Brandon Sanderson has been a strong figure in the world of fantasy and science fiction literature for quite some time now. He is famous for his complex magic systems and his strong characters. His most well-known works are his Mistborn trilogy and Reckoners series. Back in 2010, Sanderson released the first book, The Way of Kings, of his projected 10-book series, The Stormlight Archive. In my review of The Way of Kings, I was bluntly honest about it being an excellent book with deep characters and an extremely rich world! Does his second book live up to the quality of the first? The answer is not just yes, but it manages to improve upon the first and solidifies just how impressive of a world Sanderson created.
Violence: Standard fantasy violence (such as sword fighting), duals between nobles, and large-scale battles. Sanderson generally isn’t too descriptive of violent acts unless he feels it is necessary for the plot, but even then, it is mild.
Sexual Content: As I described in the Way of Kings review, Sanderson is known for being a “clean” fantasy author regarding sexual content. This holds mostly true in Words of Radiance. There is no sex or descriptions of sex, but some of his characters will ogle other characters of the opposite sex, male and female alike.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Many of the characters drink wine and some will over drink on occasion.
Spiritual Content: Sanderson creates several different fictional religions in this series and most of his characters follow them in varying degrees. The primary religion of the main characters is Vorinism, which is a monotheistic faith and is the closest thing to a Judeo-Christian religion, but it is still entirely fictional. Religious practices drive the culture of the societies present in the story. The people do not just practice their religion, but live it out in their daily lives. It reminds me of the Roman Catholic Church of medieval Europe.
Language/Crude Humor: Very little, but there are some swear words, such as d*** and h***. However, most of the swear words in the story are reinvented curses like, “Storms!” or “You stormin’ fool!”
Other Negative Content: Words of Radiance follows many of the same themes as The Way of Kings, such as a caste system and medieval elitism. The primary kingdom of focus in the story, Althekar, is a standard medieval feudalistic society that comes with people of higher and lower caste. While one of the primary characters is no longer a slave, the institution of slavery is still very present.
The nobility of society (known as “light eyes”) often look down upon the lower caste of society (known as “dark eyes”). It goes the other way as well, as we see dark eyes judge and reject some light eyes for no other reason than that they are in a different caste.
Words of Radiance also tackles some heavier issues, such as family abuse. During some flashback sequences of Shallan, we see her father as an abusive man, both vocally and physically to his children, driving them away or into destructive habits. One of Shallan’s brothers becomes known for animal abuse and while Sanderson isn’t overly descriptive of it (except one instance where he hurts a small crab), it highlights the point that Shallan’s abusive home is very unhealthy.
Positive themes: The characters in Words of Radiance come with a lot of baggage and personal struggles, and throughout this book, they make significant progress to overcome these challenges. We see one main character slowly overcome his distaste of the higher caste after he was betrayed by a noble in his past. He comes to realize that there are good people in the nobility. Sanderson’s characters also show immense amounts of bravery and will often make sacrificial choices for the greater good.
(This review will contain plot spoilers to the first book in The Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings. I highly recommend reading that book first before venturing further into this review. The GuG review can be found here.)
In my previous review of the first book in The Stormlight Archive, The Way of Kings, I gave the book extremely high praise and said the book was excellent. In 2014, Brandon Sanderson released the second book in the series, Words of Radiance, in all its 1000+ page glory. Your first question probably is, “Mike, does it live up to the first or did it hit a sophomore slump?” Well, it is neither the former nor the latter, because Words of Radiance doesn’t just live up to the first, it exceeds the first! Words of Radiance solidified that Sanderson is one of my all-time favorite writers and that this is a series I am fully committed to.
Sanderson does an impressive job of bringing his characters to life in a story that is truly epic. To speak to the scale of this story, he brings in information from dozens of cultures, hundreds of years of history, and numerous characters that all have deep backgrounds. I sometimes fear that stories like these do not adequately flesh out their characters because the story is too big and there are too many characters. While I have only read a small amount of the The Song of Ice and Fire series, I remember some cool characters getting very little attention and some really important, but rather uninteresting, characters getting a lot of attention. The story was just too big and there were too many characters! Sanderson chose the approach of focusing on three well-developed characters and then making every other character an interesting supporting character. The gamble is readers may not like one of the key character and have to “suffer” through their POV chapters. This didn’t happen for me. Sanderson makes all of his characters, both major and minor, interesting and really knocked it out of the park with them.
Speaking of Characters…
Our characters in Words of Radiance pick up where we left off from The Way of Kings. With the war still raging on in the shattered plains, Kaladin Stormblessed has now assumed the role of captain in Highprince Dalinar Kholin’s personal guard. If you recall, Kaladin was just a slave of Highprince Sadeas and he saved Dalinar at the final battle in The Way of Kings, after Dalinar was actually betrayed by Highprince Sadeas. Dalinar wasn’t able to prove Sadeas’s treachery, but he wasn’t going to let Kalidan and his fellow bridgemen return to a life of slavery under Sadeas. Dalinar exchanged his prized shardblade for the freedom of Kalidan and his bridge crew.
I really enjoyed the dynamic between Kaladin and Dalinar throughout this book. It was a complex dynamic between a light eyes and a dark eyes who, at the core of it, deeply respect each other, but their own cultural biases and backgrounds would undermine their relationship. Dalinar cannot simply take the word of a lower caste dark eyes, like Kaladin, without recognizing it could disrupt his relationship with other light eyes, whom he needs to accomplish his goals of uniting Alethkar. For example, Kaladin spends much of his time trying to tell Dalinar about a particular noble’s treachery in the past, but Dalinar unfortunately has to carefully consider Kaladin’s accusations because Kaladin is a dark eyes. Kaladin on the flip side, because of the treachery of a few light eyes in his past, is consistently having to determine how he feels about Dalinar. While Dalinar sacrificed his shardblade for Kaladin, can Kaladin trust a light eyes? Kaladin also has to decide if he wants to tell Dalinar about his powers and his ability to manipulate stormlight.
