Words of Radiance puts the "epic" back in epic fantasy

Maybe you read Brandon Sanderson's first entry in The Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings. Maybe you're just familiar with his work from finishing up Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Whether you've been hyped for Words of Radiance or not, you are not prepared for how fantastic it is.

Indeed, The Way of Kings was really a giant (and to be fair, sometimes dawdling) prequel to Words of Radiance, where this epic fantasy series earns its "epic." Words is an old-school, '90s fantasy-style behemoth — seriously, you could beat a man to death with this book — but unlike its predecessor, it's laser-focused on its narrative the entire way through. While Kings pulled together just a few of its protagonists together at the very end, three of the four main characters — General Dalinar, his son Adolin, and lowly bridgeman-turned-bodyguard Kaladin —are together from Chapter One, and the fourth — young scholar Shallan — doesn't take too long to arrive either. While Sanderson continues to build his characters and reveal who they are (especially in the case of Shallan's past) it still clings to one overarching plot the drives relentlessly to an ending that can only be described as, again, "epic."

It's hard to describe how Words of Radiance achieves this without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that it is somehow a combination of politics, war, race, religion, secret conspiracies, magic, assassins, gods, and more, but in a way that somehow, against all odds, holds together. It's not a mess, and you can tell by how confidently Sanderson presents the interludes, following other characters scattered around his world — you might not know how they'll be involved in the future, but they're portentous, not frivolous. And meanwhile, amidst this byzantine plot, it still has characters you enjoy — but still manage to surprise you in ways that feel earned.

But my favorite aspect of Sanderson's world is just how fantastic it is. The Stormlight Archives doesn't have the "grounded" feel of Game of Thrones, but it doesn't matter, because it absolutely revels in its fantasy world, one of actual gods, bizarre magic, knights with superpowers, spirits and sorcery, monsters, demons, and magic sword called Shardblades. It embraces the fantastic, and does so with an astonishing amount of creativity. For just one of many, many examples: The spirits called the spren, which are basically humans ideas and emotions, are completely foreign, but such a natural part of the Stormlight world that it works — and it works because Sanderson has given so much thought to the question of how if these fantasy aspects were in fact real would they affect human civilization? And thus we have multiple societies, with multiple customs that seem completely bizarre and random, but you know there is actual meaning behind them.

Words of Radiance puts the "epic" back in epic fantasy

This is what makes The Stormlight Archives so appealing, but Words of Radiance is still a damn good story on its own. It's full of action, war, betrayal, death, good characters making bad choices, revelations, and it builds to a conclusion that I again have to describe as epic — a conclusion that seems to raise the stakes to the highest point possible — and yet immediately reveals that there's so much worse — and better — to come. And Words of Radiance is only the second books. I can't think of a middle volume of a fantasy novel that felt so much like it could, almost should be the end of a series (and a great end at that) and still managed to make me completely excited for the rest of the series.

So, yeah. If you loved The Way of Kings, you've already picked up Words of Radiance. If you were one the fence about Kings, you should absolutely give Words a chance — it improves on the first volume in every way. And if you have no feeling about The Way of Kings but are a fan of fantasy, let me assure now that Words of Radiance is a must-read.

('Cause it's epic.)

Artwork by Michael Whelan — you can grab hi-res wallpapers of both paintings here!