What I love about the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson
An enthusiastic yet critical Stormlight Archives Review.
- Unusual concepts weaved together in a unique and interesting fantasy world.
- Classic themes of the epic battle between good and evil served in a modern, non-simplistic way.
- A hopeful, rather than a cynical message.
Stormlight Archives is the most ambitious project of one of the most accomplished fantasy authors of our time. It enjoys astounding commercial success for a good reason. This doesn’t mean it’s a perfect match to everyone’s tastes, but there are gem(heart)s inside Stormlight that win a lot of people over.
Below I’ll try to single out those gems, while at the same time exploring what pushes some people away from this epic fantasy classic-in-the-making.
The newest Stormlight Archives book, Rythm of War, is out on Amazon!
Stormlight’s Plot: slow buildups, great payoffs
I am a grown-ass man. I was raised by my father to never show weakness, to take life one punch at a time, to keep my chin up (to bottle-up my emotions, to be inadequate at expressing them… the whole shebang.). I rarely cry.
Yet, close to the conclusion of The Way of Kings, I shed a few manly tears. And not because something tragic happened. On the contrary — because something beautiful happened.
I don’t expect everyone to be hit by the payoff of that exact book so profoundly. Yet, I’m sure there are moments in the series that would drop your jaw. One of Brandon’s greatest strengths by far is intentionally building up the story to an amazing peak and resolution. I haven’t read other authors who manage to pull it off so consistently.
A great payoff requires you to be very engaged in the story, and a high-level of engagement doesn’t come for free, however.
Common criticism: bloat
The first installment, The Way of Kings, is 400k words. This is more than some whole book series. And the Way of Kings isn’t even the thickest Stormlight book.
Needless to say, the story doesn’t move at a break-neck pace. The books take their time to introduce plenty of character background information (whole chapters), as well as plenty of world-building (sometimes introduced through a lot of secondary characters with their mini-storylines).
The drawback of all these non-essential elements is that some of the things you read about feel unconnected to the main story and as a result — pointless. Even I, as a big fan of the series, have found myself wanting to skip ahead to find out what “actually” happens with the characters that “actually” matter.
Because of this, some readers might find Stormlight inferior to some of Sanderson’s tighter, less world-building-indulgent pieces of fiction (Warbreaker, Emperor’s Soul, etc.). We’ve all heard variations of the thought “life is too short to waste time on books you don’t enjoy”. Stormlight books can certainly take up a lot of your time, which means the bar they need to cross to be worth your while is a lot higher.
The benefit is that this way of writing increases your understanding — of the world and the conflicts in it, as well as the characters and their motivation. You become more and more invested and slowly you start to care a great deal. When the plot twists, unexpected things are revealed. When the conflict peaks, it hits you hard.
For me, the impact of the payoff more than justifies the lengthy buildup. Few authors can make this grown-ass reader cry while simultaneously putting a huge grin on his face.
Stormlight’s Setting: unique, systematic, conceptual
Usually, a fantasy setting is based on a specific period in human history. To make it unique, fantasy authors add their own pinch of mythology, magic, made-up cultures, nations, history, etc.
In contrast, sci-fi authors often build their world on top of specific (scientific) premises: what if X, Y, and Z are true in the future? How would this affect the world, humanity, and individual people?
Instead of largely basing his world on a historic setting, it seems Brandon builds Roshar using some “what if” premises, not unlike a sci-fi author.
- What if the planet was ravaged by cyclical, super-powerful storms? How would this change the natural world (ecology)? How would it change architecture, culture, etc.?
- What if society discriminates based on eye color? What if the gender stereotypes were strong enough to force men and women into vastly different, albeit equally important roles: women being scholars, men being warriors?
- How would the economy be different if the magic system was able to provide food, weapons, building materials, and other essentials?
This approach to worldbuilding makes his world very understandable and digestible on a rational, cause-consequence level.
Common criticism: a sense of hollowness
Yet, every coin has two sides. The benefit of Sanderson’s approach to worldbuilding is that he can create a world unusually rich in unique and interesting concepts. The drawback is that the level of unfamiliarity means it takes a lot of effort to fully immerse the reader into the world. It requires a lot of words to weave all of these concepts into the story. Building understanding is one thing, but nurturing a feeling of a living, breathing world takes a lot of time.
If you are cynical, you could argue that the world of a Song of Ice and Fire (and Game of Thrones) is simply medieval Britain with a pinch of dragons, zombies, and the occasional foreign culture. Not a lot of unique concepts there, comparatively. Yet, the Seven Kingdoms feel much more like a living, breathing world to a lot of readers.
