Robyn Reviews: Black Sun

‘Black Sun’ is the first book in the new ‘Between Earth and Sky’ series, an epic fantasy tale inspired by pre-Columbian American mythology. It weaves a tight, dark, intriguing tale of conspiracy and magic, creating a world of vast potential. I can’t wait to see where Roanhorse takes it next.

The holy city of Tova is preparing for the Winter Solstice – always a time of celebration, but this year even more special as it coincides with the solar eclipse. Naranpa, the Sun Priest, is trying to make sure everything is ready – but her appointment as the Sun Priest was controversial, and her power is less absolute than it might seem. Meanwhile, across the sea, a young man named Serapio is preparing to sail to Tova to fulfil a prophesised destiny. Scarred and blinded, he’s described as harmless to the ship’s captain Xiala – but Xiala knows well that men described as harmless often turn out to be the villain.

Naranpa is an easy character to empathise with. Born in the slums of Tova, she should never have risen high enough to become the Sun Priest – yet rise she did, in the process acquiring few allies and many enemies. She can trust no one. Naranpa is naive and ignorant in many ways, but her intentions are good, and she always remains true to herself and her beliefs. Her arc is less interesting than Xiala’s or Serapio’s, but I suspect she’ll have an important role in the sequels.

Serapio is a fascinating character. As a child, his mother carved up his back and sewed his eyes shut so he could fulfil a higher purpose. She promptly vanished, abandoning him blind with a father who couldn’t stand to look at him. Serapio’s life has been one of suffering, but it’s left him a controlled and measured man – whip smart, deadly in a fight, and far more than meets the eye. He’s definitely on the grey side of morally grey, but it’s impossible not to sympathise with his life and understand why he does what he does.

Xiala is the best character in the book. An exiled Teek, Xiala’s first love is the sea. She’s a sailor, using her Teek magic to bend the winds and waves to her favour, but the superstition of her fellow sailors makes her few friends. Xiala is honest to a fault, coarse, practical, and eminently likeable. Her Teek abilities are fascinating, and the brief glimpses we get are brilliantly portrayed. As an exile, it’s unclear if Xiala doesn’t fully understand her potential or merely represses it, but watching her come to terms with the full extent of her nature is brilliant. Her evolving relationship with Serapio, her cargo, is also cleverly written, with very few words required to create a brilliant atmosphere.

For an epic fantasy novel, ‘Black Sun’ is relatively short. There are four major points of view – Naranpa, Serapio, Xiala, and Okoa, who is introduced later than the others – each with a discrete plotline, even as their stories intersect. The wealth of characters and different storylines means each distinct narrative thread can only tell a limited tale. Each is solid, but the end result is that this very much feels like a set-up novel. This doesn’t detract from it – the pace is still fast, with plenty of action and intrigue – but Roanhorse easily could have gotten away with adding at least a hundred extra pages. The ending is satisfying, but a world this unique and detailed merits deeper exploration.

Overall, ‘Black Sun’ is an excellent start to a series. Roanhorse creates a world of enormous potential populated by solid characters. However, the tale told here barely scratches the surface of what could be done with such a setup, so I’m hopeful that later books go deeper. A recommended read.

Published by Rebellion
Paperback: 21st January 2021

Robyn Reviews: We Lie With Death

‘We Lie With Death’ is the sequel to ‘We Ride the Storm‘, and again was originally self-published before Madson’s deal with Orbit. It picks up immediately where ‘We Ride the Storm’ left off – but where the former was action-packed military fantasy, ‘We Lie With Death’ is slower, with far more journeying than politics. It’s a clear second in a series, which unfortunately makes it a less engaging read.

