Contains mild spoilers for Rhythm of War and previous Stormlight Archive books.
As we all found ourselves requisitioned away to some degree during 2020, our means of enjoyment and entertainment were drastically challenged. How fortunate was it then to have one of the greatest storytellers of this generation release one of his greatest works in the midst of it? Brandon Sanderson’s Rhythm of War was one of the highlights of 2020, and quickly cemented itself as one of my favorite books of all time. It brought the great characters and ambitious story Sanderon has been crafting through the Stormlight Archive to greater heights and continued to deliver unparalleled fantasy storytelling.
I was first introduced to the Stormlight Archive and Brandon Sanderson by friends who share my love of epic fantasy and good storytelling. We discuss Tolkein, debate Game of Thrones, and they quickly recommended Way of Kings when they heard I had recently finished reading Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy and was looking for my next read. One by one I made my way through the series, and each successive book I have loved. I listened to the first three books on Audible. They became the staple of my commute and before long I had made my way through the total listen time of 148 hours (Way of Kings at 45 hours, Words of Radiance at 48 hours, and Oathbringer at 55 hours). So it was exciting to get a physical copy for Rhythm of War and enter into my first actual reading of one of Sanderon’s works.
Going into Rhythm of War, I fully expected it to be a good carried by the dramatic story arc with the grand scale of epic fantasy. Knowing what Sanderson’s vision for the series is, it felt like this book was set to be like the journey of the fractured Fellowship in The Two Towers. Everything is at stake, many of the lines have been drawn, and we know the characters. From the return of Surgebinders and the Knights Radiant, the discovery of Urithiru, the tragic pieces of backstory for many of our favorite characters, to the final, terrible events of the end of Oathbringer along with the revelation about the true nature of the Voidbringers, the anticipation for Rhythm of War was colossal. All that mattered now was some key events before the final moments are to be decided. The book felt like it was the cusp of many of those deciding moments before reaching the climax of Book 5. Instead, the journey towards that contentious moment is not carried by the grand scale of the masterful story Sanderson has woven, but instead shines due to the people that drive it. We are shown characters who we have fallen in love with, and are reminded that they are flawed, vulnerable, and yet immensely compelling and inspiring despite all their hardships.
Sanderson is without a doubt one of the best storytellers of this generation. The arc of the Stormlight Archive is a story on scale to rival any epic fantasy, set against a grander story within an entire universe of his making. Sanderson has shown us characters we can learn from, understand, empathize with, and love in order to see this world through new eyes. He gives us moments that are truly memorable, moments of the most terrifying dread to instances of heart wrenching hope. The grand scale of the Cosmere is on full display in Rhythm of War, with references and hints as to the ways the rest of Sanderson’s greater universe is involved. These threads have been alluded to in previous books, but are in full view in this book. While understanding the Cosmere and other works of Sanderon’s is not integral to the Stormlight Archive, it grants the reader a deeper understanding of the greater story and scale of what he is attempting to do with his books.
Beyond the story, which is undeniably fantastic, Rhythm of War shines through its characters. By the time we have reached the fourth book, we have met the characters and learned their stories. We have learned the history and events that preceded the current story. And yet, Rhythm of War brings new perspective to the events we think we are familiar with. Not retroactively changing events, but it offers the reader new insights through character perspectives. With a new lens, it causes us to question what history, or whose history, do we actually know?
The story is carried by its main characters, and the use of Navani, Venli, and Eshonai as point of view characters brings those events of history back into focus. From events like the first contact between the Parshendi and the Alethi, to the death of King Gavilar, the character insights into those pivotal events is significant. Navani’s character perspective gives the reader a better understanding of the workings and research around gemstones, fabrials, and stormlight. We also see her for the powerful leader she is, especially in contention with Raboniel. The perspectives offered from Venli’s point of view, and the look into the past through her and Eshonai’s eyes give the Parshendi narrative new significance. From Eshonai’s journey from an explorer to a warlord, and Venli’s push for power and knowledge. We see Venli’s point of view as the Parshendi interact with humans, their quest for Forms of Power, and where she finds herself amidst the return of the Fused and the extinction of the Listeners. While extensive and numerous, I found the look back through their eyes well balanced with the pacing of current events.
