Sunday, 28 January 2018

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar stands in peril. The ancient, dark force of Odium has returned and the Voidbringer armies have come with him, subverting the parshmen, former slaves of humanity. Dalinar Kholin, the Blackthorn, one of the most feared warriors on the planet, finds himself tasked with leading the reformed Knights Radiant and uniting the world against this new threat. But to accomplish this he must overcome his own reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant and make peace with his own, half-forgotten past.

Oathbringer, the third volume of The Stormlight Archive sequence, is a big book. At just under 500,000 words in length, it may be the second-longest epic fantasy novel ever written, behind only Tad Williams' To Green Angel Tower and significantly longer than The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. Clocking in at 1,250 pages of fairly small print, reading it is a mammoth undertaking. At regular points in the narrative the saying "journey before destination" is uttered by key characters, perhaps a message from the author to keep going and stay the course.

The Stormlight Archive is certainly Sanderson's most ambitious work to date - seven more books are planned in this series alone, and many more in the linked Cosmere universe - and also his most accomplished. Sanderson has always been a skilled worldbuilder, creator of magic systems and an eager student of epic fantasy, learning from other authors in the genre, but this series has also seen those areas where he was lacking in earlier works, such as nuanced characterisation and the depiction of a large and diverse cast of characters, step up a notch. This is a solid series, but it's also one that has often creaked under the weight of its own complexity, and Oathbringer is almost brought low by the weight of the material.

At its heart, Oathbringer is a simple story: Dalinar Kholin is, for lack of a better term, the Chosen One who must united the world against, an ancient returning evil. However, he is also tainted by his own past in which he was a warrior with a reputation for savagery and butchery. The challenge he faces in Oathbringer is dual-pronged. Externally, he must work to unify the kingdoms of Roshar against the renewed Voidbringer threat. Internally, he must overcome the demons of his past. This is complicated because he deliberately suppressed his past through magical means to remove the pain of an event involving his wife. This is - rather more literally than is normal - the traditional story of a protagonist going through self-realisation and healing a past wound in order to achieve a necessary goal in the story. Whilst traditional, it makes Dalinar a far more relatable figure (but not always a more sympathetic one: Sanderson does not absolve Dalinar of the horrible acts he committed whilst younger).

However, this simple story is almost drowned under pages and pages and chapters and chapters of "other stuff." Heralds. Knights Radiant. Voidbringers. Shadesmar. Spren. Stormsurging. Soulbinding. The Recreance (which is set up as A Major Revelation and turns out to be merely the characters of Roshar learning something that readers of the wider Cosmere series will already be aware of). The Diagram (an epic fantasy take on Isaac Asimov's Foundation). Magical talking swords that you need to have read a completely different book (Warbreaker) to fully understand. There is a lot of stuff going on in this book, often requiring pages and pages of exposition, but only some of it is really relevant to the plot at hand. By the time I finished Oathbringer I was feeling nostalgic for Steven Erikson's more opaque but far more successful approach to worldbuilding and magic systems (explain what's needed, just let other stuff that's not unfold in the background and move on).

There's also a great deal of repetition in the book. The first half of the novel, in particular, is slow-moving with constant and repetitive strategy meetings and characters meeting up to discuss the plot which they - and we - already know about. Aside from some surprising new information about the returned Voidbringers, relatively little in this section of the book justifies the immense word count it took to get there.

Fortunately, the second half moves a lot faster. We get two massive climactic battles in key locations and a trip to the Shadesmar dimension, which underpins not just Roshar in the Stormlight Archive but all the planets in the wider Cosmere, so getting to see it in more detail is interesting. This side-story is also relatively brief and constrained, feeling like a tighter self-contained novella within the larger novel. The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance both did this a lot, with what felt like short stories contained within the larger novel that were there to flesh out the world and backstory but be entertaining in their own right. Oathbringer does this comparatively rarely, and not as successfully.

The concluding battle and accompanying revelations is epic and well-handled (maybe a little too long with a few too many reversals of fortune, but still relatively brisk compared to the rest of the book). There's some firm new understandings of the world and the stakes involved in the struggle against Odium. But the overwhelming feeling is that we could have reached this conclusion far more quickly and far more concisely.

More problematic, there is a very strong echo of Sanderson's earlier Mistborn series in how this volume unfolds. That trilogy saw a group of young, inexperienced characters discovering amazing magical powers and coming to a firmer understanding of their nature and how to use them when they get involved in the ancient struggle between the godlike Shard-holders resulting from the Shattering of Adonalsium, with the mysterious Hoid popping up a couple of times to help them. This is pretty much exactly what happens in Oathbringer, with just the magic systems and the characters swapped around. This is exacerbated by the fact that at the very end of Oathbringer Sanderson has an opportunity to do a ninety-degree turn and take one character in a very different and far darker direction that would have been much more original and interesting, but ultimately chooses a more traditional resolution to that story which feels like a massive missed opportunity.