Northern Kisia has been conquered, with a new emperor on the throne. However, his rule is fragile, depending on uneasy alliances – including with those many would rather see dead. Amidst the chaos of rebel factions, political maneuverings, and a land fractured in two, Rah e-Torin – once head of the Second Swords of Torin – must decide where his loyalties truly lie. Meanwhile, Miko, the dethroned empress, determines to claw back her crown, with allies thinner and thinner on the ground. Cassandra, once an assassin of renown, finds herself a slave – but also privy to information that could change the course of the entire war. Finally, Dishiva e’Jaroven, loyal to the new emperor, tries to reconcile herself to her new life – no matter how foreign and distasteful it might seem.

Cassandra was the most interesting character in book one, and here she’s finally utilised to her full potential. Her arc is completely separate to the other characters, exploring the backstory and magic system of Madson’s world, and it makes a compelling tale. Cassandra cares little for politics or war, but her revelations will likely be more important for how everything ends up than every other character’s put together.

Rah remains a genuinely nice man – but his honour also makes him a frustrating one at times. His loyalty is absolute – except he isn’t always sure what he’s being loyal too. His internal struggles are well-written and convincing, and while he doesn’t develop greatly from ‘We Ride the Storm’, he remains hard to dislike. Without a major character arc, he likely could have been given less page time – but it’s pleasant enough being inside his head.

Miko has lost everything except her name, and how she copes should be fascinating to read about. As a character she’s excellent – not always nice, and perhaps not with the best motives beyond a stubborn desire to cling on to power, but utterly believable – but unfortunately, her scenes suffer from the fact that very little actually happens. Miko spends the majority of the book travelling, attempting to find allies – and while Madson does her best to add tidbits of interest, the sheer length of the book makes this hard to wade through. Her scenes pick up hugely towards the end, but it’s unnecessary challenging to get there.

Dishiva is the only new POV character, and her introduction packs a punch – but from there, she goes a bit downhill. She’s the least memorable of the four characters, so while she has some excellent scenes – and provides much-needed insight into the workings of the new empire – she doesn’t entirely justify her inclusion. She’s possibly a tad too similar to Rah, and struggles to stand up in comparison. That being said, her romantic arc is sweet, and hopefully she’ll come into her own as the series develops.

The pacing is where this falls down compared to its predecessor. It’s too slow, with occasional action scenes so quick they give you whiplash. The abrupt change lacks any real impact, instead leaving confusion. There are some excellent moments, and I love the deeper discoveries around Cassandra and the background magic, but overall this just doesn’t flow well. It also feels its nearly 600 pages in length, rather than pulling you in and allowing the pages to flow by.

In summary, ‘We Lie With Death’ expands upon the excellent foundations of ‘We Ride the Storm’, but it isn’t quite the same standard. I’ll probably continue with the series, but I hope any future books iron out the issues in pacing. Recommended to fans of political fantasy and A Song of Ice and Fire (if you made it through book three, the journeying here will seem like a short stroll in comparison).

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 14th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Stone Knife

‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of my review

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

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Dawnshard

‘Dawnshard’ is a Stormlight Archive novella set between ‘Oathbringer‘ and ‘Rhythm of War’. Like ‘Edgedancer‘, the novella between ‘Words of Radiance‘ and ‘Oathbringer’, it focuses on minor characters from the main series – in this case Rysn, a Thaylen merchant briefly introduced in ‘The Way of Kings‘, and Lopen, a member of Bridge Four. It tells an intriguing story with great potential implications for the overall series and wider Cosmere, but unlike Edgedancer it doesn’t stand up quite as strongly on its own.

An accident in ‘The Way of Kings’ left Rysn a paraplegic, but also gained her an animal companion, Chiri-Chiri. Chiri-Chiri is a larkin -a species that survives by ingesting stormlight and was once thought to be extinct. However, Chiri-Chiri has fallen ill, and her only hope for survival is to visit the ancestral home of the larkin – Akinah, a mysterious island half-thought to be a myth. None have ever visited Akinah and ever come back alive. When Navani Kholin announces her intention to send a crew to Akinah, Rysn doesn’t hesitate to volunteer herself and her ship. Aided by Windrunner Lopen, his cousin Huio, and the Horneater Cord, Rysn sets out on a quest that may spell her doom – but is the only chance of saving Chiri-Chiri.

