I haven’t read Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of the Robert Jordan Eye of Time series; I lost interest in Eye of Time around book 7, and have never seen much reason to go back. Still, around halfway through Words of Radiance, I found myself thinking that Sanderson, with his great imagination, logical magic, and amazing productivity, was the kind of writer that could make a really vast series work. By the end of the book, I wasn’t so sure.
I give credit to Sanderson for originality – the stone and crab-based nature of the Stormlight world is intriguingly different from the usual fantasy. But there are some areas where the resemblance to other writers is strong. The lead character is Kaladin, something of a perfectionist – so much so, in fact, that many of the passages in the book brought to mind Lerris, the hero of L.E. Modesitt’s The Magic of Recluce. Insistence of doing things properly is, of course, a credible character trait. The way Sanderson approaches it, however, is too similar to Modesitt’s to be interesting. A character called ‘Wit’ is in many ways similar to Robin Hobb’s Fool.
One of Sanderson’s core methods is to define a magic system, and then follow it to its logical consequences. That’s attractive in that the magic is thought out, and usually makes a certain kind of sense. In this book, however, Sanderson seems to lose track of the fact that the magic supports the story, not the other way around. Much as I love magic systems, I grew a bit bored with mechanical recitations of “this trait plus that one equals this one”, even when presented as in-world discovery. Sanderson’s decision to attach tables of equivalence as an appendix, while surely interesting for some, only exacerbated the formulaic feel of the magic for me. As the series goes on, there are also getting to be too many technology analogues for this to fit comfortably in the true fantasy genre. Good fantasy is about imagining new things, not translating cameras and fax machines into a fantasy setting. Some of the language (e.g., ‘deal with your issues’) also has a jarringly modern feel.
At the same time, the rest of the book is interesting, active, and offers enough discovery and interesting characters to be a surprisingly quick read (for an 1,100 word book). As in book one, there are lots of characters, but they’re generally easy to distinguish and follow. Some of the supernatural elements get a bit vague, but seeing as it’s Sanderson, we know there’s a system in there somewhere, and he’s not just pulling it out of a hat.
One of the surprises for me was the really humorous wordplay between some characters, and in particular from Shallan. It’s often understated, but if you pay attention, it can be very, very funny. While I’ve seen some Sanderson humor before, this is the first time I’ve thought of him as a humorist – a category that he fills remarkably well, even within the context of a massive epic fantasy. Sadly, where Sanderson experiments with poetry or song, in the chapter epigraphs, he falls far short of his prose skills. The epigraphs, while marginally interesting, introduce so many names that they are more confusing than helpful. The occasional tirade (there’s a notable one about audience expectations) falls flat.
There are more illustrations in this volume, and many of them are good, as in the last book. I was disappointed to see that the illustrators followed the current MMORPG trend for ridiculously large and elaborate weapons. To be fair, though, that’s backed up by the text, so perhaps Sanderson’s to blame. What happened to the days when a sword was just a sword, without flames, spikes, and a blade the size of a castle?
All in all, a worthy continuation of the series, but one that’s losing a bit of its magic. Still worth following, but I do see a heightened risk that the series will founder and become droppable before it’s over.