May 5, 2014

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson: What worked, and what really didn't [review time]

Words of Radiance felt like a perfect sequel on one lazy read through, but scrutiny brings to light the imperfections, like lamplight to a cracked stone, to use a forced metaphor the way Sanderson continuously does. Popular opinion here is going to rule because the Amazon ratings are in and it’s 1,500 five star votes versus all of 4 one star votes, all four of them without good reason. With that commendation in addition to that fact that hey, I loved it too, let’s skip the raving about how good it is and take a crack at those imperfections, because to be honest, The Way of Kings didn't have any, so what happened here to mar book two?

Aside from the lazy criticism that it’s too long and Shallan is too boring (both lame complaints, buck up yer great lumps!) there are actual problems. Like that Kaladin is one whiney sonofabitch that puts Luke Skywalker’s bellyaching over Toshi power converters to oh so much shame. That we want to be cool and calm and enjoy the interlude chapters, but really, come on, nobody cares about Ym, Rysn, and Taln, we just want to see how the story ends and we have to wade through that (interesting, detailed, high and mighty) fluff to get there. That the climax is, in Robert Jordanian style, all in the last 50 pages of a 1000 page book.

Probably my biggest complaint though is Sanderson’s ego in Words of Radiance. There were hints and whiffs of it creating a faint stink on The Way of Kings and even his takeover of The Wheel of Time (of course taking over the epic series of one of the greatest fantasy authors of our lifetime is a fair thing to go to one’s head) but nothing like the testaments to Brandon’s brainpower in this volume. Shallan and Wit are two characters that demonstrate to me that Sanderson doesn't just write smart characters with high wit and intellect, he shoves them down your fricking throat to show how clever their author is. Take a second look at Wit’s speech in the epilogue and see if you can get through it without vomiting, let alone without letting it break the fourth wall into tiny, tiny pieces. Good way to deflect any and all criticism: “Give me an audience who have come to be entertained, but expect nothing special. To them, I will be a god.” Nice. Any problems I have with your books are just that I've come to expect too much from your master genius.

I wanted Shallan to be smarter than me. And Wit too. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation given that of course you can’t write things you don’t expect your readers to understand, you want them to connect with what’s being said, but if Shallan is so witty, why don’t any of her witticisms go over my head? I wanted them to. Or at least require a second of contemplation or inspire a minute of thoughtfulness. Nope. 

This is one place where Sanderson seems to take characterization lessons from Stephanie Meyer. He tells you she’s witty and clever, but the examples, try though they might, do not impress. If he couldn’t think of anything truly intelligent for her to say, then he didn’t have to try to characterize her as intelligent. I mentioned of the Sherlock pilot that it’s hard to follow Sherlock’s thinking, just as it’s hard to follow Dr. House, and that’s a good thing; that makes the character a genius. It wouldn’t make sense if everything he said was at the audience’s level. Shallan and Wit are testaments to intelligence but they don’t stand up. Shallan’s quips are lame and Wit’s diatribes are transparent. It didn't feel that way in The Way of Kings but if there’s another "Fleet ran fast" in book three, that might just be it for me.

Kaladin continues to feel like a cartoon to me, to the point where I don't picture him like a real character the way I can picture say Paul Atreides or Jon Snow or Rand Al Thor as a flesh and bones man, Kaladin in my imagination is like Harry Potter grown up with a beard (And no, Harry Potter in my imagination is not Daniel Radcliffe). He spends approximately two thousand pages of the Stormlight Archive being a depressed malcontent who hates pretty much everyone, even those we love like Shallan and Adolin, making bad choices like to challenge Amaram and ruin the plan for Sadeas, or to allow Moash to go forward with plans against Elhokar, and only at the very end does he have a moment of revelation. He can’t define his own morality or get over his shit and when he finally does it’s frustrating because you've been yelling at him to get over it for two thousand pages now. 

I'm conflicted though because while I wanted Kaladin to become a Radiant and say the words and get Syl back and all that yada, and I liked Elhokar and didn’t want him to die, I almost think the book would have been more interesting if Kaladin had killed him. I was kind of interested in that dilemma and leaning towards removing him. That would have been too dark for Sanderson’s tastes, but it would have worked for me. But then book three would be a thousand pages of Kaladin whining his remorse. Spare me.

