Tonight, multiple-time New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson (who has won and been nominated for far too many awards than I care to list so I’ll just provide a link) will be signing books in my area as part of his book tour for Words of Radiance. If you’ve read his books, he needs no introduction. If not, you should really fix that. His Mistborn series is what he’s truly known for, though Elantris is near and dear to me personally due to the way he writes about chronic pain (and the book deserves a dedicated review). He’s also famous for finishing the acclaimed Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. Now he’s come out with the second book of The Stormlight Archive, and it is incredible.

Pictured: a famous author, and a guy in a Schlock Mercenary shirt who now runs a blog called Novel Ninja. This was taken several years ago, on the book tour for The Way of Kings.

Pictured: a famous author, and a guy in a Schlock Mercenary shirt who now runs a blog called Novel Ninja. This was taken several years ago, on the book tour for The Way of Kings.

I am not, however, going to be at the signing. I’ll be running a writing workshop at Christendom College instead. While I’m disappointed that there’s a conflict, and that Sanderson is coming through today rather than some other day, I’m fine with my priorities. I’m doing my part to get more great authors out there, and I consider that more important than getting yet another scrawled book or tantalizing hints about future publications. Still, it made me remember that I haven’t reviewed this book yet, so I thought I’d introduce you all to an epic series.

The Stormlight Archive is only two books long so far, but I should probably put a bit of emphasis on long. It’s intended to be ten books, so that’s length right there. However, it’s already nearly 2,100 pages long. That means you’ve got a great buy with these books, as they will not only keep you for a long time but you’ll also have a couple of footstools, door-stoppers, and table-supports — and, when all ten are published, you could pile them up and have a stepladder.

I like big books and I cannot lie.

I like big books and I cannot lie.

Okay, okay, joking aside; I can’t emphasize enough how strong this story is. Sanderson is a master of the slow-but-inevitable reveal, what is termed “setup-and-payoff” in creative writing jargon. That doesn’t mean foreshadowing; setup-and-payoff is about laying clues that you don’t understand the significance of until the reveal, or shortly before it. It’s used heavily in both comedy and mystery, and Sanderson has brought his already-developed skill in this technique to greater heights with The Stormlight Archive.

Highprince Dalinar Kholin, wearing his Shardplate, salutes an enemy across the chasms of the Shattered Plains.

The Setting
The series takes place on the world of Roshar, which is apparently comprised of one very large landmass; Sanderson has confirmed this to be a supercontinent. (For those who want to know what that means, it would be bigger than Europe and Asia combined, but so far we don’t know exactly how much bigger.) Sanderson has designed an interesting alien ecology for this world, an ecology to which humans don’t actually belong. Most native life on Roshar are shelled in some way, like crustaceans, or are otherwise adapted to deal with Roshar’s most defining feature: the highstorms. These are massive super-hurricanes that sweep across the land, always from east to west, battering the world before finally losing strength over land. Most of the world is bare rock, but life manages to survive. The humans who live here build their civilizations with highstorms in mind; and even their language reflects it, with idioms and profanity based on storm-related concepts. Only in the east, behind a wall of mountains where the highstorms break, can we find an ecosystem more familiar to us.

There are no elves or dwarves or any such creatures in this world; the natives are known as parshmen, a humanoid species with red-and-black skin and a servile mentality, which has led inevitably to their enslavement by humans. The only other supernatural creature are the spren, beings of pure concept that will appear around the things they are most attracted to — whether emotions such as exultation or anticipation, physical reactions like pain or exhaustion, or natural phenomena like fire or wind.

It’s an ancient world, with thousands of years of history that has faded into metaphor, folklore, and legend. The tales tell of an ancient past where humans fought cataclysmic wars known as Desolations, struggling against the forces of evil that wish to destroy everything. They were led by the Heralds of the Almighty, ten legendary warriors with command over the ten Essences that make up creation. The Heralds founded the ten Orders of the Knights Radiant, a legion of the best warriors and teachers who would defend the innocent against the might of the Voidbringers.

