Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
Sometimes when I’m pondering a review of Brandon Sanderson, I feel like I’m back in one of those classic middle school conversations:
Me: I heard you like Brandon.
Also Me: Maybe I do
Me: Do you like like him?
Also Me: I said I liked him.
Me: Yeah, but like, like like?
Also Me: I don’t know. What’s that like, like like?
Me: It’s like, you stay up all night thinking about how much you like him.
Also Me: Well, I do stay up all night because of him. But I think it’s just because his books are so long.
Me: Would you like die if he stopped writing?
Also Me: I don’t think so.
Me: Do you think about him when you’re reading other writers?
Also Me: No.
Me: Oh. Well, then you like him, you don’t like like him.
Also Me: Sooo, I just want to be —
Me: Yep. You just want to be friends.
And that’s sort of where I stand with the newest STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE book, Rhythm of War. It’s a 1200-page book that I finished in 3 sittings and that I (mostly) fully enjoyed (nearly) the entire way. It’s got enough worldbuilding for several worlds (which makes sense since it’s all part of his multi-world “Cosmere”). Big battles and one-on-one duels. Strategy, tactics, and betrayals, oh my. It’s got magic. And science! It’s a murder mystery. It’s a courtroom drama. It’s Die Hard! It has humor. And darkness (lots of darkness). It has heroes. It has villains. It has some in between. In other words, it has lots and lots to like. But I can’t say I like liked it. But more on that later. Some potential spoilers for the first few books to follow, but none for Rhythm of War. I’m not going to go too much into plot as there’s so much of it (did I mention 1200 pages) and so much leading up to it. But I will outline structure, which follows the same pattern of prior books, and very basic elements.
The prologue, as we’ve seen before, brings us back to the night of Gavilar’s assassination. In doing so it reveals a bit more of what was happening that night and why, but also (of course) throws up more questions, some of which get answered in the course of the novel.
The interludes offer up a point-of-view that gives a complicating view of the character (who will remain unnamed). I’m not quite sure how much of a surprise it’s supposed to be. I guessed who it was before it’s laid out for the reader, but I’m not sure Sanderson was really trying to hide who it was. It does make a nice move in the overarching storyline.
As before, we have a series of flashback chapters. Here though, rather than focusing on one character, we get dual flashbacks for Venli and Eshonai. As with the other ones, these do a great job of deepening the characters as we see motivations, goals, relationships we just were unaware of before, casting characters we thought we knew in a different light. We also get to see the culture of the Singers pre Human contact, which is both fascinating and deepens our sense of them as a people and also of this planet.
As for the Epilogue, I’m not going to say anything save it involves Wit and really throws a great wrench into the narrative machinery.
As noted, I’m not going to go into the plot much because of its complexity and because it’s nigh impossible to do without spoiling at least a few major narrative points. I will say that one strand involves Adolin and Shallan journeying to the honorspren city of Lasting Integrity in Shadesmar in an attempt to convince the honorspren to join humanity in its battles against Odium. Along the way, Shallan’s dissociative disorder continues to both complicate and ease issues, depending on the situation, as she moves toward an attempt to resolve or better deal with it. In a somewhat similarly-toned arc, Kaladin has to deal both with PTSD and his unresolved conflict with his father, all while, as one might imagine, events prevent him from truly being able to focus on himself. Other strands I’m not going to say anything about, save that we learn much more about the Fused, leading to events and revelations that wonderfully complicate things and also land with some true emotional punch. And while I had some issues with execution, Navani’s storyline introduces science and engineering to the fantasy, a mix I always enjoy and wish more genre authors employed.
Sanderson has always been an excellent plotter, and this holds true in Rhythm of War. He’s thrown a bunch of balls, flaming torches, and chainsaws up in the air and keeps them circling around in a mostly mesmerizing pattern, each following its prescribed path and ending up where it always needs to be. He shrewdly tosses in twists and turns at just the right times, has surprises in store but also drops enough hints that many of them you could see coming, or at least see how they arrived in hindsight. He balances the grand spectacles and the quiet moments well, offering up blockbuster action scenes full of speed and flash and color and even sometimes literal explosions. All very big-screen cinema. And then you’ll turn the page and find yourself in a quiet character-driven indie movie, or maybe a one-character stage play with a bare stage and dim lighting. And it all mostly works.
I say mostly because I did feel that parts of the novel dragged a bit. One’s mileage, for instance, may vary on the length and number of fight scenes using surgepowers (or the like). Some fans will absolutely eat them up and then look in the fridge for more. I confess I could have done with fewer and often shorter ones (I do realize that it’s sort of like complaining about car chases in the Fast and Furious movies). I loved the idea of Navani’s science work; I’m not sure I needed the detailed play-by-play of it all (I lie. I’m sure I didn’t). I really like how Sanderson has his characters wrestle with interior demons — PTSD, dissociative disorder — but it’s a fine line between spending a respectful amount of time on it (i.e., not I’m sad in Chapter 2, all better in Chapter 4!) and spending too much time on it, and here I thought both storylines went too long in the same mode and tone, especially as the reader is pretty sure where they’re going to end up. The same was true of the trial, which had what I think was supposed to be a big surprise but which I thought was actually pretty easy to predict in terms of its resolution.
