Words of Radiance is an epic fantasy novel that does everything right. It is a love letter to its genre and an improvement upon anything the genre has ever churned out before.
Possibly the most-hyped release of 2014, and certainly The Ranting Dragon’s most anticipated novel for the year, is Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. And it sure lives up to the hype! This huge sequel to The Way of Kings and the second novel in The Stormlight Archive (of a planned ten) is the epitome of epic fantasy. Words of Radiance is an amazing read, from the first to the 1088th page, and once you start reading, it’s absolutely impossible to put down.
The epitome of epic fantasy, you say?
In the aforementioned anticipation article, I called The Way of Kings a book that changed the epic fantasy genre forever. Many disagreed with this sentiment. Though The Way of Kings didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before, the way it did those things was simply extraordinary. Words of Radiance continues this trend. And then some. The result is a mind-blowing and action-packed epic fantasy masterwork set in an imaginary world without equal. In my opinion, there are three reasons why Words of Radiance is the ultimate epic fantasy novel.
Words of Radiance‘s sheer size, incredible world-building, and story told from a plethora of viewpoints—all of them drenched in wildly original magic—are an unmistakable love letter to epic masters of the past.
A small part in a larger Cosmere
In many ways, Words of Radiance is an ode to the epic fantasy genre of the 1980s and ‘90s. Its sheer size (at 1088 pages, this is the largest novel publisher Tor Books is capable of producing), incredible world-building, and story told from a plethora of viewpoints—all of them drenched in wildly original magic—are an unmistakable love letter to epic masters of the past, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Jordan. Yet, I cannot think of single author who has ever done what Sanderson has accomplished over the years: create a completely interconnected universe in which many different books and series take place, without the need to read them all to understand one of them. You could read Elantris without ever reading any other of Sanderson’s so-called Cosmere novels, and still comprehend it completely, not even noticing the presence of a connected universe. (Of course, after you’ve read Elantris, you won’t want to miss out on all the other books, but that’s an entirely different story.) Fans who start paying attention, however, will start picking up on the numerous hints.
Words of Radiance is the seventh of Sanderson’s planned 36 novels set in the Cosmere—that’s not counting side projects such as The Emperor’s Soul and The Alloy of Law which are technically set in the Cosmere, but aren’t part of The Big Plan™. It’s the first, however, that starts actively incorporating Cosmere elements beyond mere hints. Readers can still enjoy Words of Radiance without being familiar with these elements, but for existing fans, the presence of characters from Sanderson’s other novels will be absolutely astonishing. My mind was most certainly blown when certain characters from Warbreaker showed up. And then there’s Hoid, the man who makes an appearance in all of Sanderson’s Cosmere novels and has a much bigger role to play in The Stormlight Archive, where he is known as Wit (“This is, I suspect, a little like a skunk naming itself for its stench”).
A work of art
The second factor that sets Words of Radiance apart from typical epic fantasy novels is its art. By that, I don’t simply mean the beautiful cover design and gorgeous end pages, nor the stunning inner artwork that nearly transform The Stormlight Archive into an encyclopedia of itself. These are only small pieces of the greater work of art that is Words of Radiance. Within this behemoth of a novel is, in fact, a collection of three novels, eight short stories, a novelette, and a novella—all of them majestically connected in one grand, sweeping arc. What other epic fantasy novel has ever accomplished such a feat before?
Fans of Brandon Sanderson are probably familiar with his trademark rollercoaster endings, popularly known as the Sanderson Avalanche. Because this is essentially a trilogy of novels contained in the one novel, Words of Radiance contains not just the one but three of those avalanches—each a breathtaking conclusion to its own perfectly paced section. Don’t expect to be able to put the book down during one of these avalanches at the end of parts two, three, and five. The final avalanche, the one that ties all three parts of Words of Radiance together, is stupefyingly, overwhelmingly stunning.
Words of Radiance is carried by the journeys of its individual characters. Here, Sanderson proves once again that he continues to grow as an author with each work he publishes.
The third and last facet that makes Words of Radiance a novel that changes the face of epic fantasy and ups the scale for future fantasy authors—even more than its predecessor The Way of Kings—is its depth of detail. In a review of a different epic fantasy novel, I might comment on its worldbuilding detracting from the story. I might complain about the lack of creativity when it comes to info-dumps. Not in this review. Words of Radiance certainly contains a lot of info-dumps; there are several pages-long sections in which characters learn more about their world and the magic therein by means of dialogue. Thanks to Sanderson’s trademark creativity, this never derogates the story at hand. Instead of slowing down and diminishing the reading experience, the world of Roshar is so wondrously expansive that these pages of information serve to immerse the reader into the very depths of the narrative. As a result, Words of Radiance eases the reader into a huge world filled with a plethora of factions and secret societies (I counted ten of them!) and in which people across a dozen nations slowly start developing different, yet utterly connected magical abilities.
A character journey
All of its impact on the genre and sheer expansiveness aside, though, Words of Radiance is carried by the journeys of its individual characters—specifically Shallan and Kaladin. Here, more than anywhere else, does Sanderson prove once again that he continues to grow as an author with each work he publishes. While Kaladin and Shallan’s stories aren’t always pretty to read, they are completely believable and remarkably well-written.
While these stories are inherently different, they both explore the darkness resulting from the pain of one’s past, and the various ways of overcoming such darkness. Whether this pain is caused by the inequality of a class culture, or by an abusive father, these stories are compellingly written and identifiable. Where other fantasy novels might have used such elements of inner darkness for cheap instant character development (think of Rand in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, for example), these characters’ journeys are highly relatable, and the ways they respond to their inner demons is wholly believable. The resulting redemption is, of course, inevitable, yet the road to it is filled with small character moments that transform both Kaladin and Shallan into true heroes, rather than just characters with great powers. The skillfully written dialogue between these two significantly different personalities forms the perfect catalyst for both of their characters’ developments, bringing the story full-circle in the end.
The value of life and death
Unfortunately, while Words of Radiance is a near-perfect novel, I did have one significant issue with it. The stakes in this story are sky high and the action frequent and spectacular. In such a story, characters inevitably have to die. Without any death, the action would be meaningless. So too, in Words of Radiance, do a number of important characters die. By the end of the story, however, some of those deaths do not remain permanent, and only in one case was the revival actually explained. In my opinion, this devalues both life and death in The Stormlight Archive and damages the credibility of the story’s tensions.
Why should you read this book?
Even more than its predecessor, Words of Radiance is an epic fantasy novel that does everything right. It is a love letter to its genre and an improvement upon anything the genre has ever churned out before. Without a doubt, this is Sanderson’s best novel to date. With its remarkable scope and size, realistic character focus, splendid worldbuilding, deeply imaginative magic, spectacular action sequences, cute romance, and mind-blowing position in the greater Cosmere, Words of Radiance is one of the best books—and most likely the best epic fantasy—I’ve ever read. If you’ve already read Words of Radiance, I can only urge you to reread and reread and reread it for all those wonderful details you have undoubtedly missed. However, if you’re one of those rare fantasy fans who hasn’t yet read Words of Radiance or even The Way of Kings, I cannot stress enough how badly you need to read The Stormlight Archive’s first two novels RIGHT NOW. I promise you will not regret it.