A review by Nalini Haynes
Publisher: Gollancz (Hachette)
Format: paperback, 1080 pages
Rating: ★★★★★ 5/5 stars
Words of Radiance is the second book in the Stormlight Archive. The first novel is Way of Kings, which I reviewed previously. When I interviewed Brandon Sanderson, he talked about how all of his works (except the Wheel of Time, obviously) are set in a Firefly-esque solar system with connections including one key character who flits in and out of each book, making cameo appearances.
The minion commented that Words of Radiance is a trilogy in itself. It’s certainly big enough. However, I understand that the format of the book — parts focusing on main characters with interludes for smaller appearances — requires this mammoth volume. It’d be nice if I could split my review into three to get more credit for the hours I’ve put into reading, though!
Having waited 4 years, I finally read the sequel. (Study delayed my reading around the time of release because ENORMOUS DOORSTOPPER vs ASSIGNMENTS.) I thought I’d never remember the characters or story but I didn’t even read the online recap. Once I started, Way of Kings returned to mind, with Words of Radiance building the tension, raising the stakes and destabilising the world.
Shallan, a minor scion of a troubled house, is travelling as ward of princess Jasnah. They’re researching history, hoping to find the hidden city of the Knights Radiant, a magical order who once saved the world. They’re attacked. After seeing Jasnah stabbed through the heart, Shallan sinks the ship to sow confusion so she can escape.
Kaladin is a freed slave who has been promoted to serve the king and his uncle, Dalinar. Syl is Kaladin’s spren, a magical spirit who helps Kaladin consume Stormlight — magical fuel — and encourages Kaladin to develop his abilities. Kaladin teaches himself some very Inception moves not unlike Mistborn abilities yet fuelled by Stormlight not by pushing or pulling metal.
Dalinar, the king’s uncle, has taken control of the kingdom in an attempt to stop Elhokar, the king, from making more stupid mistakes. Dalinar has visions during highstorms.
Bridge Four, Kaladin’s former slave unit, become the king’s guard. A failed attempt to assassinate the king must have been an inside job; Kaladin becomes suspicious of everyone while trying to deny that it could have been his friends.
Eshonai, a Parshendi leader, tries to contact Dalinar to sue for peace before her people become extinct. However, Eshonai takes on a new form: her people can change their shape, which also affects mental processes. The new form changes Eshonai in many ways; her plans alter considerably.
The Assassin in White kills more political leaders. Gradually his backstory and motivations are revealed.
Other countries, other leaders, appear fleetingly as Sanderson builds a truly international political stage in which this close personal point-of-view fantasy is set.
If Words of Radiance was a movie, it would pass the Bechdel Test while schooling Hollywood in how it’s done. In part this is due to the world-building where the battle of the sexes exists in different forms while both sexes are interdependent. However, the women in Words of Radiance have independent thoughts, relationships, goals — in general, they’re kick-ass chicks. Navani, the king’s mother, is a scholar and instigator of her relationship with Dalinar. Having lost Jasnah, Shallan is vulnerable yet clever, using perceptions of political power and magic to achieve varied goals. Eshonai the Parshendi becomes unstable after her relationships with her mother and sister are established. These are only a few important women characters.
I love the artwork although sometimes it’s a distraction. Shallan is an artist and uses her drawing as part of her magic, so these greyscale drawings sometimes fit seamlessly, adding to the story. However, the notes on some of these drawings seem to have been written by a scholar commenting on, for example, Navani’s research. Surely artwork then becomes retrospective to the story? I’ve spent some time trying to read the fine black-on-gray print to place it within the story structure, only to shrug and move on.
Words of Radiance is set in a unique fantasy world where vegetation is semi-sentient, reacting to movement like marine botany. Beasts of burden are ‘chulls’, somewhat like gigantic hermit crabs. Only the wealthy have horses. Social structures are detailed, with dominant social groups inflicting impractical standards — like women covering their left hand — on immigrants, while other societies have mixed-gendered nude or semi-nude public diving. In Alethi society, men aren’t allowed to read unless they become priestly ardents. Thus women are essential to all professions; for example, an army captain’s wife or sister usually acts as record-keeper and scribe for his battalion. The world-building is so interesting that, when reading Way of Kings, my focus was more on the world and less on the story.
Words of Radiance has sumptuous world-building, relatable characters in an epic battle for survival against an enemy about whom too little is known. During intimate battles for survival against a hostile environment, a romantic triangle brews. I’m giving this 5 stars but be warned — Words of Radiance is an epic doorstopper and it’s only book 2 of the Stormlight Archives.