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.