Friday, April 4, 2014

The Stormlight Archive: Words of Radiance

"Words of Radiance" is the second novel of The Stormlight Archive, a series of a planned-ten epic fantasy novels from prolific author, Brandon Sanderson.  Three years ago, while in visiting a part of the world straight out of fantasy literature, I read the first book, "The Way of Kings", and wrote a rambling absolutely terrible post about it.  You don't have to read that post, but the book itself is definitely worth your time.  Sanderson is a better writer than me, do not worry.  "The Way of Kings" was easily Sanderson's best novel, bringing a new level of imagination, creativity, and excitement to the fantasy genre.  Its really startling the level of detail Sanderson has put into his world, creating several sciences of magical forms, a completely new culture, and a world geography built around a constant barrage of attacking storms.  All of that continues with the second volume, "Words of Radiance".

Final Fantasy wishes it had the creative powers of Brandon Sanderson.  Certainly the worlds of Spira and Cocoon are not lacking in the fantastic elements, but JRPGs rarely manage to add a coherent culture, religion, and scientific reasoning behind all of its magical elements.  More importantly, Sanderson indulges in his hokier instincts - the climax of "Words of Radiance" is essentially a "Dragonball Z" flying battle involving a Super Saiyan - yet never allows all of his sillier action demands to get in the way of characters.  "Words of Radiance" might be almost too character driven, as just like "Way of Kings", it spends most of its 1000+ pages slowly building the characters, developing their interactions, and having them reflect (often rather endlessly) upon their decisions.  What's important is that Sanderson can bring everything:  the spectacle, the humanity, and the color of the world, and that's a quality almost unique to him alone.

The star of "Words of Radiance" is Shallan Davar, a beautiful red-haired teenaged scholar with magical powers, a magical sword, a fairy companion, savant-level powers of drawing from memory, and a charming sense of humor which immediately makes every male her age fall in love with her.  So we're dangerously skirting Mary Sue-ness with this protagonist.  Sanderson uses a revolving protagonist for his series, so Shallan will only be plot tumor for this one book, and her current happiness is ephemeral, clearly.  The first book starred the much less cute Kaladin Stormblessed, a bitter slave being worked to death by the corrupt aristocracy that took his future and murdered most of his loved ones, so "Words of Radiance" comes off as something of a more bubbly high school adventure than a dark war novel.  Luckily Shallan is still well rounded as a character, Kaladin is still around to be one of the best fantasy characters of all time, and Sanderson sets up the story well for the remaining eight books.

And that's as far I'll get without spoilers.  From now on I'm assuming you've read the book.  If you haven't you will be confused, lost, and annoyed - which will not be my fault.  Read on... IF YOU DARE.

The main thrust of "Words of Radiance" has absolutely nothing to do with the eponymous book, 'Words of Radiance'.  That historical work is used only for a few chapter opening quotes - a Sanderson staple - but its importance is rather ignored, unlike 'The Way of Kings' from the first book, which was a major element and defined Dalinar Kholin's character arc and personal philosophy.  I'm guessing Sanderson is going to make this a trope in the series to name every novel after a fictional book from Roshar.  'Words of Radiance' would probably be a useful guide to tell everybody about the emergence of new magical classes and what group does what, but sadly nobody pays too much attention to it.

What "Words of Radiance" is really about is the end of the first act of the greater Stormlight Archive.  The book feels light and happy, most likely because these are the light and happy times.  It is that early phase of every fantasy universe where the characters discover the ancient myths are not merely legends, but actually prophesies of doom.  Sanderson, after spending a couple thousand pages stuck in the Shattered Plains still fighting the Parshendi while Alethi nobles conspire against each other, suddenly jumps forward in the last few hundred pages towards a whole new element of the story.  The Parshendi are defeated for now, but they've unleashed a tide of world destruction, building a massive army of Voidbringers.  The heroes have gained their superpowers, but it may not be enough to face off against the destruction to come.

Blue and orange contrasts are all the rage these days.
Its like if in A Song of Ice and Fire the Others ever actually managed to reach Westeros.  Who knows if that will ever actually happen at this rate though...

Since "Words of Radiance" is the probably the bright sunny part of the Stormlight Archive, most of the novel is focused not on the war, but on Shallan's various romantic and spying adventures.  Her powers develop specifically for stealth, meaning she can lurk around the Alethi Warcamps to get entwined with the various hidden factions hiding within the human nations.  Somehow pretending to be a Darkeyed merchant girl never quite has that same sense of drama as Kaladin dragging along a bridge into a hail of lethal arrows.  Shallan's flirtations between Adolin Kholin (Team Jacob) and Kaladin Stormblessed (Team Edward) almost turns the entire novel into a girl's fantasy romance*.

Shallan is a little too similar to the rest of Sanderson's female protagonists, cheerful, virginal, and earnest, her character needs a bit more rounding, I feel.  A dark backstory doesn't quite get to the point.   It is stated that Shallan's external personality is all an act to protect herself from her secrets and fears, but I don't really know what there is below the jokes and the young girl fears.  She's not a bad character, but Sanderson has his limitations as an author it seems, and having Shallan star in a book seems to reaching them.