After ninety-nine Desolations, there came the Final Desolation, in which the Voidbringers were driven off Roshar. The Heralds followed to retake the Tranquilize Halls, a heavenly place that had been despoiled by evil. They are joined, in Valhalla-like fashion, by the souls of warriors and other notables that have lived faithful lives according to the religion of Vorinism. The Knights Radiant remained behind to teach and lead humanity.

Then, the Knights Radiant fell in a mysterious betrayal. What exactly that betrayal was is uncertain, but it was enough, thousands of years alter, that their name is still associated with disgust. Their armor and swords remain, however: the glittering Shardplate and Shardblades that show evidence of an advanced and powerful civilization.

Life on Roshar, particularly in the eastern lands closer to the highstorms, is far from easy; but it is a world that, according to their religion, has been saved from the forces of evil.

The problem is, the Heralds lied. The True Desolation is near. The Everstorm comes.

The Characters
The series is built on an ensemble cast, but most of the story is centered around three individuals that, for the most part, do not interact in the first book.

The first is Kaladorn, pictured on the cover of Words of Radiance. He is a slave who has lost all sense of purpose. Once upon a time, he was the best spearman and squad leader in Brightlord Amaram’s army, but somehow (related through a series of flashbacks) he was sentenced to a life of slavery. After numerous escape attempts, he has come to the conclusion that effort is pointless, and no one will stand up for justice. Kaladorn is only nineteen years old.

Resigned to a life of backbreaking labor, he feels a twinge of hope as he’s sold to the army of Highprince Sadeas, the liegelord of Amaram, where he had hoped to be transferred with his men. Branded as a deserter and a dangerous individual, however, Kaladorn is instead assigned to bridge duty. As a member of Bridge Four, he is forced to carry a large wooden bridge for the army to cross the chasms of the Shattered Plains, running ahead of the troops, fully exposed to the enemy’s arrows.

He thought he’d hit bottom, but it turns out there’s something worse than being a slave: being a bridgeman. But his masters didn’t count one one thing. Now Kaladorn has nowhere to go but up.

The second major character is Highprince Dalinar Kholin, uncle to the king of Alethkar. He’s seen as a reactionary and ridiculous, enforcing the Codes (such as insisting on proper uniforms and not drinking on duty). He blames himself for his late brother’s assassination, and has taken it upon himself to finish his brother’s work: unite the highprinces under his nephew’s rule; spread the teachings of The Way of Kings, a book that his brother had been fascinated by but other people consider subversive or even heretical; and to inspire others to a path of justice and honor rather than petty court politics.

In a gorgeous piece of bonus art found on the inside cover of the Words of Radiance hardcover, Shallan is shown sketching the unearthly wildlife of Roshar.

In a gorgeous piece of bonus art found on the inside cover of the Words of Radiance hardcover, Shallan is shown sketching the unearthly wildlife of Roshar.

Dalinar harbors a secret, however. Every highstorm, he experiences visions that leave him babbling apparent nonsense. In the visions, he sees the ancient past, and hears the words of what might be the Almighty himself. Is he going mad, as others in the warcamps whisper? Or is he truly receiving instruction from God?

Half a world away, Shallan Davar has a desperate plan. She is a young noblewoman with a sharp mind and a fantastic talent for drawing, and she hopes to become Princess Jasnah Kholin’s ward and student. Princess Jasnah, sister to the king of Alethkar, is a noted heretic and atheist, but also a famous scholar and the bearer of a priceless Soulcaster, an ancient device used to transmute matter. She uses it openly, despite the fact that they are supposed to only be used by the holy ardents of Vorinism. There is no more controversial figure in eastern Roshar, and no sharper mind.

Shallan, however, is her family’s only hope for survival. She plans to gain Jasnah’s confidence . . . and then steal her Soulcaster.

The Story
What I just described is told in the beginning of The Way of Kings, the first book in the series. It barely scratches the surface, and already it sounds like major spoilers. I’m faced with an interesting problem in my attempt to review Words of Radiance: anything I say will spoil the story! Even if you don’t mind spoilers, I guarantee you that you would prefer not to get spoiled. Unfortunately, the nature of the plot means I tread on fantastic moments of the first book that truly make great literature. Because of that, I have to be more vague than I would normally be.