All in all, their relationship was a treat to watch as they had to work through these cultural barriers and personal biases. It was fraught with moments of progress and backsliding, which had me doing fist pumps in the air or getting frustrated with the moments when friction set in. This is a good thing; when a reader can get this emotionally invested, the author has done a good job with the narrative.
One thing that I thought Sanderson did particularly well was flesh out the main character, Shallan Davar, through flashbacks. Each book in The Stormlight Archive includes flashback chapters on a particular character. The Way of Kings incorporated flashbacks of Kaladin’s life and Words of Radiance chose to focus on Shallan’s past. In The Way of Kings, I liked Shallan, but she was third fiddle to Kaladin and Dalinar. This was mainly because she was separate from the larger struggle on the shattered plains. She was off studying under the King’s sister, Jasnah Kholin, far from the conflict. In Words of Radiance, she is front and center in the conflict!
We knew coming in to the second book that Shallan had a troubled past, but now we see why she lacks confidence and thinks so little of herself. In those flashbacks, we see she came from a wealthy, but unhealthy home. Her upbringing featured an angry father who abused her brothers and her step-mother, and Shallan made some hard choices herself that really damaged her confidence. She also had to force herself to be the positive force in her family, which was difficult for the circumstances, explaining why she uses comedy and wit to tone down the seriousness of any moment.
By the end of the book, I felt like I really understood and appreciated Shallan so much more. I also liked how human Shallan was. As I said earlier, Shallan uses comedy to diffuse a serious moment. She also uses it to see how real a person is. Remember, we are in a feudalistic society where everyone has to present themselves in a certain way. Nobles must speak in high and chivalrous tones. In one very comical moment, Shallan finds herself in a romantic situation with Dalinar’s son, Adolin Kholin, and he is trying to be a chivalrous knight in shining armor to her. Shallan decides to see who Adolin really is behind that fancy armor by asking him unexpectedly, “How do you poop?” in shardplate armor. I laughed out loud at this moment and it illustrates that Shallan is the most identifiable character in the book. Kaladin may still be my favorite, but Shallan is the easiest to connect with and understand.
I’ll step away from the characters for now because there is just too much to talk about, such as Kaladin and Adolin’s relationship or Shallan’s relationship with Dalinar and Kaladin, but that would engulf this entire review. I’ll let the reader enjoy how these relationships deepen and develop.
Now let’s talk about the book itself…
As I said earlier, I really enjoyed The Way of Kings, but I loved Words of Radiance! The reason is actually quite simple. In the first book, Sanderson spent a large amount of time just setting up the story and bringing the reader into the world of Roshar. In this second book, there is absolutely no need for that, so Sanderson can instead focus on building up his characters and writing some epic action sequences.
The action in Words of Radiance is nothing short of exhilarating. We see numerous instances where shardblade wielders go head-to-head, putting the reader on the edge of their seat, never knowing when Sanderson will throw an exciting, curveball plot twist in these fights. Sanderson is, in my opinion, the master of the plot twist. It is a strange thing, I know he will do them and I expect them, yet I am always duped and caught off guard by them. Bravo, Mr. Sanderson.
Sanderson also continues to build upon his work in the previous book by fleshing out the magic system. We really knew only small bits of information from the first, but this book really brings a lot of it to life. There is still much more to learn about the magic and mystery of Roshar, but in Words of Radience, we move from a taste to full bites of the apple.
Now, I do have one small critique of the book. I know… I just gushed about the brilliance of the book, but there is one element I feel the need to comment on. Most of the book focuses on Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan (Adolin gets a lot of love as well), but occasionally Sanderson will incorporate an interlude where he will jump away from our main characters to ones outside of the shattered plains. They all serve a purpose, but a few interludes were more interesting than others. They are short and important, but at times I was a little disinterested in them because I wanted to go back to main conflict. Thus, they added an unfortunate pause in the story when the reader is excited to charge through the book.
Words of Radiance really reflected an element of the Gospel to me, particularly with Shallan. Now, she never had a moment where she believed in a “Jesus-like” savior, but she had a past that was filled with abuse, guilt, and shame. Let’s be honest for a second, that sounds like the background of many Christians and non-Christians alike. Shallan has to grapple with her past and work through it, then use it to her advantage. Believers do this all of the time, they have really difficults pasts that are full of guilt and shame, but through the redemptive work of Christ, they take that past and start using it as a testimony to advance the Gospel. Just how Sanderson uses flawed and hurt people for his story, our God very much uses flawed and hurt people for His story and for His glory.
What can I say? Words of Radiance is nearly flawless. I loved almost every second of the book with its impressive world and even more impressive characters. His characters had a strong and believable dialogue and his action sequences were pulse-pounding.
The book is a time commitment, but every page is worth it. I found myself finding any 10-minute increment I could just to read a few more pages. If you weren’t completely convinced by The Way of Kings, then my friend, let me encourage you to pick up Words of Radiance because I can almost guarantee you will become a fan of the series. As I said in review of The Way of Kings, I have no doubt Sanderson’s series, The Stormlight Archive, will become one of the greats among fantasy literature and will be read by fans for years to come.
+ Rich setting and world + Strong characters + Deep magic system + Fun and engaging action sequences + Strong dialogue + Fairly clean content
- Some interludes were less interesting than others and occasionally hurt the flow of the book
The Bottom Line
"Words of Radiance" improves upon almost every detail of the already impressive first book, with its rich world and impressive characters. Book two of "The Stormlight Archive" makes a strong case that this series will be among the fantasy greats.