Here’s what I liked about the book: Everything else. The payout on the storms that were coming was very good. The ending was a thrill to read because the stakes were so high, it seemed impossible that they could get out, and Shallan my beloved was the key to their survival, which makes my day (even if her IQ is a fraud, she’s still my favorite character, other than Jasnah). I’m glad that they won on the plains against the Parshendi without a character death (so overrated, I like my characters breathing, thank you) except Roion, who blossomed into a hero all of half a page before he died. Poor guy. I like that the next book is set up to deal with all the parshmen transforming and the Knights Radiant returning.
Oh and I liked Shallan’s flashbacks, which many people hated. The best comment I read on Amazon did point out that it was exactly the same as the Tien story in Kaladin’s flashbacks, where the reveal wasn’t a reveal because you already knew, and it was set up like a plot twist even though it wasn’t, but I’m glad that in Shallan’s case the “twist” was covered in all of one sentence, like ripping off the bandaid. Yep, the “mystery” turned out exactly the way we knew all along, but at least we didn't have to read a whole damn chapter dramatically expounding it. 

Words of Radiance was enjoyable in its escapism and the satisfaction of its journey and conclusion, but to be critical there were some imperfections. I loved it but I think it’s delusional to call it perfect or to give it five stars, if five stars means to you what it does to me — that it couldn't have been better than what it was (i.e. it has no flaws that couldn't have been helped), that it is the best the genre has to offer (the best among comparable books), that a second reading improves rather than diminishes the experience of its quality. It could have been better — it could have been trimmed, and one of Sanderson's giant team of editors could have pointed out that Shallan's witty dialogue needed elevation, or that Kaladin is getting a bit tired. No, really tired. The series might come to be among the best of the genre, but this particular volume is not. It's no The Great Hunt or The Gunslinger or A Storm of Swords; it's not even Eragon (because unlike Kaladin, that little bugger was only unlikable for ONE volume). I don't think I could stand to read it again, unlike The Way of Kings, but if I do, I feel like there will be less to uncover on a second read, and not more.

There are 1500 five star reviews for this book and I think that’s crazy. The Way of Kings was worth five stars. Words of Radiance is a cut below.


  1. If you can get past the need to have Kaladin be a likeable human being, and actively root against him it's a much more enjoyable experience. Suddenly, it's 2000 pages of wish fulfillment followed up with a "Brandon, if you ship this bastard with Shallan I will throw a shoe at you" chase scene to the end.

    In regard to Shallan, there is certainly a lot of setup to her being smart, but the entire first book is about her poor education background, and how she lacks the self control to put her capabilities to the most effective use. You can go further and analyze who her audience is when she is being witty. They're mostly common people, and when they're not common they're men who in this world are rarely educated. The exception being Jasnah, and each time that happens Shallan gets shot down by her. Shallan isn't House or Sherlock except for her "Mind Palace" like ability (ugh series 3). She is a fellow, or Watson. The things you're asking for would be more appropriate coming from the actual House/Sherlock of the series, Jasnah. Hopefully we get actual Jasnah chapters in book 3 #FreeJasnah.

    1. Thanks so much for the response! All of your points are really fair and I will definitely keep in mind your -strategy- for reading Kaladin. I think I kind of was rooting against him, actually. In TWOK he was tolerable because brige four's transformation was so fun and motivational, but without it you're right, it's easier to root against him. I think what's driving me crazy is that on every Amazon review I read, everyone loves Kal and thinks of him as the hero, but as you put it, he's not a likeable human being. And for him to transform into one at this point feels like it was just a transparent setup the whole time to allow for character development. It's kind of cheating if the character only grows because he was ridiculously awful to start.

      That's also a very good point about Shallan, but I guess I feel like I wanted her to step into Jasnah's shoes and be the genius of the story, but she wasn't. And for me it's not about education. Since I have been educated I can source the intellect of others but I was still equally smart before I engaged in scholarship and I want Shallan to exemplify that, that she's not educated but she's intellectual and resourceful. What I'm attracted to in her character is that she is flawed and really suffers from her past, she has mental health issues, which is so refreshing to read in a work of escapism. But I think her strength needs to be her intellect. And maybe her ability to lie. I don't want her to be a Watson. But you're right, I'll just have to hope for that from Jasnah. Not much chance of Shallan fitting those shoes at this point.

    2. By the way I tweeted your response to the Shallan/Kaladin ship, hope that's cool. Too funny!