Of course, the cover of Words of Radiance, featuring Kaladin, gives a hint as to what kind of new challenge he faces. And do I need to say that Michael Whelan is an amazing artist? No? I will anyway.

Of course, the cover of Words of Radiance, featuring Kaladin, gives a hint as to what kind of new challenge he faces. And do I need to say that Michael Whelan is an amazing artist? No? I will anyway.

Words of Radiance picks up right from where The Way of Kings left off. We get the fulfillment of many promises from the first book in just the first couple hundred pages, while new problems surface and the characters have to adapt. Several seemingly-random events from the first book are revealed to be part of a grand plan, and the way this comes together is simply beautiful. Each major character is taken out of his or her comfort zone (inasmuch as any of them had comfort zones after the first book!) and forced to develop new skills and face new challenges. One major, albeit secondary, character even goes over the brink into true insanity in a way that is completely believable.

By the end of the book, several mysteries are revealed, and the status quo is completely shattered. The Way of Kings left us knowing how the next book would start; Words of Radiance leaves us guessing. All we know for certain is that everything has changed. The rules that the characters have lived by, that their ancestors have lived by, have shattered. Nothing is guaranteed, save for the coming struggle itself.

The only certainty for the audience, in fact, is that the clues have been seeded. In fact, the clues are easy to identify. It’s what they mean that is uncertain, and it will no doubt fuel much fan-speculation between now and the next book. We have just enough information to know there’s a pattern, and not enough to tell what the pattern is. That is what I call good writing!

The Big Picture
The series is part of a metaseries, for lack of a better term: the cosmere, where many of Sanderson’s books are intertwined, despite taking place on different worlds. The grand, epic threat that the world of Roshar faces, the True Desolation, threatens all the other worlds of the cosmere.

One secondary character, hinted to be a fairly major figure, has actually shown up in Elantris, Warbringer, and Mistborn. He goes by the name of Hoid, at least normally, and in the previous books he’s shown up only briefly as a beggar or similarly lowly figure. In this series, however, he takes a more major role. Hoid is a worldhopper, with a mysterious relationship to the godlike figures found on the worlds of the cosmere (such as the being known on Roshar as the Almighty). He knows a lot more than he’s letting on, but he admits at one point that his goals are not necessarily the same as Dalinar’s or Kaladin’s. If he is forced to choose between his goals and letting Roshar be ground to dust, he will pick the former without hesitation. Who he is and what he is doing remains a favorite topic of speculation for Sanderson fans.

Based on what Hoid hints at, the events of The Stormlight Archive will finally give a lot of answers — and has already posed a lot of new questions. But aside from a few odd references here and there, you can read these two books on their own.

You Won’t Regret It
The size of the story is intimidating, to be certain; after all, two thousand-page books? That’s a large investment, and it’s only going to increase. Rest assured, though, that Sanderson does not hold to the theory that gripping fiction must be a rollercoaster ride where you can’t stop to go to the bathroom, much less go to work or perform the necessities of life. Sanderson builds his books, and especially this series, with the expectation that you will pause and work your way through the story with consideration.

In a certain sense, he depends on it; his books are not turn-your-brain-off stories, but instead count on you catching details. You can’t do that if you’re fatigued or racing through the book. Similarly, while the ends of both books so far have left me wanting more, they haven’t been cliffhangers, exactly. Each time, both you and the characters get to pause, catch your breath, and gently ease off of an incredible contact high. The final chapter in each book is more of a promise, a gentle reminder that the story has only begun.

This series is going to be one of the greats of the genre. So great, in fact, that I don’t sit there wishing that I had been the one to write it. No, because if that had happened, I wouldn’t be able to read it for the first time. This is something to look forward to in the years to come, and I can only hope that the next instalments arrive faster. I want to know what happens next, and I dream of being able to teach a course using books like these as required reading.