“Expectation. That is the true soul of art. If you can give a man more than he expects, then he will laud you his entire life. If you can create an air of anticipation and feed it properly, you will succeed.” (Sanderson, Words of Radiance, p. 1077)
Brandon Sanderson masters the art of expectation in his series The Stormlight Archive. A planned series of ten books, only the first two are out: The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Unlike other fantasy series of their length, these 1000 + page books never feel slow. Even when you have a good idea what’s coming, that sense of expectation and excitement never goes away. Sanderson exceeds expectations with engaging characters, witty dialog, creative world-building, and masterful pacing. It’s a fantasy series you’ll find seriously addictive. I’m already craving re-reading it, and I rarely re-read novels!
One of the best things about The Stormlight Archive is the world-building. Sanderson manages to create an amazing and different world without transgressing into the multiple-page descriptions that can bog down fantasy novels. While keeping common fantasy elements such as magic, high courts, and battles, Sanderson’s world is truly unique and creative. The world is plagued by massive storms. The grass retracts into the earth for protection, the animals are often huge crustaceans, and the humans gather money through gems that are recharged when the storms hit. There are also delightful spren, which are a cross between fairies and the daemons from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Sanderson’s spren are a significant part of the world of Roshar. Some seem to be simple atmospheric elements—windspren dart around in a breeze and flamespren dance around the evening fire pit. Others depict human emotion, such as gloryspren and fearspren. There’s even rumored to be intoxicationspren. However, as the story progresses it becomes apparent that spren have a key role in the story, and two of the best characters are intelligent spren who have bonded with main characters.
Although it’s a fantasy world, Sanderson deals with issues of race and gender that reflect tensions in our own world. In The Stormlight Archive everything is based on eye-color: there are the “superior” lighteyes and the oppressed darkeyes. Men and women have different societal roles. Men are the soldiers and women are the scholars. Women, at least light-eyed women, must cover their left hand, which is seen as scandalous. All three of our main characters interact with these societal constraints from different angles. Kaladin, our dark-eyed hero, has been burned multiple times by bright-eyed lords, but he must learn to protect even those he hates while struggling with his own unusual rise to power. Shallan, a women of high birth with a low sense of humor, must balance proper appearances and her commitment to her family with her own love of exploration and scholarship. Dalinar, the bright-eyed lord with the king’s ear, struggles with his own privilege and the abuse that other high-lords dole out upon the dark-eyes. He even struggles with the war to avenge his brother (the former king)’s death because he has doubts about the intentions and culture of the race who took credit for the assassination.
The books switch POV, mostly between those three characters, sometimes including the secondary main characters as well. In addition, after each section of the books, there is an interlude part that involves POV from minor characters (sometimes only mentioned in that one chapter), and this is where we gain a much greater understanding of the world and the events that are unfolding. The books each feature flashbacks for one of the main characters: Way of Kings for Kaladin and Words of Radiance for Shallan. The interludes and flashbacks add an extra dimension to the story without bogging down the reading experience. Rather than excessive backstory, they read like the gradual uncovering of the mystery that makes up the world and the lives of these marvelous characters.
Like many fantasy novels, the main plot is one of ancient evil (the Voidbringers) and ancient magic returning (the Knights Radiant). While the larger battle between these forces of good and evil is just getting started by the end of the second book that doesn’t prevent the first two books from having their own exciting climaxes. Again, Sanderson masterfully manipulates the reader’s expectation. The first two books could stand alone as good books, not just as set-up for later novels.
In terms of triggers, this book has violence, although it stays away from sexual violence, and in that way is a safer choice than something like Game of Thrones. There is, however, domestic violence, so if that’s a trigger you may want to avoid it, particularly the second book.