Rhythm of War was more of a slog than it needed to be
In the 21st Century world of fantasy literature, no author has proven to be more polarising than Brandon Sanderson, for whom all objectivity seems to disappear for his fans and detractors. A societal misunderstanding considering the value of ones’ opinion underlies a fundamental inability to understand the difference between subjective opinion and objective criticism. Those who dislike his work do not merely dislike it, they go out of their way to attack any who do like it and warn off all those yet to experience it. Conversely, those who love his work are seemingly predisposed to ignore any and all flaws some may point out, vociferously defending Sanderson in the same way I may defend the authority of Holy Scripture.
Given all of this - which can be proven by any prolonged exposure to Facebook fantasy groups - when I come to read and subsequently review Brandon Sanderson books, I am faced with a challenge: Not a challenge of being truthful or not, but simply one of seeking to expose any bias I myself may bring to my reading so as to be able to provide as valuable a review as possible.
This lengthy introduction to a fantasy book review may seem unnecessary, even pompous, but Brandon Sanderson’s work serves as such an odd crux in modern fantasy literature that I feel it is necessary to expand upon my normal style in reviewing Rhythm of War, the fourth book in Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. Not only does this book bring with it any of the normal difficulties with reviewing one book in the middle of a much longer series, or such a lengthy book as this (1,220 pages), but Sanderson is quite obviously positioning ‘The Stormlight Archive’ as the great magnum opus of his career and, therefore, the foundational connection upon which all other “Cosmere” books hinge.
To put it another way, Rhythm of War is not just “yet another book” but is, in fact, much bigger and important to Sanderson’s oeuvre than any other book he has yet published.
There is another reason why I am being overly cautious and subsequently verbose, and that is because I didn’t particularly enjoy Rhythm of War. However, I don’t want to be just another voice amidst the cacophony of internet critics and fanboys elevating my subjective opinion to the point of objective fact. So many of the complaints I have heard about Sanderson’s writing are offered up as objective critique but are nothing more than subjective preferences. One Facebook commenter who was seeking to dissuade someone from reading Sanderson tried to suggest that it was proven his dialogue wasn’t very good - which, is not only a wildly subjective opinion but, also, not all that accurate.
The problem I am faced with, then, is seeking to credibly critique Rhythm of War without falling into the trap of relying only on subjective preferences and opinions. Let’s not forget that I placed Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy in my top 10 fantasy list – I’m a fan of his work.
But with Rhythm of War, I think Sanderson has fallen prey to the same issue some of Neal Stephenson’s latest books have suffered from, namely, that his success gives him too much editorial control and, where an editor should have been able to condense and simplify, the author’s excess of control has allowed him to ignore any input. In my review for Stephenson’s 2015 book Seveneves, I wrote that the book was “the result of a brilliant writer surrounded by editors unwilling or unable to tell him to stop, rewrite, condense, or anything else an editor is supposed to do with a book.”
Similarly, Rhythm of War was a real struggle to get through, for me, filled with disjointed storytelling, wearying pacing issues, and riddled with so much information and distracting tangents that it took me much longer to finish than it rightly should have. In comparison, I had just finished flying through Steven Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale and, in the time since finishing Rhythm of War I have finished two urban fantasy novels. My issue, then, was not a problem with reading in general, but with reading Rhythm of War in particular.
The long and the short of my criticisms with Rhythm of War is that Brandon Sanderson was obviously trying to do too much with one book, while at the same time stretching the limits of the actual story he had planned out for one book.
Specifically, the wearisome points of view which took place in the past consistently served only to drag the overall story to a screeching halt, and by the end of the book seemed to have been included as an afterthought, as if Sanderson realised too late that he had yet to reveal some important piece of information.
Despite the screeching halt these flashback chapters caused, the most dragging of all the points of view were those of Navani, Danilar’s wife and Queen of Urithiru. In much the same way Neal Stephenson’s writing can often be a reflection of the type of non-fiction he has been reading in recent years, so too did Brandon Sanderson seem to feel it was necessary to drag kicking and screaming into Roshar the scientific method and reproduce various technologies which would make his storytelling easier. Far too much time was spent on understanding the physical aspects of light and sound, or the interminable discussions around Sanderson’s make-believe scientific principles behind his magic systems. And amidst it all, despite all evidence to the contrary, Navani ends up being played for a fool and acts surprised when everything goes to hell.
Chapters with Dalinar were fine - which is to say, they seemed to add nothing to the actual story except serve as a means to ensure he wasn’t at Urithiru - while Sanderson’s obsessive desire to continue including “Interludes” again seem more an authorial contrivance than specifically warranted by the story.
