CRUISING THE COSMERE: Words of Radiance (Book Review)
What do we look for in a sequel? For me personally, I want to see growth both in characters and plot. I look for a deeper level of world-building, and I hope for some answers to questions raised in the first book. Words of Radiance is the second instalment in the ambitious series, Stormlight Archives, and I can attest, it delivers on all these scores.
Whereas The Way of Kings was very much Kaladin’s story, this time the focus shifts to Shallan Davar, who embarks upon many journeys throughout this novel. I found myself captivated by Shallan’s growth; as she tasks herself to continue Jasnah’s research into finding the fabled lost city of Urithiru, and to heed warnings of the looming threat of the Parshendi in Alethkar, she experiences more of the world, she challenges herself to find ways to strive, and in turn she changes drastically. No longer shy, placid and sheltered, Shallan really begins to transform into a strong-willed, independent woman, one who under no circumstances will be confined by others.
During the chapters which depicted Shallan’s backstory we learn so much about her family dynamics. She has led a traumatic life indeed, one filled with a violent intimidating father, troubled brothers, and one where she is hidden from the rest of the world. There were a few scenes which clearly stuck out in my mind, the first being when Shallan daringly goes into a gambling establishment and witnesses women’s ‘safe hands’ ‘scandalously’ uncovered, which utterly disgusted and shocked her. Her uncomfortable reaction within this entire scene shows just how much she was sheltered in her past, and how the world was shaping her younger self to feel ashamed, as many cultures of today still do by forcing women to cover up for their ideals of modesty. The second scene being the final showdown with Shallan’s father, which if you’ve read this book, you’ll know illustrates a very different, darker, side to Shallan. I highly credit Sanderson for the way he reveals in great depth just how far Shallan has come from the girl she once was.
I personally found myself resonating with Shallan a lot – her love of learning and expressing creativity, that sharp wit, her appreciation of nature and wildlife, even the way she enjoyed watching gentle rainfall. I saw a lot of myself in her characteristics and although I was already fond of Shallan before, I grew to love her even more in this sequel.
‘She let the work consume her. The familiar sound of pencil on paper, the focus of creation. Beauty was out there, all around. To create art was not to capture it, but to participate in it.’
That’s not to say we lose sight of any of our other key players though, as I have come to expect from Sanderson, he always provides his readers with a panoramic view of each of his characters. So, after the turbulent events in The Way of Kings, where did that leave my beloved Kaladin?
Well, Kaladin, now captain of Dalinar’s guard, remained as broody and conflicted as ever. Throughout the book I warred between wanting to slap some sense into him and give him a hug! Kaladin is a man of honour, a man who is consistently suffering, who never thinks highly of himself, a man who cannot see a way to be happy. Although he could be frustrating at times, I felt much empathy for him, especially as by the end, as events take dramatic turns, he learns an awful lot. It also helped that some of the most memorable scenes throughout the book revolved around Kaladin. For example, I absolutely loved his combat training scenes with Zahel, and then there was the iconic duel with Adolin and Kaladin facing six shardbearers. Here dear reader, is where you will see me eat my own words and bow my head in shame! In my review of The Way of Kings I had criticised Sanderson’s ability to deliver well executed action scenes, but my gosh I take it back, because those chapters of the duel were masterful. In fact, Words of Radiance incorporated many combat scenes which were the very definition of epic and intense, Sanderson actually managed to give me goosebumps!
‘Kaladin knew the truth of battle now. Fighting was not about glory, but about men lying on the ground screaming and thrashing, tangled in their own viscera. It was about bridgemen thrown against a wall of arrows, or of Parshendi cut down while they sang.
Yet in this moment, Kaladin let himself dream again. He gave his youthful self—still there deep inside him—the spectacle he’d always imagined. He pretended that these soldiers were about something wonderful, instead of just another pointless slaughter.’
Onto the more political side of the book, I very much enjoyed the way Sanderson presented Dalinar as regal but also riddled with many doubts. Dalinar’s primary task throughout this series so far has been to unite the many leaders of Alethkar and prepare each nation for the coming invasion of the Voidbringers. On outward appearances he seems to be the leader that Alethkar is in desperate need of, resourceful and determined, but underneath he truly questions what it is to be a king. Was it right for him and his brother, Gavilar, to take the throne by force? Was it right to let Elokar, who is obviously weak, rule? Is it right to question King Elokar’s every decision even if you know he is wrong? Dalinar questions whether he is truly a tyrant rather than a saviour, which shows how torn he is between honour and doing what is necessary, whatever that may be. This also forces us to ponder the moralities of Alethkar’s leadership too. You really do have to stay on your toes in this book, because between the lines there are so many connections to the past.
I always look forward to Sanderson’s meticulously detailed world-building whenever I read his books, and in this one, my gosh, I was left mind-blown! One of the most curious aspects of Way of Kings was when the notion of Surgebinders and sprens was introduced, which we learn very little about though. However, in Words of Radiance our knowledge grows in leaps and bounds. I thoroughly appreciated the way Brandon Sanderson doesn’t leave us hanging for answers, although we inevitably are left with more questions too!
Early on in the novel Shallan picks up an intriguing companion – Pattern, who like Syl is also a form of spren. As Shallan discovers more about Pattern, he teaches her more about her abilities and about their bond together, and our understanding develops too. We discover key information such as how the Knights Radiants could only access their abilities through their bonded sprens. By the end we also learn more shocking revelations about sprens too, and we certainly begin to see past their cute fantastical facade, and realise how vital they are to this story. I think one of the aspects I particularly love about Sanderson’s books is the way he includes fascinating non-human characters, and Pattern and Syl really do hit that sweet spot for me. Let’s not forget, we also learn more about Stormlight too, predominantly through Kaladin as he grows in power. Our knowledge of surgebinders such as windrunners and lightweavers deepens as Sanderson shows us more of what these powers can actually achieve.
I feel that Sanderson once again does a fantastic job of weaving his magic system throughout the entire novel without creating passages of info-dumping. However his world-building doesn’t merely end at the magic system because this time around we also get to learn about the Parshendi race and their culture. In The Way of Kings I had found the interludes were jarring and often tedious, yet — again I’m forced to eat my words! — the interludes in this book were much more significant. With the inclusion of a POV from Eshonai, a Parshendi warrior/general, brought us much anticipated knowledge of their species. You see, the Parshendi communicate through song, and have different forms which can change accordingly to their needs. Throughout this novel they begin preparing and adapting physically and mentally for war. The build up to this was downright thrilling and made for one explosive conclusion.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, I also can’t end this review without mentioning the humour in this instalment, because the banter was top-notch! In Way of Kings we had a taster of the humour but in Words of Radiance we go full throttle with sharp repartee. Many times I found myself chuckling and cringing through Shallan and Adolin’s awkward courtship, I laughed out loud at the innocent sarcasm from Pattern, the outright banter from Bridge Four, and Syl’s cheeky slights against Kaladin. Sanderson shows himself to be an author who can create heavily flawed and scarred characters but in juxtaposition he can also make them fun.
Clocking in at around 1180 pages (about as long as this review is!) this was a beast of a book, but one I felt leaps from strength to strength. For fans of epic fantasy, those who enjoy an impossible fight against oncoming doom, those who appreciate a dark world but one that is flourished with hope, this is the series made for you. In my eyes Words of Radiance is a phenomenal book, one where a master storyteller is revelling in his craft.
A man’s breath was his life. Exhaled, bit by bit, back into the world. Kaladin breathed deeply, eyes closed, and for a time that was all he could hear. His own life. In, out, to the beating of the thunder in his chest.
Breath. His own little storm.’
Remember folks, journey before destination.