Even greater is Sanderson’s intentional focus on the returning point of view characters. Shalan’s character showcases this beautifully. Her struggles and challenges with her split identities and how they interact with each other and others is a brilliant example of Sanderon’s devotion to authentically representing Dissociative Identity Disorder within Shallan’s character. The portrayal shines without being token or characterized, and serves as a powerful mechanism for a complex and important character dealing with challenges both within herself and with those around her. We also see Shallan’s relationship with the Ghostbloods reach its crux as she struggles with her morality in contention with her multiple identities with regards to what she truly cares about. She has to come to a point where she is forced to answer whether her goals are to understand them and their mission in order to make Roshar a safer place, or is she actually searching for something else, something more selfish and insidious?
Parallel and intimately connected to Shallan’s journey, we see Adolin with his own challenges through Rhythm of War. We have seen Adolin’s development and maturity grow, and now we see him trying to find his place in this new world. Brightlords and Brightprinces are in a different place in light of the return of surgebinders and the Knights Radiant. His world has likewise been shaken by the revelations about his father in Oathbringer, and his perception of the man he once idolized have drastically changed. Relationally, Adolin acts as a steadfast anchor to both Shallan and Kaladin as they each face their own struggles, and often takes the role of responsibly supporting them both while struggling with his own path. His devotion to Shallan is highlighted in his acceptance of her relationship with her multiple identities, even if he does not fully understand it, because he believes it is best for her. He acts as the uncompromising friend to Kaladin in order to be who Kaladin needs around him, even if he begrudgingly knows it. Adolin is able to help provide what Kaladin needs, even when he cannot admit what is best for himself. As Adolin struggles to find his place in this new world, he continuously cares for those closest to him and proves his devotion to a higher purpose, rising to the occasion time and time again.
The most personal, and what I found to be the most powerful part of Rhythm of War, is the journey we got to see Kaladin take. His arc through these books has brought him to a moment of huge responsibility and challenge. This story takes us alongside a very real and human struggle, from the trauma he has suffered under as a soldier, as a slave, as a bridgeman, and even as a Knight Radiant. The humanization of a character struggling with depression and “battle shock” brings the reader deeper alongside a man who cannot see himself as a hero, yet holds himself to the highest of unattainable standards. We empathize with him, because Sanderson shows us not only how he has reached that point, but how he cannot let go of it either. It’s Kaladin’s journey through Rhythm of War that culminated with the most significant moment in a book for me in a very long time, moving me to tears. It’s Kaladin’s journey that teaches us all to hope.
If you are looking at one of Sanderson’s books, you should already have a good idea of what to expect. A grand story of epic scale. Powerful and compelling characters. Like the rest of the Stormlight Archive, Rhythm of War is no exception to its lineage of long, good reads. The book travels as a story should, with ebbs and flows, arriving to the turning point moments exactly when it should. The changes in character perspective can be frustrating as you want to rush ahead to follow your favorite character, then immediately become invested in the current point of view. While there are moments through the book where the story slows, there is a point where it cannot be put down. And when it reaches its terminal velocity, there is nothing you can do but see it through to its end. A brilliant work, Rhythm of War is a must read for anyone who loves epic fantasy, stellar characters, and powerful storytelling.
It is a fantastic work of storytelling, and with the emotional response it drew from me, holds the spot as not only one of my favorite books of the last several years, but is my favorite of the Stormlight Archive. Perhaps in time and with a reread of the entire series as we await the next entry, that might change. Just as we anxiously awaited the release of Rhythm of War, I am eagerly awaiting updates regarding Book 5 and its reported release in 2023.
Rhythm of War is written by Brandon Sanderson, and is published by Tor.
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