My main issue with this book is probably Rysn. Rysn is a smart, capable tradeswoman with a great deal of loyalty to her crew and Chiri-Chiri. She resents her disability for how it restricts her freedom, but she doesn’t let this rule her and is always striving to try new things. However, for me her character just falls a bit flat. She solves problems too easily, often off-page, and she doesn’t feel quite distinct and three-dimensional enough. Most characters in the Stormlight Archive are unique, with a great deal of depth and their own voices – Rysn’s never quite shines through.

Everything else about ‘Dawnshard’ is excellent. Lopen – known as the Lopen; he’d consider the title important – is a silly, light-hearted character, but also one with a huge amount of optimism and compassion that’s needed amongst the struggles of Bridge Four. His sections are fun, but also have a great deal of depth. Lopen is silly but he knows he’s being silly – he just wants to make others happy, and isn’t afraid to come across like an idiot to do so. For a short novella he undergoes a lot of character development, and his interactions with Huio and Cord are sweet.

Cord is one of my favourite characters from the novella and I hope she’s granted some point-of-view chapters at some point in the series. One of Rock’s children, she gives a fascinating insight into Horneater beliefs and culture – along with some other well-kept secrets – but she also proves herself to be a fierce, determined woman in her own right who both loves and resents her father. Her and Rysn strike up a lovely friendship, and there’s definitely potential for her to play a larger role at some point in the future.

The plot is simple, with most of the novella taking place on a ship. The superstitions and beliefs of sailors are explored in intriguing detail, along with the complexities of ship politics. Certain twists are a little too obvious, and the ending could be more satisfying, but overall the story is solidly worked and fits the broader ethos of the series.

‘Dawnshard’ is a great novella with large potential implications for the series as a whole, but it’s probably the weakest entry so far. Given that ‘The Stormlight Archive’ is such a brilliant series that still makes it a strong story, but it’s one that lacks a little extra polish.

Published by Dragonsteel Entertainment
eBook: 10th November 2020 (due for paperback publication in 2021)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Oathbringer

‘Oathbringer’ is the third book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ series and takes the series in some fascinating new directions. The stakes have been raised, secrets have been revealed, and the fate of Roshar is balanced on the tip of a Shardblade. The story starts slowly, but it’s worth it for the stunning imagery and breathtaking finale.

“Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.”

The power of the Radiants has returned to Roshar – but so have the powers of their enemies. The Everstorm has arrived, bringing with it the power to destroy everything that man holds dear. Amidst the chaos of the unstoppable storm, a once-slave searches for his family, a spy of many faces seeks the truth, and the King-in-all-but-name tries one last time to unite the Alethi, knowing that failure will spell doom.

The Way of Kings‘ was Kaladin’s book and ‘Words of Radiance‘ Shallan’s. ‘Oathbringer’ is Dalinar’s, but with this come far more prominent roles for Adolin and, later in the book, Szeth. It also steps away a little from focusing on Kaladin, gifting what would previously have been his scenes to other members of Bridge Four – especially Moash. Juggling so many characters is no easy task, but Sanderson does very well weaving all their narratives without things becoming confusing.

Previously a more predictable character, Dalinar – uncle to the king of Alethkar – did something entirely unexpected at the end of ‘Words of Radiance’ which makes his focus here much more interesting. His chapters also give new insight into the history and politics of Alethkar – not essential to the plot, but fascinating for learning about the world Sanderson has created. He also makes his son Adolin far more appealing to the reader – in ‘The Way of Kings’ Adolin was relatively uninteresting, and whilst ‘Words of Radiance’ rounded him out into a nicer character he still didn’t particularly pique my interest. ‘Oathbringer’ finally gives essential background to explain some of his actions – and it also gives him more time to interact with Shallan and Kaladin. His interactions with Kaladin are priceless and add much-needed light and humour to a book of more series themes.

