The OF Blog: Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance

Friday, May 16, 2014

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance

I don't know if it's true for every reader, but for myself, every so often there is an author and/or work that comes along that despite a host of flaws and shortcomings, somehow manages to capture my attention just enough for me to read the next volume.  No, this isn't like the few times that I've reviewed a book by the likes of Terry Goodkind or Robert Stanek, where the whole point of the "reviews" was to unload both barrels into something that I found to be unadulteratedly putrid on both prose and thematic levels.  Instead, there is a sense that underneath the tedium of overextended metaphors and labored scene descriptions that there might lurk something that might be developed to better effect in a future novel.

This certainly has been the case with my previous encounters with Brandon Sanderson's non-WoT work.  Despite finding his debut novel, Elantris, to be a chore to read, I was persuaded to read his Mistborn trilogy and largely found those three novels to be light, quick entertainment.  His latter novels in his larger Cosmere setting, Warbreaker and the first volume in the planned 10 book The Stormlight Archive series, The Way of Kings, were not as enjoyable, although there were moments that intrigued me.  Sanderson's prose, which I have commented at length in prior reviews, had at least incrementally improved to the point where his characterizations and dialogues were at least inoffensive and not as groan-inducing as was the case when I read Elantris nearly ten years ago.  It has been four years since I last read one of his non-WoT novels, with only the novella The Emperor's Soul (which might be his best-written work, despite the problems I had with it; I seem to have a more favorable impression 17 months later than when I wrote my review) read in the interim.  Therefore, it was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I recently read the second The Stormlight Archive novel, Words of Radiance.  Naturally, that mixture of boredom and anticipation that I mentioned above applies just as well for this book as for most of his earlier works.

The story picks up very soon after the events of The Way of Kings, as the three main protagonists of that novel, Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan, as they continue along plot arcs developed in the first novel.  Sanderson depicts their stories, along with a host of others (mostly through interlude chapters), in a series of alternating chapters.  Although Sanderson for the most part manages to keep the focus grounded with these three, there are already signs of expansion toward a much larger narrative.  This is to be somewhat expected, considering that apparently this ten-part series is one of the key linchpins to the larger Cosmere mega-narrative and that certain characters/settings from his earlier (and future) novels/series will make at least cameo appearances.  Yet there is a trade-off for having this expansion of both setting and PoV character list, as all-too-frequently the narrative energy grinds to a crawl for huge stretches of this nearly 1100 page novel.  There are a lot of complicated parts already and like its predecessor, Words of Radiance, feels like a half of a huge (2,000 page) introduction that barely manages to establish the narrative stakes before it concludes.  Perhaps in the next three volumes (I believe this ten-part series is further sub-divided into two sub-series of five novels) the painstaking devotion to seemingly minute details will pay dividends.  For now, however, it just feels like a bloated introduction that could have been quartered without any loss in set-up or detail.

This sense of bloat carries over into the descriptions.  While there are at least some attempts to develop major and minor characters alike, there are times where Sanderson seems to get in way of himself.  Here is a scene from early in the novel that illustrates well many of the problems with his writing:

Oathbringer.  It was Dalinar's Shardblade – curved, like a back arching, with a hooklike tip on the end matched by a sequence of jutting serrations by the crossguard.  Like waves in motion, peeking up from the ocean below. 
How often had he lusted for this weapon?  Now it was his, but he found the possession hollow.  Dalinar Kholin – driven mad by grief, broken to the point that battle frightened him – still clung to life.  Sadeas's old friend was like a favored axehound he'd been forced to put down, only to find it whimpering at the window, the poison having not quite done its work. (pp. 88-89)
I love similes and metaphors within descriptive passages.  If used correctly, they can strengthen readers' visualizations of what is transpiring or make even bizarre scenes more easily relatable.  Yet here the similes feel forced.  "Curved, like a back arching"?  It just doesn't work for me.  The "waves in motion" simile was better, although it too feels too garrulous for the scene's needs.  As for the simile of the favored axehound, I'll just leave that with a simple shaking of my head.  If it weren't for the fact that similar issues arise frequently over the course of the novel, I might dismiss this as a singular false note.  Unfortunately, it is a false note that blares repeatedly throughout the narrative.

A good plot can lead the reader to forgive much.  In fact, there is just enough plot advancement here that by the final 157 page part, the action captured my wandering attention.  Sanderson depends upon the "clicking together" of certain plot mysteries for his plots to work and here in Words of Radiance, after several hundred pages of slow-developing, oft-tedious character interactions and plot development, the final section manages to tie these elements together at last and create at least the semblance of rousing action.  While nothing in this section is truly original (there are echoes of older works here), Sanderson does manage to make the action interesting enough that by the time the final page was read, I found myself vaguely curious about what is about to transpire.  This final scene is perhaps one of the better volume conclusions that Sanderson has written and despite my near-antipathy for many of the novel's component elements, I am curious enough that I will read the third volume whenever it is released.  Words of Radiance might belie its lofty title (one based on a fictional book mentioned occasionally in the narrative), but for those readers who enjoy recent epic fantasies more than I do, it may prove to be the belated start to the real overarching Cosmere narrative.

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