Friday, March 14, 2014

Five Things on a Friday: Words of Radiance Edition

Words of Radiance is Brandon Sanderson’s newest novel, the second book in his epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives.  I put it on hold at the Milford Library several weeks ago but then broke down and bought it for the Kindle app the day it came out.  I finally finished reading every one of the thousand-plus pages in a long, rather frantic reading session Wednesday night, so that I then had to sit down and read the ending again on Thursday morning, and yup… I’ve been trying to figure out what the Hell I just read ever since.

Cover art for Words of Radiance.
I’m going to try to keep my thoughts on the book spoiler-free, but only for Words of Radiance.  This edition of Five Things on a Friday assumes you’ve read at least most of the way through The Way of Kings.  

If you haven’t, go do that now.  Then come back and read this.

1.  It’s a Family Affair.
When The Stormlight Archives started, it was billed as Sanderson’s Wheel of Time (WoT).  That intrigued people, and it set a certain level of expectations, which the author then surpassed.  I came away from The Way of Kings thinking that the apprentice had surpassed the master, that a new standard had been set for globe-trotting epic fantasy.
At the end of Words of Radiance, though, I realized that all those expectations had come from readers and not from the author’s actual work.  Which is to say that although this series threatens to be as long as the WoT was, and although Jordan’s influence is certainly there, reality is that there are fundamental differences of approach here of a kind that I didn’t see the first time out.  For example, WoT really was a globe-trotting, word-spanning epic with a cast of, literally, a thousand or more characters.  The Stormlight Archives is not.  It is instead the story of one specific family, the Kholin family, as it faces the end of the world.
I like that.  It is without a doubt my favorite aspect of this particular story.
2.  Kaladin is a soldier’s Peter Pan.
He’s a battalion commander in charge of a thousand or more guys, but he’s so focused on justice and fairness that he reminds me of my ten-year-old daughter.  If you ever become a Girl Scout Leader, one of the things you’ll read in the Girl Scout Leader’s Handbook is that adolescent girls are very focused on fairness.  Which is why a lot of young adult fiction also focuses on fairness, why books like The Hunger Games spend so much time dwelling on the fact that life isn’t fair! 
Guess what, Kaladin.  Life is not fair! As a combat commander, you have to deal with reality, you have to make decisions that win the fight, even in the face of a shitstorm of things that you don’t understand and can’t control.  This is the nature of being an adult leader, of managing more than a handful of guys.  But Kaladin doesn’t want to grow up; he is a 2nd Lieutenant in a Lieutenant Colonel’s job.  And yeah, he has his moments, but they’re personal moments, moments like a talented infantry platoon leader will have, when he commits himself to the battle at just the right time and place.  A field grade officer, however, has a LOT more responsibility than that, and I came away from Words of Radiance thinking that Kal isn’t ready; that he’s not even close.
Bottom line, Kaladin is Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill.  A war hero, yes, and a talented, charismatic leader, but also a guy who has a tendency to ignore Commander’s Intent and charge the wrong position.
3.  Combat Tinkerbell.
The fact that Kaladin is running around with his own version of Combat Tinkerbell on his shoulder makes me think that Sanderson knows what he’s doing.  I choose to believe that Syl’s placement was a deliberate literary nod to the boy who won’t grow up.
4.  I’m on Team Adolin.
Sanderson starts setting up the rivalry between Kaladin and Adolin at the end of The Way of Kings, and we see it growing throughout Words of Radiance.  They dislike each other, but they’re both fiercely loyal and tactically important to Dalinar.  They’re social opposites, but they’re both commanders in the same army.  There is respect, but it’s grudging.  Etc.
Well.  Maybe Adolin was born into his position, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not good at it.  Fact is, if Kaladin is TR at San Juan Hill, then Adolin is J.E.B. Stuart at the Peninsula Campaign, literally riding rings around the other army.  He is the best swordsman, he’s his father’s equal as a battlefield commander, and he’s more than capable of large-scale command.  Like Stuart, Adolin is a bit of a showoff, yes, but he’s also talented enough to make it work, and in any event, his showmanship is an effective tool in the war.  That has value, even if others don’t see it.  Plus, Adolin takes the time to read the Op Order, he understands the Commander’s Intent, and when things go to Hell, he’s not just solving problems personally.  He’s directing his men and committing himself; not just leading from the front but also directing the fight.  

That’s a level of mastery that Kaladin does not possess and has not demonstrated.  And it concerns me because Words of Radiance goes to some length to show that Kaladin is smarter than Adolin, that Kal has a lot more going on.  This may be true at some levels, but Adolin is a demonstrated master of his craft at others, and I’m worried that he’s going to get short shrift later in the series by virtue of not being the primary protagonist.
5.  A few other thoughts.
 -- I’m ready to see another viewpoint character.  I’d specifically like to see Lift or Zahel get more to do in the next book.
 -- The way that this series handles religion is another of my favorite aspects of this story.  The fact that no one quite knows quite what the Almighty is or what to make of the events of ancient history rings true to me.  Plus, it allows people to be what they are--selfish, manipulative, cruel--in the name of their beliefs.  Guess what?  That shit happens.
 -- On a related note, the ancient Roman religion is also one of my favorites.  They believed in a concept they called Genius, the spirit of the divine in men.  I don’t know if they actually believed that Genius existed or if the concept of Genius was merely a convenient way to discuss the nature of human thought and consciousness.  Either way, their tendency to personify abstract concepts fascinates me.  ‘nuff said.
 -- Another related note: I love all the Cults.
So.  Clearly we have a long wait ahead of us before the next volume in the series.  In the meantime, I would imagine that another Mistborn book is coming next, but I don’t know that and don’t feel like looking it up.  My daughter Emma, meanwhile, cannot wait until Firefight drops; she asks me if it’s out yet almost every day.
In regards to Words of Radiance, I may write a *spoilers* edition with more thoughts on the book, but even if I write it tomorrow, I’m not gonna stick it up on the blog for at least another month or so.  For one thing, I know that several of my friends are still listening to the audio version of the book, and Alan Evans (Rival Angels) is in the middle ofThe Way of Kings, and I don’t want to spoil anything for him personally.  
If you drop comments below, please keep that in mind.
Thanks, and have a good weekend.


  1. Still not done with the Audio version, but I am in agreement with most of your assessments in particular ref Adolin vs Kaladin. I think he's doing a great job of using them to outline the difference between talent and training. Kaladin being raised to his position, while justifiable (sorta) as an honorary thing is really less like a LT becoming a battalion commander and more like a junior SSG becoming one via battlefield commission. An LT has at least had some larger scale tactics training and firsthand mentoring from his senior rater. The NCO is less likely to have ever had to see beyond his platoon.

  2. And to be fair, that's what he is. He turns 21 in WoR and his only military experience has been as a squad leader. Sanderson captures it well, imo

    1. I thought about that when I was writing the review but decided not to give the guy a pass anyway. Unfair perhaps since he IS so young, but it is what it is.