“I will take responsibility for what I have done,” Dalinar whispered. “If I must fall, I will rise each time a better man.”

Kaladin – the once slave of Bridge Four, now a prominent member of Alethi society – gets less page time than in previous books, but continues to be one of the most heartwarming characters with some beautiful emotional scenes. After having the single best scene in the book in ‘Words of Radiance’, it was only fair that he stepped back to give the other characters a chance here.

Shallan – a scholar and Adolin’s fiance – is one of the most complicated characters and is developed in even bolder and more intriguing ways. Sanderson takes big risks in writing her and her plotlines could easily become too confusing, but he just about keeps her on the right side of the line.

“I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.”

Discussing Szeth would be a spoiler. His character was left on a huge cliffhanger at the end of ‘Words of Radiance’ and he doesn’t appear again until the latter half of this book, but his chapters are worth it, and also start to bring in elements of the Cosmere only previously seen in books outside of ‘The Stormlight Archive’. These would definitely be enjoyable to someone not familiar with the other books, but I’d say ‘Oathbringer’ is where reading the others starts to enhance the experience and understanding.

Overall, ‘Oathbringer’ is another brilliant book and exceptional addition to the series. It doesn’t quite surpass ‘Words of Radiance’, but it manages to be equally as good which in itself is an enormous feat. Recommended for all epic fantasy fans.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: November 14th 2017

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Edgedancer

‘Edgedancer’ is a novella set between ‘Words of Radiance‘ and ‘Oathbringer’, the second and third books in the Stormlight Archive. It’s not required reading, but it explains certain aspects of world-building and character development. Beyond that, it’s great fun, focusing on one of the most intriguing and unique characters in the series, Lift.

Following the events of ‘Words of Radiance’, Lift runs away from the palace – where she feels suffocated – instead heading to the city of Yeddaw. Here, Lift returns to her life as a street urchin, using her ‘awesomeness’ to sneak around – but there may be more to Lift’s decision to choose Yeddaw than meets the eye. For Yeddaw now plays host to the man she knows as the Darkness, determined to seek out those who are ‘awesome’ like her – and Lift is equally determined to stop him.

The story within ‘Edgedancer’ is as cleverly crafted and twisty as any Sanderson novel, but what really makes it brilliant is Lift. Aged ten, Lift made a bargain to never get older, and she’s made it her mission to never change since. Lift is sarcastic, irreverent, and entirely ruled by her stomach. She staunchly refuses to learn anything new – including people’s names – and clings to her childhood in a way which can be frustrating, but deep down is almost heartbreaking. At first glance she can seem abrasive and selfish, but this hides a personality that is deeply caring and clinging to any aspects of her life which she can control.

Aside from Lift, the other major character is her spren, Wyndle (who Lift stubbornly refers to as ‘Voidbringer’). For those unfamiliar with the books, spren are creatures in The Stormlight Archive which appear when things happen – for example, fearspren appear when someone is scared – and, in rare cases, spren can appear to certain humans and form a bond with them. (To say more would constitue a spoiler – the best way to find out exactly what they are and do is to read the books!) Wyndle is entirely unlike Lift – very proper, a worrier, and much more fond of plans than recklessly rushing in and making things up on the fly – but the combination works well, and it’s heartwarming seeing their relationship develop as the novella progresses.

‘Edgedancer’ is named for Lift’s order within the knights radiant – which Lift, in classic Lift style, terms ‘awesomeness’ – and this is intriguingly explored. The main books in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ tend to focus on certain orders and locations, so the accompanying novellas provide intriguing tidbits of information about the true capabilities of the others. Lift isn’t the sort to believe she has limitations, so those she has quickly come apparent as she tries to do too much.

