen (Parshendi slaves) makes our protagonists twitchy, but not because of any problems inherent to the idea of slavery. Our heroes' concern is self-interested: they're nervous that the slaves will revolt and crash the Alethi economy. This is in stark contrast to Kaladin's story arc. He's forced into indentured servitude at the start of The Way of Kings, which is portrayed as a massive injustice.
At one point, Shallan, ship-wrecked, is rescued by a slave convoy. She's nervous, but, again, only on her own behalf. They've been transporting Parshendi, but Shallan's concern about them is solely on the theological level: "Parshmen. Voidbringers. Her skin crawled." (149) Again, these are slaves - but her discomfort is that they're also demons.
Later, she does feel some humanitarian twinges - in fact, Shallan talks to them:
"Are you happy with your life? Would you rather be free, given the chance?"
The parshman looked up at her and frowned. He scrunched up his brow, mouthing a few of the words, then shook his head. He didn't understand.
"Freedom?" Shallan prodded
He hunched down to work.
He actually looks uncomfortable, Shallan thought. Embarrassed for not understanding. His posture seemed to say, "Please stop asking me questions."....
These are evil monsters, she told herself forcefully, creatures of legend who will soon be bent on destroying everyone and everything around them. Standing here, looking in at them, she found it difficult to believe, even though she had accepted the evidence.... Persuading the lighteyes to rid themselves of their parshmen was going to be nearly impossible. She would need very, very solid proof. (249)
This conversation exists to alleviate the reader's concerns alongside Shallan's. A reassurance that we needn't have reservations, because the parshmen are too stupid to even understand the concept of freedom. In fact, the very notion of it makes them uncomfortable. They are, Words of Radiance argues, actually better off as slaves.
There's a pernicious narrative sleight-of-hand taking place here. It isn't that slavery is wrong - that's quickly brushed aside. The 'real' issue here is that the slaves are actually evil. Why, look how harmless they might appear! Good thing we know they are evil, else you might be fooled into overlooking them. (Or, you know, question a society built on slavery.) It isn't the slavery that troubles Shallan, it is the daunting task of convincing other people that their slaves are more evil than they are useful.
It isn't that Words of Radiance has problems - it is plagued with a whole host of unfortunate cultural and historical parallels and insinuations. It is that, rather than addressing these issues, it doubles down.2 There's no problem with genocide because the enemies are objectively evil, and will literally destroy the world if they go unchecked. There's no issue with slavery because the slaves literally don't even understand freedom. There's no issue with the slaughter and the butchery and the slavery and the looting, because the victims are all literally non-persons, without feelings, without souls and - hell, the Alethi are just doing them a favour. The slaves wouldn't be able to feed themselves, and God says the dark-skinned people are cursed. This is an imaginary world that expresses (inadvertently, I'm sure) exactly how the supremacist fringe views the real world, and that's a frightening thing.
Is it fantastic? Yes. This book doesn't skimp is the world building, especially in terms of the magic system. By the end, Kaladin and His Amazing Friends leap through the clouds smashing one another with shape-shifting psychic swords, whilst entire armies teleport from place to place as magical storms smash together, etc. etc. So, yeah. There's some magic in here.
Is it entertaining? No. When I write phrases like 'shape-shifting psychic swords' and think about the concept of crystal-armored super-warriors leaping across a blasted plain, smashing into one another with brutal magical forces... it would be easy to fool myself into thinking this book was steathily awesome. But that's not the book I read.
Despite containing the constituent elements of awesomeness, Words of Radiance is passionless and dry; a narrative of storm-prefixes and closed-mouth kissing.3 This book had the potential for entertainment, but it is squandered. Want contrast? Read The Way of Kings.
Is it immersive? Maybe. I can see why some people get into this. It is like listening to someone else talk about playing a video game. Words of Radiance is high fantasy for Generation Twitch. All the characters do is level up, collect mana and explore their specialised skill trees. There's a part of me that is interested in hearing other people talk about playing video games. I'm just not 1,100 pages worth of interested.
Is it emotionally engaging? Well grab me by the torso and call me StormSally, but... no.
Is it embarrassing? Yes. See above - this is a fantasy of imperialism, slavery and race-war, and one that justifies itself by creating a world of objective Good and Evil. That's using the sandbox of secondary world fantasy to great, and horrifying, effect. Intentionally or not, this is the most political of all this year's finalists, and the politics it espouses are terrifying to me. I wasn't pleased with the way The Way of Kings set things up, but this actually went steaming off in the worst possible direction.
Is it different? Uh. No? Yes? I don't really know. I'm going to give it a no. But I read a lot of fantasy books, but I haven't disliked one this much in a long, long time. So, you know, there's something special about it.
I'll give the last word to Wit, Sanderson's mythos-spanning meta-narrative creation. Like Fizban, except with more plot interference and less grandfatherly charm:
"If you gain a reputation for being too good, too skilled... beware. The better art will be in their heads, and if you give them an ounce less than they imagined, suddenly you have failed." (1077)
Perhaps this too is a clever way of precluding criticism, as Words of Radiance is rather a great deal less than what I imagined it would be.
Or, then again, it could just be bad.
1. Words almost kills off two major characters, making this almost a moot point. However, they're both resurrected in the final chapter, ensuring not only that nothing meaningful happened but that, quite possibly, nothing meaningful will ever happen.↩
2. Incidentally, this happens on a different topic as well. When Shallan is set up with an arranged marriage, she's quickly asked if she would be offended, because of the 'restriction of freedom... and because the offer was made without consulting you'. Shallan is totally baffled, because, like, the one time she did ever pursue her own relationship, the dude totally turned out to be an evil assassin. Plus "It's not like I'm being sold into slavery", she adds "laughing". (45) (OH THE IRONY) I think this 'let's do an end-run around any possible criticism' approach is really unpleasant. ("How could you say something could be wrong for you? It is right for me! Look at this hyperbolic imaginary scenario that proves my point!" #notallarrangedmarriages)↩
3. Fun fact! There are 1,398 uses of the word 'storm' - including its derivatives highstorm, stormfather, or just swearing 'Storms!' - over 1,080 pages. That's over one per page. (Both numbers exclude the appendix.)↩