By the time I finished the book I felt conflicted. On the one hand, my admiration for Sanderson's worldbuilding, plot construction and his continuing self-analysis as a writer and his capacity for growth remained undimmed. Oathbringer explores some wider literary themes of compassion and forgiveness and does so quite well, and Sanderson is definitely getting better by book at handling character. Unfortunately, his dialogue is extremely variable sometimes far too modern and grating. The romance storyline is also massively under-developed, although given how weak it is this may be for the best. Sanderson's sense of humour is variable, with some of the supposed witty banter between characters coming off feeling forced and unconvincing. Other elements, such as the single-minded bloodthirsty nature of the sentient sword Nightblood, are more entertaining.

Ultimately, The Stormlight Archive cannot withstand comparisons with the most accomplished works in the epic fantasy genre that nod towards realism: A Song of Ice and Fire has far superior prose and characters (though, obviously, a lamentably poorer release schedule); Wheel of Time has, for all its insane length, a much clearer plot through-line that goes through the series and doesn't overburden the reader with too many magic systems and unnecessary backstory plot coupons; and The Malazan Book of the Fallen (of which Stormlight all too-often feels like a less sophisticated YA remix) deals with a lot of the same ideas and themes in a far more original, literary and interesting manner.

What Oathbringer (***½) does do really well is action, worldbuilding and magic on one of the most interesting worlds developed in epic fantasy. From that viewpoint Stormlight reads like a crazy anime series in prose form, complete with impractically massive but awesome swords, bonkers magic and a somewhat juvenile take on romance. If you can overlook the problems with the unnecessarily-padded length of the book, there's a lot of fun to be had in this world, but it's not one of the deepest fantasy series around. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Stienberg said...

While I enjoyed Oathbringer, I would argue that so far it is the weakest book in that series. One of my problems was that some of the banter and characterization felt forced, and then the middle of the novel for me (as opposed to the first) dragged during the Kholinar arc, which it took so much will to avoid skimming. The third act though, did redeem the story for me as we got a brilliant encapsulation of Dalinar's arc, a new direction from Szeth, and some positively badass action from Shallan.

Great review! I'm glad it hasn't dimmed your view of Sanderson :)

Anonymous said...

How many stars did you give Words of Radiance? I haven't read Oathbringer yet but love WoR.

I've tried Malazan a couple times but LOATHE Gardens of the Moon.

Alex Walsh said...

All the Shadesmar stuff completely derailed the book for me. I've not read any of his work outside of this series, so don't know if it features heavily in his expanded world but the Shadesmar that was mysterious and dangerous in the first two books now looks like Oz and is a distraction from the main story (IMHO of course).

I think it suffered as I read it straight after the Witchwood Crown, which is so more nuanced and aimed at grown ups :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like he, like many other epic fantasy writers, need a good editor to cut back on the overwritten material or exposition that goes nowhere. And as for reading other books in the universe to get a better understanding of what is going on, it would seem Sanderson is being too clever by half. Not that it really matter to me as I gave up halfway through the last book. - Ian

Adam Whitehead said...

WoR got 4 stars. I thought it was a much stronger book than this one.

Stienberg said...

Way of Kings was probably the strongest in the series so far, Words of Radiance coming up behind, and Oathbringer being a definite third. Do you think the fourth book will give the series direction again?

Ryan said...

I intend to drop the series now that I am caught up. Sanderson has never impressed me, his books seem to encapsulate all the weakness of Young Adult fiction but dodge the label by virtue of sheer length.

Anonymous said...

I'll not read this series until all books are released.... in 20-30 years...

Jeff Mitchell said...

At 1200-odd pages, and sounding like it needs severe cutting out, editing, and carving into several books (even taking some of that material into other books that belong in other series) ... and this is just the start of the series? If this vast book is opening up many threads, what will subsequent books be like, to pick them all up? (Hopefully he will tighten the hatches down a little..)

Does the book stand on its own, or is it leaving a lot hanging for the next?

I've never read any Brandon Sanderson books yet, but I suspect this is not the series to start on?

Jorro said...

I mean, by any account TSA overshadows TMBOTF's incredibly self-indulgent non-sensical prose (towards the latter half of the series) and forgetful convoluted worldbuilding. Though I give Erikson that the first three books were much better books than Sanderson can do (at this point! his evolution is visible to all involved) and just the memories of them forced me drag through the rest of the series.

That said, at 76% of Oathbringer, I agree that this is easily the weakest volume so far and a LOT of text could have been cut out, though strangely I'm not really bored with it.

Anonymous said...

Part of the thing is, I feel like with Stormlight the books are just meant to have extra fluff, random extra worldbuilding bits, and slower paced sections. It's something Brandon is doing on purpose. A lot of the fans really like that stuff, so it seems like people who don't are basically just out of luck.

And since Sanderson sells very well and the last two have been #1 NYT bestsellers, I doubt that anything will change dramatically anytime soon.