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Rhythm of War review (sort of)

I’ve made no secret of my love for Brandon Sanderson’s writing. The incredible depth of his world-building (excuse me; universe-building) is astounding. It makes me feel like my own writing is that of a five-year-old’s. His characters are rich and intriguing. And the climaxes of his plots are awe-inspiring.

The Stormlight Archive, his ambitious 10-volume massive epic series began with The Way of Kings, which easily ranks in my top fantasy novels of all time. The second book, Words of Radiance, is very close to it. The third, Oathbringer, continued the saga and was amazing, but… not quite to the same level. I still loved it, and eagerly anticipated the next book.

Rhythm of War is now available, and I’ve read it. And… I’m worried.

My reason for worry comes to the simple writing rule of keeping your promises. And the previous history of The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time was an epic fantasy series by Robert Jordan. He published the first book, The Eye of the World, in 1984. Many more books followed until the 11th book was released in 2005. Then Jordan died while working on what he said would be the 12th and final volume. Brandon Sanderson was tasked with finishing the series, and that 12th book became three. So in the end, The Wheel of Time became a 14-volume series.

My problem is not with Sanderson’s completion of The Wheel of Time. The problem came with the middle of the series.

Jordan started out with a small cast of characters, while promising that this would be an epic that touched on a massive history and involve many races and cultures, etc. Yet like all such stories, it started small with a core cast, three to five main characters that readers of the earliest books grew to love. But along the way, Jordan got bored with some of those characters. He would write some of them out for several books at a time (sometimes with very lame reasons). Instead, he focused on other characters and groups that he introduced along the way. The series suffered greatly for it, in my opinion. You could cut four or five of the central books of the series into a single book and it would have been much stronger.

This is breaking your promises to the reader. From the beginning of a story (book, series), you make implied promises. “This story is going to be huge.” “Here are the main characters.” And things like that. Jordan broke that second promise. He chased after other characters instead.

Sanderson is, um… he’s on the verge of doing the same thing. From the beginning of The Stormlight Archive, he promised epic beyond epic, on a scale that made even The Wheel of Time seem small. He discussed how he had it plotted out into a total of ten volumes, and how those volumes could be broken up into two five-volume sections, etc. He seemed to have this all planned out. And it connects in with his other novels in surprising and amazing ways, even.

BUT… but… Sanderson also started this series with two main characters. Two. Kaladin and Shallan. No matter what happened, these were the central characters. He hinted that a couple of others would become major characters as well, but we fell in love with those two at the beginning. We had literally THOUSANDS of pages of story forming that connection with them.

With Rhythm of War, Sanderson seems to be strongly implying that he’s dumping one of those characters out of the main storylines. In fact, he pretty much does that for most of the book. The character still gets to do something every once in a while and is a part of the climax, but I really felt like that Sanderson was saying, “I’m tired of writing him. Look at these other characters I’ve introduced now! Aren’t they cool?” And as a reader who is totally invested in the first two characters, I’m thinking, “No. Not really. No.”

So far, I’ve avoided spoilers. To truly get into how I think Sanderson really undermined things here, I have to say something about the climax – not about how it turns out or even what is involved in it, but how part of it was written. If you haven’t read the book yet and plan to, you might want to skip the next paragraph, just in case.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. Sort of. In the final climactic battle scene, we as readers are used to seeing it from the combatant’s point of view. In most cases, that means Kaladin. And that’s how to engage the reader completely in the climax. We need to see what he sees; feel what he feels. Yet at a crucial moment in the battle, Sanderson abruptly switches the point of view to another character who is WATCHING the fight. Not involved in the fight; just watching it. Part of the fights told from the point of view of a watcher. We’re yanked out of the combatant’s head and put in the head of someone watching. For reader investment, that makes no sense. SPOILERS END NOW.

Because of that, when I got to the end of the climax of this book, my thoughts were, “That was cool. Mostly.” Whereas with all three previous books in the series, my thoughts after reading the climax were… incomprehensible. Because my mind was totally blown. Not so with this book.

And that disappointed me. Greatly. Rhythm of War is still a very good book. It’s just not an awesome book like the first three. And that makes me worried about the rest of the series. Especially if Sanderson is breaking his promise and dumping one of the main characters.

The Fractured Void Review

Outside of reading and writing, my favorite pastime is tabletop board games. And my favorite game is Twilight Imperium. It’s a massive epic of negotiation, trade, politics, and space ships shooting at each other. A four player game will probably last five hours minimum. A six player game can go all day (or night)… Some people complain about this. I see it as a feature.

Why? Because like all my favorite games, Twilight Imperium tells a story. And when we’re loving a story, we don’t want it to end.

Recently, Fantasy Flight Games, creators of Twilight Imperium (and many, many other games), started a new push to expand their own brands. They do a lot of licensed material with Star Wars and Marvel, etc., but some of their best stuff comes from these universes they’ve invented on their own. Like Twilight Imperium. So they’ve been launching new expansions to the games, working on role-playing modules set in those universes, and even commissioning novels.