Before I began reading "Words of Radiance", I imagined for myself a few potential plot threads that I personally dreaded the most**.  At the top of the list was Brandon Sanderon shipping together Shallan and Kaladin, since I figured the two personalities are entirely unfit together, and it was too obvious a choice.  She's hot, he's hot, he's important, she's important, better have them make little baby Radiant Knights, right?  But much to my dismay, Sanderson pushed together, trapping the characters together for an extended period in the valleys of the Shattered Plains.  And further to my dismay, Sanderson managed to make the pairing work.  Shallan and Kaladin rubbed off on each other exactly perfectly, with Shallan's rather desperate attempts to be clever and happy contrasting with Kaladin's prickly and serious air.  Kaladin hated himself for liking Shallan, Shallan hated herself for liking Kaladin when she was supposed to be engaged to Adolin, and I hated myself for being so charmed by the romantic chemistry.  Damn you, Sanderson!

Once again, the illustrations within "Words of Radiance" are fantastic.
Sanderson still does not quite seem to know how to adequately pace out his Stormlight Archive novels.  The best way to describe his pacing is "nothing.... nothing.... nothing.... EVERYTHINGATONCE!!".  Sanderson has only two speeds:  crushingly slow, and so brutally fast as to tear the lenses off your eyeballs.  When Sanderson starts to rush the action, as he does in the last twenty chapters or so, the action bursts with ridiculous speed, cracking you in the face again and again with explosive twists, huge battle scenes, and brain-exploding revelations.  Then the earlier phases of the novel are slow misadventures, punctuated only by Adolin occasionally having a duel, particularly the showstopper when Kaladin jumps in and defeats four Shardbearers.  But then we're back to Shallan drawing, Kaladin moping, and slow plotting.  Until finally the last chapters come in, Kaladin kills Szeth, they find a flying city fortress from ancient times, the Parshendi are beaten, and Dalinar manages to capture the God of Storms and use him as his personal Pokemon.  Come on!  Can't we spread out all the action over the course of the novel instead of all at the end?

(Oh, greatest revelation of them all:  Nightblood, the dark sword from Sanderson's one-shot novel, "Warbreaker" shows up to be Szeth's new sword.  "Awesome" is not enough of a word to describe how cool that is.)

So beyond the main story, Brandon Sanderson continues to expand the world and culture of Roshar with various short stories placed between the acts of the Shallan-Kaladin show.  The stories this time feel more connected to the plot than in "The Way of Kings", where it was almost impossible to realize what the stories were supposed to represent.  We have a few depictions of new magical classes which have not yet been placed in the story, we get to check in on arch-villain King Taravangian, and the side-stories set up the main threat of this volume, Eshonai the Parshendi commander.  My personal favorite side story involved the young girl, Lift, an edacious thief with her own companion fairy that she thinks is a Voidbringer.  The Lift section was good enough to be an entire children's book on its own.

There are still a few plot points that get on my nerves.  I'm a petty man, and I have petty problems with things.  I wasn't raised right, I guess.  Jasnah Kholin is killed off fairly early into the book, but her death was faked.  Fake deaths, I am sorry, are just cheap.  Always.  In a move I personally celebrated, Adolin simply murdered the pompous plotter Sadeas, who spent most of this novel giggling about his evil plan.  Unfortunately Sadeas forgot to have an evil plan, and got crushed while gloating like an idiot.  I fear this is Sanderson's way of turning Adolin evil, because anything other than pure good has to be evil.  And that frees up Shallan to get Stormblessed, if you know what I mean.  If that happens it will be a lazy way to burn off a romantic hypotenuse, when the most exciting interpersonal drama currently building is that bit of romantic tension.

So like all Sanderson literature, "Words of Radiance" is imperfect but entertaining.  With such a huge ambition and vast wealth of story still to go, it is impossible to predict where Words of Radiance might be going.  Sanderson's writing is approachable - hardly great literature, but still so creative and colorful as to be impossible to ignore.  The characters might be a little close to cliches, but they're still human enough to be lovable and believable.  This particular book was not entirely what I wanted out of this series, but it is moving into directions that will definitely be more the type of thing I sink my teeth into.  Hopefully though, Sanderson will be able to grabble the spread of his story towards more darkness and absurdity better than he has in the past.  Mistborn over the course of its trilogy devolved into a mess.  Stormlight though is shaping up to be Sanderson's singular masterwork.  It might be messy, but there's plenty to enjoy.

* Then again, if there is any demographic in desperate need of decent literature, it is teenage girls.

** I imagine these in A Song of Ice and Fire too.  My current list is:  1) Ayra or Tyrion getting killed, 2) Littlefinger violating Sansa, 3) Stannis losing his bid for the Iron Throne, 4) Prince Rheagar turning out to be the real hero of the story, and 5) spending another endless miserable book in fucking Meereen.

1 comment:

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