Overall, ‘Edgedancer’ is an enjoyable, entertaining novella about one of the more intriguing characters, allowing her the development she hasn’t yet had on-page in the main books. It’s not Sanderson’s strongest work, but it’s an enjoyable read and recommended between ‘Words of Radiance’ and ‘Oathbringer’ to explain why certain characters are who they are.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: October 31st 2018 (previously published in 2016 in the Cosmere anthology ‘Arcanum Unbounded’)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Words of Radiance

‘Words of Radiance is the second book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ after ‘The Way of Kings’. While ‘The Way of Kings’ is undeniably excellent, ‘Words of Radiance’ is in a class all on its own. In my opinion, it’s one of the single best fantasy novels of all time, packed with political intrigue, incredibly complex characters, a fascinating magic system, and above all brilliant, gripping writing which pulls you in and doesn’t let go.

“As I fear not a child with a weapon he cannot lift, I will never fear the mind of a man who does not think.”

The ancient oaths have been spoken, and a magic system not seen in Roshar for thousands of years – since the Knights Radiant betrayed their people and fled – has finally returned. However, with the resurgence of magic comes the resurgence of danger, and the new radiants must learn to trust their abilities – and each other – to survive the oncoming storm. Meanwhile, the war between the Alethi and the Parshendi rages, and another old foe – the famed Assassin in White – reemerges after six years to finish the job he started.

Following the format of each book having a primary focus on one character, ‘Words of Radiance’ is Shallan’s book. In ‘The Way of Kings’, Shallan was a bright but tormented woman, leaning on sarcasm and wit to disguise her internal turmoil. Her way with words and passion for art made her likeable, but she could also be a frustrating and difficult character. In ‘Words of Radiance’, her backstory and character finally become clear, and she’s transformed into a complex, incredible woman with a mind like no-one else’s. Her individual growth and development is extraordinary, but more than that, the way Sanderson frames her to the reader is exceptionally done. There’s some overlap with dissociative identity disorder – a highly complex and poorly understood condition previously known as multiple personality disorder – and whilst Sanderson has stated he never intended Shallan to be a fully accurate portrayal, she’s certainly a brilliantly unique and daring character.

While Shallan was mostly separate to the other characters in ‘The Way of Kings’, in ‘Words of Radiance’ she travels to the Shattered Plains to research the Desolation – and also as Adolin’s fiance. Her interactions with the other characters, especially Adolin and Kaladin, are spectacular. Kaladin especially is a serious, uptight man entirely unequipped for Shallan’s brand of wit and sarcasm and the results are brilliant to read.

Kaladin has come a long way from his slave origins in ‘The Way of Kings’, and while he takes a back seat to Shallan in this novel he still plays a prominent role and has some of the best scenes in the book. He continues to hold a grudge against Amaram, the Brightlord responsible for his initial slavery – and whilst that grudge did him no harm as a slave, it now starts to get him into all sorts of trouble.

“All stories told have been told before. We tell them to ourselves, as did all men who ever were. And all men who ever will be. The only things new are the names.”

Dalinar plays a remarkably small role in ‘Words of Radiance’, relinquishing his chapters to his son Adolin. A good, loyal soldier but somewhat rash – and terrible with women – he handles some of the politics his father is so terribly naive at. Here, he’s most interesting when interacting with either Kaladin or Shallan, but the foundations are laid for a greater role for both Adolin and Dalinar in the third book.

‘Words of Radiance’ also introduces two major new players – Eshonai and Lift. Eshonai is one of the leading members of the warring Parshendi, whereas Lift is a childish enigma. Both play relatively small roles, but their introduction sets into motion essential aspects of the overall series arc.

The magic system of the radiants is possibly one of the best Sanderson has created yet. Elaborating would be a spoiler, but I love how cleverly the reader and characters discover new aspects together, and how Sanderson doesn’t gloss over the difficulty of mastering new skills. There are many mistakes, with repercussions of varying severity, and these add depth and complexity to an already intricate story.