Licensed novels written about an existing universe are nothing new. You can easily find dozens of novels based on Star Trek, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and just about any other fantasy or science fiction property you’ve heard of. Novels based on Twilight Imperium are interesting, though, in that there are no movies, TV shows, or cartoons in existence already (but we can hope).

The game itself is chock-full of lore (or world-building, or whatever you wish to call it). Players choose between seventeen different alien civilizations to start a game (seven more in the expansion). Each one of those civilizations has various in-game special abilities, starting units, and so on, but on the flip side of those large game placards is an extensive history of that civilization.

Consequently, when FFG hired Hugo-award-winning novelist Tim Pratt to write the first novel in the Twilight Imperium universe, he had a lot to work with. So… how did he do?

The Fractured Void is a space opera (it even says so on the cover!). In other words, it’s closer to Star Wars than Star Trek. Less “if we reverse the polarity on the tachyon beams…” and more “fire everything!” In other words, not a lot of really detailed explanation of the “science” in the science fiction. And that’s just fine.

It’s a fast-paced adventure that pauses every so often for a bit of an info dump. Those info dumps, while somewhat necessary, are sometimes delivered a little bit too blatantly. “Well, I did hear from a cousin’s friend once that…” On the other hand, for fans of the game itself, those info dumps are some of the most entertaining bits, because we get to read more about these alien civilizations that we enjoy playing in the game.

The story includes all sorts of space hijinks, like you might expect. Prison breaks, heists, and so on. There’s surprisingly very little actual space combat (which could also be said for the game itself). The plot line consists of a lot of “Oh, we need to rush over here for this reason,” and “Oh, wait, now we must rush to this place for this other reason.” Yeah, you’ve seen it in the Star Wars movies and similar fiction.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just… all right. The most enjoyment I got from it was comparing it with what I know of Twilight Imperium. For anyone who’s never played the game, it would be… all right, I guess. 

My biggest nitpick is one I have with a lot of modern speculative fiction: why would people (aliens, for the most part) in a distant galaxy or our galaxy thousands and thousands of years in the future… use the exact same curse words we do today? It makes no logical sense and yanks me out of the story every single time. It’s a pet peeve. Maybe it won’t bother you. In addition, a common trope used with the primary antagonist was a bit annoying.

My biggest thrill was seeing how the finale of the novel ties in with the story of the new expansion to the game, Prophecy of Kings. Yep, I’m a nerd.

Sometimes Fantasy Disappoints

I just finished reading a lengthy epic fantasy novel. As I closed it, I did not feel satisfaction, pleasure, or anticipation for another book. I felt… disappointed.

I’m not going to share the name of the book here. I don’t like to talk negative about books, if I can help it. (If you’re desperate to know, you can check my Goodreads profile.) And my likes are not the same as others’ likes.

Some of the disappointment came from the ambiguous ending. Did the good guys win? I wasn’t quite sure. And the primary reason for that was… who were the good guys?

The novel had three point-of-view characters. Based on the way it was written, I assumed they were the ones I should be rooting for, the protagonists, the “good guys.” And so it seemed, right up through the end. Did those three “win”? Kind of, I guess. They lived through it all, anyway.

But anther character definitely “won.” And he was portrayed as a good guy sometimes and a bad guy at other times. It wasn’t that he was conflicted, or was struggling with temptation or anything like that. It was deliberately ambiguous. I have no idea if what he accomplished in the end was a good thing for this fantasy world, or a bad thing, because I never understood his motivations or whether he understood the consequences of what he wanted to do.

Please note that I am not asking that all the characters in books be 100% good or 100% evil. I’m talking about character motivation and development.

In my novel, Until All Curses Are Lifted, one of the main antagonists is Volraag. It would have been easy to make him a straight-up villain. But I worked hard to give him a serious motivation that made sense from his point of view. That’s what I want to read. With this novel, I never got a clear understanding of the antagonist’s motivations (if he was an antagonist?).

This is one of the reasons why I love J.R.R. Tolkien so much. When I put down The Lord of the Rings for the 30+ time, I am satisfied. And it doesn’t matter which character I think about in the story, I can identify his/her motivations and status in the story. More than that, every character inspires me.

I could write a whole series on this (maybe I will, at some point), explaining how each character in The Lord of the Rings inspires and encourages me – even the “bad” guys!

I’m not opposed to making the reader wonder whether a character is good or bad. And I love to read stories where heroes fall, or villains are redeemed, because we’re all human and both those possibilities loom large in our stories. But I don’t want to read a story that ends with me wondering what I just read.

