Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Rhythm of War

‘Rhythm of War’ is the fourth book in The Stormlight Archive. Sanderson has stated he intends the series to be two sets of five books, so this is the penultimate in the first section and neatly sets up a finale. The ending is far more of a cliffhanger than previous books, setting up a huge amount of anticipation and suspense for how things might turn out. As a work of literature, this is arguably the worst in the series so far, but for sheer enjoyment it’s a brilliant installment that keeps the reader engaged throughout.

A year has passed since the events of Oathbringer. Dalinar has succeeded in forming a coalition of Knights Radiant – but the enemy Parshendi, or singers, have awoken their own powers too, leading to a brutal war of attrition with neither side obviously on top. In a bid to change the tide, the singers use a dangerous new technology to take a gamble – one that, if it succeeds, could change the entire course of the war and finally destroy the Knights Radiant. Meanwhile, Adolin and Shallan journey to the home of the honorspren to beg for reinforcements for the Radiants, and Kaladin battles the one foe he’s never been able to defeat – his own mind.

“The heart might provide the purpose, but the head provides the method, the path. Passion is nothing without a plan. Wanting something doesn’t make it happen.”

‘Rhythm of War’ is advertised as Venli’s book, and in some ways it is – but it’s also Navani’s. Navani, now Dalinar’s wife, goes on the biggest journey of any character and is by far the most interesting. A woman derided by most of the Alethi for her inability to choose between two men – Dalinar, and his brother Gavilar, the assassinated King of Alethkar – Navani finally gets a chance to show her true colours and passions. She’s a vibrant character – strong, driven, and exceptionally clever, even when she’s being outwitted. ‘The Way of Kings‘ and ‘Words of Radiance‘ showed her to be smart politically; ‘Rhythm of War’ proves that she’s just as brilliant as her daughter, if in a different way. It also shows her to be honourable and loyal – something you’d expect from the wife of Dalinar, but not something evident from her reputation in previous books. Navani is a woman of fierce integrity and finally reading about her from her own perspective is a delight.

Venli goes on her own journey, and her character growth is excellent, but it’s overshadowed by how much better Navani’s is. Unusually, Venli’s flashback chapters don’t start until Part Three, but once they do they give fascinating insight into her past – and especially her relationship with her sister Eshonai. It also becomes apparent just how different singer culture was before the war with the Alethi. Personally, I think starting the flashback chapters earlier and showing more of this pre-war culture would make the impact stronger, but I can see why – in an already very long novel – Sanderson decided this wasn’t necessary.

Kaladin is the other major character. Every book so far has showed Kaladin’s battle with depression and PTSD, but here it really comes to a head, forcing him to face his demons in a way he’s so far avoided. At times, it’s very difficult to read about, but it’s exceptionally well-written. It’s impossible not to like Kaladin, and the emotional impact of his scenes just shows how well-crafted his character is. ‘Rhythm of War’ also reunites Kaladin with his family, exploring his relationship with his parents now that he’s a Knight Radiant – again, something which can be a challenging read, but that is all the more impactful for that struggle.

“This is life, and I will not lie by saying every day will be sunshine. But there will be sunshine again, and that is a very different thing to say. That is truth.”

Shallan and Adolin spend most of the novel separate to the others on a quest to the home of the honorspren. Like Kaladin, Shallan’s battles are mostly internal. She struggles with a form of dissociative identity disorder – although, given the presence of a form of magic, this isn’t an entirely accurate depiction – and it finally comes to a head. Shallan is always fascinating to read about, and seeing how she evolves throughout the book is simultaneously horrifying and enthralling. Adolin, as ever, is the nicest character on the planet, and seeing him stand by Shallan – even when she doesn’t trust herself – is beautiful. He’s such a likeable character it’s hard to remember how irritating he seemed through Kaladin’s eyes back in ‘The Way of Kings’.

The only criticism that ‘Rhythm of War’ can be given is it’s organisation. The pacing overall is fine – the first hundred pages are fast-paced, then the story slows to a more familiar gentle pace for the majority of the book before ramping up at the end – but the individual plotlines within the story are oddly spaced, leading to odd pacing between them. Long gaps are left between sections involving Shallan and Adolin or Dalinar and Jasnah, and Venli is only introduced properly a significant way in. Each plotline is excellent and worthy of inclusion, but the flow isn’t always there. Nonetheless, this is a very minor point and doesn’t affect overall enjoyment. The stories are still gripping and the ending blows any doubts right out of the order.

There is a scene in every book which stands out. In ‘The Way of Kings’ and ‘Words of Radiance’ these both belong to Kaladin; in ‘Oathbringer’ the scene is Dalinar’s. The ending of ‘Rhythm of War’ is so uniformly excellent across the last 150 pages that isolating one scene is a challenge. There are some utterly unpredictable twists, and the final chapter creates such a brilliant cliffhanger I want to simultaneously applaud Sanderson and curse him for making us all wait several years to find out what happens next. I will say that, to fully appreciate the ending, familiarity with ‘Warbreaker‘ – a novel in the Cosmere but not The Stormlight Archive – would be useful (this should be best read before ‘Oathbringer’, where crossover starts, but here it’s almost required).

Overall, this is simultaneously one of the weakest and strongest entries in the series so far. For literary flow and pacing it’s the worst, but for enjoyment – and the strength of the ending – it’s up there with the best. It’s undoubtedly an excellent entry to the series and continues to paint The Stormlight Archive as Sanderson’s masterwork, and Sanderson as a giant of the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: November 17th 2020

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