Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status “darkeyes.” Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.
The Assassin, Szeth, is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.
Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.
Words of Radiance is a book that takes notes from all of the promises of the first book, then delivers in a tremendous way; it’s an epic fantasy allowed to do what it wants – there were moments there where my heart was thumping, right up until bam! a scene cooler than you’d ever imagined takes place, goosebumps settle on your skin and the hairs on the back of your neck stand. It’s political posturing at its most misleading and war between factions (highprinces) at its most impressive. A story that displays how much human ego can get in the way – even while there’s the promise of a storm to end all storms on the horizon. Sanderson successfully delivers on a sequel that’s both jaw-droppingly awesome and entertaining while layering political, religious and mythical intrigue onto an ever-growing table of things to take note of.
To summarise the plot (yelp!), Words of Radiance takes place directly after the events of the Way of Kings – there’s a divide between the highprinces because of Sadeas’ plot against Dalinar and his constant campaign to undermine – and drive a nail into – Dalinar’s plan to unite. The Assassin in White is causing havoc under new masters, murdering kings and highprinces across Roshar, throwing it into pandemonium to a backdrop where the Parshendi are ushering something in, the everstorm that calls. And now, the Assassin in White once again sets his sights on the Alethi. Dalinar struggles to enact his plan to bring together the highprinces, giving their enemy enough time to find new forms, rebuild themselves as a force to win the fight on the Shattered Plains. All mounting into a war of heavy loses, of revelations, of new powers and new bonds. Some old ones shattered like the Plains – all centred around a bid to find the city of the Knights Radiant, Urithiru. What is pulled off here – plotwise – is nothing short of spectacular. The usual twists and turns come, more expected than those that came as a surprise this time. Though, the book doesn’t give up until right at the very end, when the unexpected really does hit with a couple of quick punches. Because of fights that needed to happen (or so I thought) and people in plot armour stronger than Shardplate, the action in the few places that it became predictable.
New POVs, even though they were in the interludes, really intrigued me; we get to see the Roshar and the conflict settling over the Shattered Plains from the point of view of the Parshendi and in particular Eshonai, the Parshendi’s last Shardbearer. A commander struggling to come to terms with what they started and how they might end this. A commander considering suing for peace, but without the support or the means to achieve it. Until, something is discovered in one of their songs … something that would put the Parshendi on their ultimate path through this book. It set the story in a new light and I was moved to not only pity their position, but almost root for them – in some aspects. Sanderson truly is a great writer to be able to put you in the enemy’s shoes and cast doubts over the heroes and he rebuffs his prowess in being able to craft real, believable characters with this particular POV. Nothing is one-sided, nor is it straight-forward or one-dimensional. Nothing is as it seems. Among these POVs are hunted Surgebinders, deceitful kings and a myriad of other tidbits to intrigue and wonder at.
“Honor is dead, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Kaladin’s character arc is something that had me a bit stumped here; I feared that he’d stagnated a little bit. No longer with freedom to strive for, and in the role of a ‘bodyguard,’ he seemed to fester along with his hatred for lighteyes, unchanging, or unwilling to change, despite what Syl said. Until, he regains his position as the hero once more, then dashes it again. There’s such a mixture of emotion, of hatred and turmoil within him – aspects of his past and the flashbacks we saw in the Way of Kings still linger, don’t let go despite his circumstance. These aspects take hold and thrust him into a darker path – one pierced through, eventually, by stormlight. Having said that, I was impressed when it arced upward, helped by Shallan, who really did stand on her own in this book.
The flashbacks here centred around Shallan’s past – a dark and murky truth that she would hide if it weren’t for her spren, Pattern, who was focused on such things. I have to say that I really, REALLY loved her in this book. And while I was unhappy that Dalinar got side-lined a little, I was glad this time was filled with Shallan’s antics. And then her differing guises as she discovers and grows into the Surgebinder that she is. With a harrowing, mysterious flight from the grips of murder and despair, her intelligence really comes into play here. I feel like we learn the most from Shallan POV, for all her truth-seeking, experimenting with stormlight and undeniable penchant for getting herself right into the thick of the trouble. She has a mystery to solve, the location of Urithiru, and she’ll be damned if she lets the highprinces get in her way. Even her betrothed, Adolin and his father, Dalinar the Blackthorn, seem somewhat ‘handled’ by her personality: From trips out into the Shattered Plains to study an open chrystalis, to being stuck in the depths of the chasms with Kaladin, Shallan is a fantastic, well-rounded character that fits in at all levels in Roshar’s society – from being downtrodden, mistreated with a harrowing path, to being a lighteyes and betrothed to a highprince and the fact that she is also a chosen of the Spren. There’s a lot to love about her and a lot to look forward to.
My favourite thing about this book was how the two above-mentioned POVs clash and react to each other. Their first meeting features deceit and tom-foolery (on Shallan’s part – because she likes pretending to be other people, and that confuses poor Kaladin, on a mission to know who everyone is for the safety of the Alethi elite in his charge) and their second was comedy gold as two stubborn-as-mules people battled it out in a contest of wit and argument. Though, on their last, Shallan’s presence really pulled Kaladin’s character arc in the right direction – for which I was and still am ever thankful for. There’s a real charm about their interactions with each other and I particularly like the way that Sanderson has his POVs bounce off of one and another in this book. Of note, we also focus more on Adolin and his duelling, but I do feel like his screen time is very flat when compared to the other two, purely because he is simple. He’s a nice character, yeah. But he knows what he wants and it’s quite straight-forward how he gets it.
Overall, the predictability of some parts of this book let it down when compared to the other. It fulfilled expectations and while the action was amazing, epic – some of the best I’ve read, and certainly places the series among them in my eyes – it keeps its surprises until right at the end. And there is also a lot of movement between action. When you’ve not seen so much as a sword-swing for over 200 pages, for a fan like me who loves fights, the long parts and intrigue can start to simmer out. But never did I once slow down, or find it easy putting it down, because there’s something magical about the way Sanderson writes. Even after pages and pages of politics, I’m still raring at the bit to read more. And with that ending, I’m straight onto Oathbringer, and I’d certainly suggest you do the same.