Overall, it’s difficult to sum up what makes ‘Words of Radiance’ one of the best books of all time because there isn’t one standout aspect – instead, many separate exceptional things come together to make something even better. All fantasy fans should read this series, and even for those who weren’t certain about ‘The Way of Kings’ should give this a go – it’s with this book that the series truly reaches it’s full potential. Highly recommended.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: March 6th 2014

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: The Way of Kings

‘The Way of Kings’ is the first book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’, an intended fantasy epic which will undoubtedly be Brandon Sanderson’s Magnum Opus. Even for Sanderson, it’s audacious in scope and reach, bringing in a huge variety of characters and side plots alongside the overarching story.

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

The Stormlight Archive takes place on Roshar. For the past six years, since the assassination of their king by a mysterious Assassin in White, the Alethi people have been at war with the Parshendi. The war has dragged out into a prolonged siege on the Shattered Plains, with ten separate Alethi armies from its ten High Kingdoms battling less to kill Parshendi and more to obtain gemhearts, valuable sources of wealth and resources to feed their armies. Amidst this war, a lowly slave fights for survival, an army commander grapples with his own conscience and sanity, and a woman from a kingdom across the ocean enacts a plot to save her family – and in doing so, finds herself involved in something bigger than she could ever have conceived of.

Each book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ primarily focuses on one character, with a number of secondary characters also getting regular point-of-view chapters. ‘The Way of Kings’ focuses on Kaladin, a slave who has ended up a soldier in Amaram’s army. Kaladin struggles with where his life has ended up and the horrific life of a bridgecrewman – the most junior soldier in any army – but is determined to improve things for both himself and his crew, Bridge Four. Over the course of the novel, Kaladin works to gain the trust and respect of his crew, save as many of them as possible – and in the process, potentially save himself.

Kaladin has depression, alongside post-traumatic stress disorder, and the depiction of his depression is one of the best I’ve seen in fiction, let alone in epic fantasy. Sanderson never shies away from the severity of the illness, or its fluctuating nature, and the impact that it can have both on Kaladin and on those around him.

The main secondary characters are Dalinar Kholin, Shallan, and Szeth. Dalinar is the famed Blackthorn, a feared nobleman and soldier and the brother of the previous King. However, since his brother’s assassination, he’s developed more of a conscience, switching his focus from battlefield brutality to politics. He’s determined for the High Princes to stop fighting each other and instead cooperate, using the teachings of an old book called ‘The Way of Kings’ (as an aside, I love it when book titles are explicitly referenced within the book). However, Dalinar is naive in the art of politics, and his case isn’t helped by his perceived instability and sudden refusal to kill on the battlefield. He was my least favourite major character in this book, but his story develops much further in later ones.

“Sometimes the prize is not worth the costs. The means by which we achieve victory are as important as the victory itself.”

Shallan comes from a complicated – and awful – family. To avoid ruin, she finds herself posing as a scholar to become the ward of Dalinar’s sister Jasnah Kholin so that she can steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a mysterious device that allows her to turn one material into another. However, Shallan finds herself loving her studies under Jasnah, and trapped between loyalty to Jasnah and her family. Shallan is an incredibly complex character – many people find her unlikeable, but I love her. She’s had to cope with more in her short life than most will in a very long one, and the effect this has on her personality and psyche is explored in incredible detail.

‘The Way of Kings’ is military fantasy, but also has a strong focus on family loyalty and politics. The worldbuilding is exceptional, with a variety of cultures, classes, lifestyles, and beliefs all covered. The one thing left unclear is the magic system – unlike in most Cosmere books, where the rules and limitations are immediately apparent, ‘The Way of Kings’ is set in a world where much of the magic has been forgotten, and characters are just starting to rediscover it. The hidden magic becomes unveiled to the characters as it’s unveiled to the reader, a beautiful symmetry that really creates a connection.