Reviewing a Couple of Recent Reads

I’ve always been a lover of books, especially fantasy novels. Now that I’m working hard on writing, I’m even more motivated to read. Even if I didn’t feel that way personally, all of the “advice” sites encourage writers to read, read, read. So I keep reading.
The hazard I’ve found now is that too often I find myself analyzing the writing and story-telling. While that’s part of why I read now, it also has the potential to diminish my enjoyment of the stories themselves. I find myself getting pulled out of the story and into the world of craft-analyzation. Let me try to explain with the two more recent novels I just finished reading:
First up is The Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington. Recommended to me by one of my beta readers, I got excited when I saw the thickness of the book. Yes, I like very long books with deep stories, so long as they keep my attention. Fortunately, this book managed to do that.
Islington uses a lot of epic fantasy tropes at first. The story starts with one of those mysterious prologues that’s intended to show you that the real stakes in this upcoming story are far larger than you can tell at first. Some writers have used this extremely well. Others… not so much. This one kind of falls in the middle. I found it mildly interesting, but it could have been left out completely and wouldn’t have changed much of anything (or used as a flashback for the character involved, which would make sense since he gets numerous flashbacks later).
Following that, the story begins with the typical young male protagonist who’s kind of a failure at his pursuits, living a somewhat menial existence. And yet, of course, he’s destined for greatness. I’m not mocking this trope – it’s one I use myself to some degree. Just pointing out how I immediately notice these things now.
From there, the story escalates rapidly into all kinds of subplots that somehow tie in to the greater plot, leading to an eventual climactic battle, but also setting up tons and tons of stuff for the next book or two.
And while I generally enjoyed the book greatly, I couldn’t help noticing that maybe, just maybe Islington went a little overboard. Maybe too much backstory revealing too much ancient history of the world. Maybe too many characters all tied into that backstory somehow. Maybe too many seemingly average characters that are actually (Surprise!) super-good at magic, or fighting, or intrigue, or also just happen to be hidden royalty or somesuch. There’s a lot going on with every single character and sometimes… it just feels like too much.
Islington switches the POV character many times, but somehow manages to keep that number fairly limited. Even so, I found myself somewhat annoyed at some of the POV shifts. Also, the closer I got to the end, the more I wondered if it would end on a cliffhanger. Still in the “all is lost” part of the climax and there aren’t too many pages left… how can this get resolved? (Spoiler: it did. Sort of.)
Yet… I still enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite, but I’m definitely going to read the next book. And isn’t that the main goal of a writer?
The second book is In the Region of the Summer Stars, by Stephen R. Lawhead. I had this on preorder, because… well… because I’ve been a fan of Lawhead’s writing since the 1980s. I adore the Pendragon Cycle, and think Byzantium is one of the greatest stand-alone novels on my shelves. His Song of Albion trilogy is, quite possibly, my second favorite fantasy of all time (after Lord of the Rings, of course). So I’m quite biased here.
That’s not to say he hasn’t disappointed me over time. I found the Celtic Crusades all right, but nothing spectacular. The King Raven trilogy (Robin Hood as a Celt?) was kind of the low point, in my opinion. And then came the Bright Empires series. Ostensibly, it’s about Ley line travel to other alternate worlds, but really there’s almost no distinction between that and time travel. It also disappointed me because the promos before the series promised high fantasy… and it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the story overall, but it wasn’t what was promised, and dragged in places (far too much time is spent on a previously minor character suddenly thrust into the spotlight and, um, inventing coffee in Europe, for example).
Now Lawhead has returned to Celtic-themed fiction again, which is what he’s excelled at in the past. I found myself looking forward to it, though suspicious when early reports again promised some kind of “high fantasy.” Yeah, that’s what you said about the last series and it wasn’t. When the book arrived, I was disappointed when I saw how thin it was, in contrast to the other book discussed above.
However, this time the promos seem to be turning out mostly accurate. Lawhead returns to a quasi-historical Celtic world (Eirlandia), but much like his Pendragon Cycle, the fae are also in existence. I halfway kept expecting one of the characters from Pendragon to show up; they seem that similar. Here are almost all of the things one would expect from a Lawhead book of this kind – swords, amicable banter between warriors, dire circumstances, cruel villains, gritty and visceral violence, and magic. (Curiously, no intricate description of a feast. That’s unusual.)
Here’s where the writing analysis broke my enjoyment somewhat. I ran across two paragraphs where Lawhead shifted out of deep POV with his main character (Conor) into omniscient narrator. Both instances were very brief, and I might never have noticed if I weren’t so deeply into craft study lately. An editor should have caught those, I kept thinking.
Even so, I enjoyed In the Region of the Summer Stars, and I’ll almost certainly get the next book. The main problem I had was: it’s too short. Way too short. I don’t know word count, of course, but on my shelf, it’s Lawhead’s shortest-looking book since Dream Thief (1983!). I can’t help wondering if this was a publisher’s decision to break apart a longer story.
Writing update: I think I’m almost done with revisions to my novel. Waiting on a little more feedback while I work on my query letter. And then I’ll be looking for an agent…

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