Finally, the one thing that always seems to get in the way of my, well, like liking Sanderson, and it’s something I’ve commented on in the past, is that while the plotting almost always propels you forward smoothly, the reading is a little too frictionless for my personal liking. Everything is just sort of “out there,” but — and I realize this is highly subjective — I like a bit more subtext in my fiction. I like having to work a bit to dig out a character. I get that Kaladin has PTSD, or “battle fatigue” as they call it here. I get it from his reactions to events. But I also have to get it from his interior monologue (multiple ones). And his discussions (multiple ones) with Syl. And his discussions (multiple) with his father. And with Dalinar. And with Wit. And in his dreams. And with some of his compatriots. And then I get to see it mirrored in another character. And in a whole group of characters. It’s all just too blunt for me. The same was true, to a lesser extent in numbers but not in bald statement, for Shallan’s internal struggle. I mean, at one point, we get a metaphorical name actually explained to us. I get that it’s a revelation for the character, but it still was just too on the nose for me.
So take that for what it’s worth. Rhythm of War is absolutely a fun read, an interesting read, mostly a compelling read despite some bogging down here and there. It’s rich and complex and is more than happy to flip the gameboard to rejuvenate itself and not go down the same old easy-to-predict paths. And it deals in a serious manner with serious topics. Beyond the aforementioned interior conflicts, it explores questions of governance, of sexism and racism. It portrays science as both boon and bane and calls into question unchecked technological “progress.” It explores an indigenous culture torn from its roots and then asks what happens when they are given power over their enslavers. It’s not my favorite book in the series (that would be Words of Radiance), but Sanderson, besides being amazingly prolific, is also amazingly consistent, almost always falling for me in the 4 to 4.5 range. I like him. And if I don’t like like him, well, maybe I’d say to him, “it’s not you; it’s me.”
I feel a bit dazed as I finally emerge from a truly epic STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE marathon that lasted almost exactly two months, since that fateful September day when I decided I couldn’t turn down the offer of an advance copy of Rhythm of War, despite not having yet read any of the prior three books in this series (good intentions and all, but yes, the sheer page count was truly daunting). I’ve generally been of the opinion that epic fantasy is really not quite my thing, but Brandon Sanderson has been gradually bringing me around. If you are already a fan of epic fantasy, this series gets an extremely high recommendation from me … which you probably don’t need if you’re an epic fantasy reader, since you’re likely way ahead of me in getting into this series.
Rhythm of War is a giant of a book and, like the previous installments in the series, juggles a large cast of characters, most of whom are familiar from prior books in the series, and multiple plotlines — again, most of which were introduced earlier in the series, but take some large leaps forward in this volume, with a few twists and backflips along the way. Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar are still the most prominent main characters, but they’re joined by Adolin and Navani, who are both given some much-needed character development and more substantial roles in the overall plot.
Kaladin has been a favorite character since The Way of Kings, when I found myself skipping ahead just so I could read his chapters. Early on here, it becomes painfully clear just how much he’s struggling with the aftereffects of his many battles and his failures to protect those around him. I agree with Bill that those scenes dragged on somewhat too long for my taste, but Rhythm of War has some powerful and even profound moments describing depression and PTSD.
Navani’s chapters were more uplifting and refreshing, despite the dangers of her situation. She finds herself a unique position where she can begin to exercise and develop her scientific talents more than ever before, but there’s a fascinating conundrum: will her scholarly efforts help her people or lead to their downfall? Navani’s perspective is distinct from others in this novel, exploring the advancing science of Roshar’s magical system. Her battles with the opposing forces are more intellectual and mental than physical.
Venli, a “listener” and one of the alien race of singers that’s native to the planet Roshar (and which has a fraught history with the human settlers who arrived several thousand years ago), also becomes a main viewpoint character. Through Venli’s and her sister’s eyes, and in a series of flashbacks, Sanderson explores more of the culture and society of singers and the effect of Odium’s power and schemes on them. And, of course, King Taravangian is still scheming as well, at least on his more intelligent days. Taravangian is an entirely unique character, one of my favorites, with an unusual blessing/curse and an unexpected set of skills and methods for dealing with it.
As the plot advances, Sanderson puts the reader through a roller coaster of emotions, including some exhilarating highs and terrifying drops. Sanderson is able to craft a war that feels real, showing the motivations of people (human or other) on both sides of the conflict. When the characters we’re rooting for win or lose a battle, we can see its effects clearly. It’s a staple of epic fantasy to have a large (even immense) scale of events that shorter series can’t attain, and Sanderson fully embraces this and uses the greater scale to its fullest effect.
It wouldn’t be a Sanderson book without at least a few major plot twists. When they came, they felt like events that you could’ve (perhaps should have) seen coming, though, unlike Bill, I didn’t manage to predict any of the major ones. Sanderson does a great job of answering questions while also raising new ones, and in Rhythm of War, Sanderson answers (at least in part) several longstanding questions, which naturally give rise to an equal number of new and equally compelling questions. Those, along with a few (okay, more than a few) unresolved plot threads, serve to keep expectations high for future books in this series.
Sanderson is justly lauded for his intricate and imaginative magical systems, but I need to give a shout out to the literary structure of these books as well. The five-part organization of each of the books in this series, interspersed with brief “interludes” from other, often unfamiliar characters; the frequently obscure (at least initially) quotes and epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter; the way the prologue and epilogue of each book echo the others but shed new light; and more. The amount of thought and work that has gone into this series, on multiple levels, is truly impressive. They’re so intelligently written.
Overall, Rhythm of War is a strong addition to the STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE and, for the first time, it feels like there’s an end in sight to the series, however distant it may be. If I have any real complaints, it’s that the immense length of these books doesn’t feel entirely justified to me; I tend to think that Sanderson could have edited them down by, say, three or four hundred pages without really taking anything material away from the experience. Still, the STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE is easily my favorite series of epic fantasy to date (yes, I have in fact read a few others). Being introduced to these characters and this world has been an illuminating and enjoyable experience, and I look forward to the STORMLIGHT books still to come.