The largest issue I had with Rhythm of War, however, was the sheer weight of the “Cosmere” worldbuilding and overarching storytelling that was crammed into the book - so much of which was either included in similarly-sized 1,000-page behemoths published 3, 6, or 10 years earlier - or, unbelievably, in no book whatsoever, but rather in interviews. I’m very glad that so many people are able to obsess over and love Brandon Sanderson’s “Cosmere” novels to such an extent that they read all the interviews and ‘Stormlight Archive Wiki’ articles and, subsequently, remember all that they have read. But to expect that of a reader is absurd, and to continue writing as if all your readers have the same time of day and brain space to dedicate to learning about such a sprawling mess of a fictional universe is simply disrespectful to those who are not obsessive “Cosmere” fans.
Further, if anyone tells me I should have read the previous three ‘Stormlight Archive’ books before reading Rhythm of War, kindly see above: The same principles apply.
One of the biggest problems with this is the fact that so much exists in Sanderson’s objectively creatively brilliant mind that, when he tries to put it all down on paper, he fails to remember that not every reader has the same level of context that he does - or that the super-fans have. So many of the names and obvious info-drops meant nothing to me because I had no idea who or what or when he was referring.
Of course, I didn’t hate this book, and there were some really fascinating storylines which wove through the aforementioned mess. Kaladin’s point of view chapters were often really interesting - though, I would have preferred if Sanderson hadn’t tried so hard and failed at depicting depression and battle shock. Adolin and Shallan’s points of view were similarly fascinating, and I enjoyed watching both characters grow, finally. Maybe the most enjoyable parts were of Venli’s “present day” story, which is frustrating considering so many of the flashbacks were of her and served only to undercut the rest.
I was relatively impressed with the conclusion, particularly the defining moments for Kaladin, Shallan, and Venli, but by the time I reached the end I was so exhausted from the long slog required to get there that it felt more a relief rather than a reward.
Of all the issues that plagued Rhythm of War – the disjointed pacing, overall construction, and the author’s desperate attempts to cram in all his imaginative worldbuilding – and the seeming lack of editorial control failing to rein in the author’s intentions, it was Sanderson’s dogged prose which really made this a difficult read. And maybe this would not have been so apparent if there were not so many larger structural issues, as I have always enjoyed Sanderson’s prose in the smaller books he has written (Mistborn, Elantris, etc). But there was no joy or inspiration to the writing, making the book feel encyclopaedic rather than enjoyably fictional.
I hope that book 5 of the ‘Stormlight Archive’ will bring a return to Sanderson’s previous best – a possibility, considering the next book will bring to a close the first half of the Archive, heralding a time jump to gap books 5 and 6 – but if the continued focus remains on bridging all the “Cosmere” books and the overarching, universe-spanning story that is in Sanderson’s head but not on the page, then I worry.
In the end, Rhythm of War was more of a slog than it needed to be, failed to deliver Sanderson’s previous best in terms of prose and storytelling, and left me feeling utterly baffled by what, if anything, actually happened. If others were able to see this book’s place in the author’s larger “Cosmere” story, then I’m glad for you – not to mention envious – but I have no idea what’s going on.
Review by Joshua S Hill
Logan from United States
The book was ok overall. We got to find out more about some interesting background characters (Wit and Lift). But it felt a lot like he wanted to answer all the unanswered questions, destroying all the mystery and mystic of stormlight and how it works. It felt like paladins storyline was a bit of a repeat of book 2 with not as big of a payoff at the end. The Shallan plot line was interesting but unnecessary to the overall story. The Venli story was good and gave us some insight into what her character is like. I personally did not like the Navani story or the addition of a second bondsmith but that is just my opinion. I liked that Taragavin (might be spelled wrong) is know the main villain, but it goes against the way he was set up throughout the book. In my opinion this book had a lot of retreading of previous storylines as well as a unnecessary explanation of stormlight.
JJ from United States
Another brilliant -- and quite long -- work by Sanderson, though it focuses more on characters and tension-filled dialogue than its predecessors' action. (Possibly minor spoilers) For one less patient than a committed epic fantasy reader... well let's be honest, this book is a tome. Rather than focusing on character growth in action and huge realizations, this book takes a more realistic approach, bringing changes to character through psychology and dialogue. It is very well done, but those expecting a non-stop action movie out of this book might be disappointed. The worldbuilding is astounding, Navani's POV really expanding the reader's knowledge on what is known and what has been recently discovered. Kalladin's viewpoint focuses more on psychology and attempting to become the hero that he no longer feels he can be. Shallan conquers something she should have talked long ago. There are HUGE reveals of truth that change everything, as well as a few completely and utterly shocking moments that I'm pretty sure very few of us saw coming. This book is brilliant, but it is also DIFFERENT, which seems to be something some people don't seem to want to accept. The Stormlight Archive takes a strong step in a powerful and different direction with this book. It will not soon be forgotten, by me or the majority of people who read it.
6.3/10 from 3 reviews