I have finished Words of Radiance. Dear Readers, it is fabulous. I have done a very, very general review of the first book, The Way of Kings, here. The story is so multifaceted and complex that I hesitate to give too much away. Most of the joy of these books is not in the plot’s destination, but the proverbial journey.
I am happy to report that many of the issues I had with The Way of Kings were assuaged in the second book. Sanderson’s world-building remains strong, and since I had my understanding of his universe from reading The Way of Kings, I could jump right into Words of Radiance without the confusion and difficulty I had with the first book. I’m still not crazy about his character names (I find them far too similar, and still conflate one character with another for a while), but I really liked being back in this storyline.
This second book of the series follows the plot structure of The Way of Kings, in that there are multiple narrators and an abundance of flashbacks. While Kings has three primary narrators, the bulk of the book belongs to Kaladin, a slave with a storied past. A solid chunk of the novel is a series of flashbacks to Kaladin’s earlier life, explaining just how he went from promising surgeon to gifted soldier to shunned slave.
Keeping with this same framework, Words of Radiance continues the story of our three narrators, but the flashbacks belong to Shallan, the scholar we met in the first book. She is the custodian of some deadly secrets, and we come to understand her through flashbacks to her troubled childhood. In The Way of Kings, she was a weaker character, but in Words of Radiance she becomes much more complex and interesting. A secret badass, in fact. I look forward to how she’ll develop as the series continues.
While the greater part of the book is Shallan’s, we see the continuation of Kaladin and Dalinar’s stories from book one. Dalinar is beginning to get some of the respect he deserves, although his rival Sadeas is still actively working against him. The Dalinar storyline is finally political and military, rather than the “is he going mad” plotline that went on for waaaay too long in The Way of Kings. He’s learned to acknowledge his visions, and even the king is beginning to listen to his advice.
After Kaladin’s heroics at the end of the first book, he has been tasked with training the royal guard. He’s coming to terms with his prejudice against the light-eyed ruling class of Alekhar, but he’s still remarkably boneheaded about some things. There are a few times when the active reader kind of wants to kick him in the ass to get him going. But in this book he gets more fight scenes than in The Way of Kings, and when Kaladin fights, it’s always impressive.
And wow, can Sanderson write fight scenes! There are a lot of things going on in this book, and a lot of them are interior, but when there is a fight YE GODS is there a fight. There is a four-on-one honor duel that is incredible. We’re talking reading-so-fast-your-eyes-hurt, goose-bumping, heart-pounding, occasionally-making-weird-grunty-noises reading.
We also meet some new narrators, including Eshonai, a Parshendi warrior. Through all of The Way of Kings, the Parshendi have been The Big Bad, the mysterious truce-breakers who murdered a king without cause. Now, while we still do not understand why the Parshendi broke their truce with the Alethi, we begin to see some of their culture and their struggle. I look forward to seeing how the Parshendi plotline develops as the books continue, although I found Eshonai’s “surprise twist” to be less than surprising.
Actually, a number of the plot twists weren’t all that twisty. I have found that with Sanderson, I can see where the storyline is going, but it doesn’t really matter, because getting to the payoff is worth the ride. I found this out in Elantris and The Rithmatist, and it holds true for Words of Radiance. About a third of the way through the book, I can see where Sanderson is pointing the characters. By the end of the novel, the characters are where you expected, but how they got there is entirely unexpected! So while the broad strokes of the novel may be somewhat predictable, I did find myself constantly surprised by how Sanderson got me to the end. That being said, I thought the ultimate magical payoff of Words of Radiance was a re-telling of the end of Elantris, and that was disappointing.
But, as is typical of Sanderson, Words of Radiance ends with a slam-bang finish of epic proportions. This characteristic breakneck tying up of plot threads is a Sanderson “thing,” so much that his fans have coined the phrase "Sanderson Avalanche." The plotting and scheming and foreshadowing all come to a conclusion in the last hundred pages or so, and rather than feeling like a quick and dirty deus ex machina (à la Stephen King), Sanderson’s endings are supremely satisfying.
A quick note, Gentle Readers: This “Sanderson Avalanche” means two things
1) Once you begin the end of a Sanderson novel, you cannot put it down. Can’t be done. So snuggle in with snacks and blankies, because you’re not going anywhere for a while.
2) Don't finish a Sanderson book right before bed. Although you will be emotionally exhausted and will have an epic book hangover, you will be too pumped up to sleep. You need a walk around the block, not a nap. Move your feet while your brain processes the vast amount of information the author just dumped on you. Trust me. It’s also good to have a friend on speed-dial who has just read the book so you can geek out together.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a turn around the block. Anyone want to come with?