Why is that?
Realistic vs romantic: Тhe writing style of Martin helps. He presents his world in a gritty, cynical, hyper-realistic way. Sanderson presents humanity in a cleaner, idealistic, romantic way. This might contribute to the feeling of “unrealness” of his world. (There are positives to this writing style, but more on that below.)
Systematic vs organic: when worldbuilding, Martin leaves the reader hanging and rarely over-explains, while Sanderson likes to flesh out his concepts/systems from A to Z in the text. The effect is that ASOIF readers are left with the feeling that they are barely scratching the surface of the iceberg and there is a lot more “world” underneath (even when the author hasn’t even constructed this world yet).
Emphasis on history: A vast majority of ASOIF’s worldbuilding is focused on history, which creates the illusion that you are dropped in the middle of a conflict driven by many political forces, just like you would experience most narratives in the real world. Stormlight’s worldbuilding deals mostly with the natural and cultural side of Roshar, but the immediate history of the kingdoms/world is rarely explored. This leaves you with the impression that the only driving force is the assassination of the king by the Parshendi and no other political context (and forces) even exist, which feels a bit fake. (This could definitely improve with future entries.)
Prior knowledge: Lastly, when you think about it, it is not that surprising that a fantasy world based on the real world feels more real than a fantasy world based on new imaginary concepts. A (western) reader has had their whole life building some understanding of medieval Europe. It’s very easy to project that understanding onto the Seven Kingdoms. It’s harder to project it directly onto Roshar.
Roshar is more conceptual. More intriguing, maybe, but besides the few areas in which most of the story takes place (the Shattered Plains and later on — Urithiru), the rest of the world feels a bit theoretical and inconsequential. Do real people even live there?
Yet, I have confidence that as the series progress, this feeling will diminish. The rest of Roshar will get populate with living and breathing people and cultures as Sanderson continues taking us to different parts of his world. There are, after all, ten books planned to take place on Roshar, and currently, only three are published (soon to be four). I believe Oathbringer displays a trend in this direction.
Details & Systems
It’s not a secret Brandon Sanderson is a lover of well-defined hard magic systems. Stormlight’s Surgebinding is not an exception, but in tone with the whole series — it’s a tad more ambitious in terms of scope. It consists of ten Surges (powers). Each magic user utilizes two. This means that mathematically there are 45 different types of Surgebinders. Of course, the story doesn’t concern itself with all of them.
That said, Brandon is definitely a lover of systems in general. If you have alcoholic beverages in your fantasy world, why not have a system on the subject?
The Vorin wines could easily be substituted with normal alcohol and this would probably have shortened the book some thousand words. Yet, would this make the books better or worse? For some readers, getting to what’s important (characters, plot) is what counts, and a thing as “pointless” as a system of wines is a con.
For others, details like these are why they enjoy fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding in the first place.
Sanderson indulges in such details. If you enjoy getting to know a different world, you’ll probably enjoy Stormlight. If the Vorin wines system seems pointless to you, you might find some parts of the books frustrating.
Stormlight’s Characters: the goal is inspiration, not grotesque realism
Characters are where Stormlight (and Brandon Sanderson as a whole) receives its harshest criticism. However, I believe this is more of a display of different expectations and tastes among readers rather than a reflection of Brandon’s inability to write interesting characters.
Real people are extremely complex.
Any character in a piece of fiction is a construct that attempts to deceive you that you are reading about a real person. Perfect photorealism, however, isn’t what most authors are aiming at. Characters are an abstraction, and the author usually emphasizes certain characteristics and downplays others to build a character that fits their narrative, theme, writing style, etc.
- If you are writing something grimdark, most of your protagonists are likely to be cynical and violent (or naïve, and they pay for it). Probably more so than most real humans. And they inhabit a world that reflects their nature.
- If you are writing a classic good vs evil (hero vs dragon) story, your protagonists are likely to have a very fine-tuned moral compass no matter how dark and edgy they claim to be. And they inhabit a world where good and bad are easily distinguishable.
This doesn’t mean one type of character is inferior to the other. Both could be interesting if done well. There is an audience for both styles — sometimes overlapping, but sometimes not. I believe the non-overlapping part of the audience is where most criticism is coming from.
Clean & naïve vs gritty & cynical
Brandon himself said that when he was trying to get published for the first time, the big fantasy publishers were looking for the next Martin or Abercrombie. He tried to write in a similar grimdark style, but it didn’t turn out well. So, he returned to what comes naturally to him.