The ending is a cliffhanger, but the sort of cliffhanger that creates anticipation, not the sort that feels too abrupt and like a cheat out of properly ending the book. It’s the perfect end to the slow increase in tension and tempo and sets up the sequel, ‘Words of Radiance’ admirably.

“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.”

Overall, ‘The Way of Kings’ is an incredibly solid start to what will clearly become Sanderson’s strongest series. A must read for all epic fantasy fans, and highly recommended to all fans of complex characters, excellent portrayals of mental health, family dynamics, and political and cultural tension.

Published by Gollancz
Paperback: December 30th 2010 (Published in two separate volumes)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Warbreaker

‘Warbreaker’ was written as a fun fantasy standalone, although there is currently a sequel in the works. It once again demonstrates Sanderson’s ability to create incredible new fantasy worlds and magic systems populated by brilliant, memorable characters. It’s also sprinkled with dry, sarcastic humour, setting it apart from many of the more serious Cosmere books.

Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris, is set in a city of the Gods – except that the Gods fell ten years ago, taking their civilisation with them. ‘Warbreaker’ goes in the opposite direction – here, the Gods are very much alive, living in a Pantheon in the city of Hallandren. Vivenna has been raised her entire life to fulfill a treaty between Idris and Hallandren by marrying the God King – but when she turns of age, her father instead sends her little sister, Siri, in her place. Now Siri must navigate a city and culture she’s been raised her whole life to distrust. Vivenna, feeling robbed of her purpose, chooses to secretly follow her sister, becoming embroiled in Hallandren’s underground rebellion. Meanwhile, Lightsong, God of Heroes, grapples with being a God in a religion he doesn’t even believe in, and Vasher, a mysterious man with an even more mysterious sword, returns to Hallandren after a long absence with unknown motives.

Siri is a great character – always the rebel of the family, she’s completely out of her depth in Hallandren with no idea how to act or where to turn for help. She’s both feisty and naive, likeable but with a quick temper and a mouth that gets her into trouble. On the surface, her and Vivenna are complete opposites – Vivenna is calm, collected, and poised, with thorough training in diplomacy – but Vivenna never prepared for a rebellion, and in a pinch her and her sister are just alike. Vivenna initially comes across as aloof and cold, but as the story goes on it becomes apparent she’s just as fiery as her sister.

However, the true highlight of the story is Lightsong. A God who doesn’t believe in his own religion, Lightsong is lazy, sarcastic, and sharp – but his quick wit and deprecating humour hide a man who’s thoughtful and courageous and, at the end of the day, will always do the right thing. Lightsong’s chapters make you laugh, but they also make you think, and they turn ‘Warbreaker’ from a conventional epic fantasy into a masterpiece.

The magic system in Warbreaker, known as BioChromatic Breath, is essentially the magic of colours. Every person has one Breath, which allows them to see colours. They can give their Breaths away, becoming drabs – colourless – or collect the Breaths of others, enhancing the colours they can see and the sounds they can hear. With enough Breaths, they can start to pass them to inanimate objects, bringing them to life to fulfill a specific task. It’s a simple yet clever system – a hallmark of all Sanderson’s magic systems – and one that informs every aspect of society, culture, and religion. There are also hints of other magics – Vasher’s sword, Nightblood, being the main example – which will likely be expounded upon in the eventual sequel.

Whilst ‘Warbreaker’ works well as a standalone, the ending is more of a cliffhanger than many of Sanderson’s books and leaves the door wide open for a sequel. It’s definitely a world that deserves further exploration.

Overall, this is a typically brilliant book, but also – despite the topics of war and rebellion – lighter and funnier thanks to the inclusion of Lightsong. An ideal holiday read, and a great introduction to the genius of Sanderson’s writing and magic systems. Recommended to all epic fantasy fans, along with fans of complex sibling dynamics, comedic fantasy, and a more cynical take on religion.

Originally published in the US June 9th 2009
UK Publication February 14th 2012