Yes, his romance is entirely PG13. Yes, even his “broken” protagonists are entirely redeemable and morally light-gray at best. The evil they are facing comes either from a source outside of humanity or from obviously morally inferior people.
Yet, this has a purpose. Stormlight’s message is one of hope.
The protagonists come from a place of ruin and walk a path of redemption and growth. The process of gradually incorporating the different ancient ideals of the Knights Radiant makes this growth very deliberate.
″‘You want too much of me’ he snapped at her as he reached the other side of the chasm. ‘I’m not some glorious knight of ancient days. I’m a broken man. Do you hear me Syl? I’m broken.’
She zipped up to him and whispered ‘That’s what they all were, silly.‘”
Brandon Sanderson doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body, and this is perfectly fine. Some stories and characters are meant to inspire, rather than delve into the grotesque parts of humanity.
Personal worry: power creepBrandon’s protagonists tend to grow in power considerably as the story progresses (think superhero origin stories). This means that while they grow more awesome, they also become a bit less relatable. I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the first book the most. It makes me slightly worried where things will stand in book five/ten, but let’s hope Rhythm of War will ease my concerns!
Sanderson’s Prose: a tool, rather than an end in itself
Sanderson explains it pretty well himself:
The prose is the window through which the reader views the story. The window could be a piece of art itself (stained glass), or it could be functional (clear glass). Sanderson certainly leans towards the clear glass prose style.
This doesn’t mean his prose is bad. On the contrary — he can make you laugh, cry, and turn the pages. Also, you will rarely be confused, if ever.
It just means that you won’t often find yourself stopping to admire the exact string of words he’s using, which could be a minus if that’s what you’re into. The meaning of his words, however, is something you’ll admire often:
“And so, does the destination matter? Or is it the path we take? I declare that no accomplishment has substance nearly as great as the road used to achieve it. We are not creatures of destinations. It is the journey that shapes us. Our callused feet, our backs strong from carrying the weight of our travels, our eyes open with the fresh delight of experiences lived. In the end, I must proclaim that no good can be achieved by false means. For the substance of our existence is not in the achievement, but in the method.”
The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, & Oathbringer mini-reviews
I’ve kept these minimalistic because the purpose of this Stormlight review is to speak about the series in general rather than compare the individual books in it. Nonetheless, here are my quick impressions:
The Way of Kings:
Each book focuses heavily on one of the protagonists and provides retrospective chapters that tell their backstory. The first book focuses on Kaladin’s story, and from my prior confession of shedding a tear, you might have guessed it’s my favorite.
The main theme is his struggle to incorporate the first Knights Radiant ideal.
- Life before death: dealing with his depression and choosing to live despite the place he finds himself in.
- Strength before weakness: succeeding when everything is stacked against him, using his strength to protect others.
- Journey before destination: learning to value the final goal less than the way you reach it.
Words of Radiance:
The second book focuses on Shallan and provides her backstory. I’ve heard many people claim this is their favorite entry, and I can easily see some readers (especially women) being moved by Shallan’s story as strongly as I was moved by Kaladin’s.
Sometimes when male authors decide to write a badass female protagonist, they inevitably create a Red Sonja — even though she is female, what makes her badass are archetypally male characteristics. Shallan, however, is a strong female character while remaining very feminine, which is great. (This is true about all three major female characters in Stormlight.)
Probably the entry that suffers the most from the bloat problem. At the same time, it provides the biggest leap forward in terms of worldbuilding and making Roshar more tangible. I suspect the two (bloat and worldbuilding) are somewhat connected. It focuses on Dalinar and his struggle to lead while dealing with his past transgressions. The book was probably my least favorite, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would disagree. (Conspiracy theory: Dalinar, the Wise King archetype, the Mufasa of Stormlight, needs to die to raise the stakes in books four and five.)
Brandon Sanderson is continuing the classic epic fantasy tradition of Tolkien and Jordan rather than the modern grimdark branch of authors like Martin and Abercrombie.
If you strongly prefer the latter, you’ll probably find Stormlight Archives terribly overhyped.
If you enjoy the former, you might have found your new favorite series and a profound source of inspiration.
I hope I convinced you that Stormlight is a must for any modern epic fantasy fan. If I did, make sure to head out to Amazon to support Brandon’s work! With Rythm of War out, the Book 1–3 Stormlight Box Set is on discount:
Stormlight Archive MM Boxed Set I, Books 1-3: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer (The…
Stormlight Archive MM Boxed Set I, Books 1-3: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive)…
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