Blinded by Stormlight

I don’t think Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive is a very good epic fantasy series. That alone isn’t a stunning revelation (insert relevant The Big Lebowski image macro here), but it bothered me nonetheless. If you broke down the various components of The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance and their setting of Roshar, you would have a list of things I love in epic fantasy. On paper, this series appears designed for me. Yet through both books, I’ve felt a great disconnect between the orgiastic reception they’ve received and my own view. I didn’t get it and it became a minor obsession to explicitly state why.

The Stormlight Archive is artificial. It’s an odd adjective to level at a fantasy series but nuanced enough to fit here. Not fake or inauthentic and certainly not a knock-off. Artificial. The series is lovingly crafted with nothing but noble intentions and a genuine eagerness to tell a sprawling story. But in critical ways its artificial, over planned construction prevents it from achieving greatness.

Structurally, both books have followed a pattern in plot and character development, tightly adhering to an obvious plan. Plot-wise, they open with a few hundred pages of initial momentum and development to lull you into a false sense of satisfaction. Then the middle begins and very little happens for a very long time. The story becomes essentially flat, with fitful spikes of action that should advance the plot, but somehow don’t. Then the conclusion begins, the so-called Sanderson Avalanche, a marathon bludgeoning of long-withheld advancements and revelations and climaxes. When this assault ends readers are so concussed they forget almost nothing happened in the middle five hundred pages of the novel. Regardless of how awesome the ending was, this is a trick, a means of pulling the wool over your eyes whilst taking it away.

Character development follows suit. Every main PoV character begins both books with solidly paced action and growth and discoveries, only to hit extended plateaus where they lose all momentum and agency. Any interruptions in these plateaus feels scheduled. ‘It’s been long enough, better throw in a crab monster’. Worse, these mid-story events are often toothless or simply defer a problem to the next chapter. Then the end-game avalanche begins and every character suddenly becomes proactive and/or hits their Limit Break and gets new powers. In the end you have definitive progress and can be satisfied with the overall journey, but only if you willfully ignore the near-discontinuous slope to reach that point.

Characters and plot make or break a series. In both, The Stormlight Archive has artificially extended the middle acts of each, while confining concrete growth to the poles. This leads to the series having a considerable measure of inelegant bloat. These books are fat, literally and figuratively, and could stand to slim down. However, given the precedent of this series having thousand page volumes, the only option is to instead build muscle and fix the internal density of action and character development.

The world of Roshar is stunning in its intricacies and scope, the true star of the series. At this point it’s cliché to praise Sanderson’s world-building prowess. However, the presentation of the world-building is one of the greatest flaws in the first two books. For all their hundreds of thousands of words, the novels can’t decide whether ignore or worship the world they take place in. For every deeply detailed description of some aspect of life in Roshar so much else is relegated to the background, or worse, ignored altogether. This inconsistency is doubly frustrating because you know the information exists and there’s time to tell it (indeed book #1 and #2 of a series are the best times for such info dumps), but the books refuse. Most damning is the plot’s laser focus on the Shattered Plains, which tightly restricts our view of the world to a few hundred square miles of wasteland. The scope of this massive new world has been artificially leashed when there’s no obvious reason to do so.

The Interludes are supposed to be our relief from this restrained focus on the Shattered Plains. With a few major exceptions (Szeth, Eshonai, Diagram Guy) these disconnected glimpses of elsewhere end up feeling like a tease. They are akin to reading a Wikipedia article about a place instead of actually visiting it. You get an accurate description of a location but learn nothing of the actual feel of it. Again, this presentation of the world is too artificial, calculated to the letter and precisely seeded with connections to the main plot or greater world to make them seem worthwhile. There’s no organic journey of exploration of this world, an epic fantasy trope intentionally excised but not properly replaced.

For all its impressive detail, Roshar has an overall feeling of being overly-planned, of being too clean. Worlds are messy, chaotic places. Many things don’t make sense. Other things are ruined not because of some grand Machiavellian plot or a cycle of void-brought destruction but for no reason at all. There are loose threads, unexplained mysteries, contradictions. Roshar doesn’t have genuine chaos. Yes, there are forces and groups running in opposition, some leaving a checklist of chaos in their wake. Every single one of those events feel pre-approved, and not just in an in-world way. Everything has a purpose, a fate, a connection to something relevant to the plot. It’s just too clean. There’s a certain satisfaction in characters having unknown, to-be-revealed connections, but when everything is so intertwined and meaningful (even if we won’t learn the grand truth until mid-avalanche book five) it lends the whole story an aura of artificiality. These connections are woven not on fate’s tapestry but among the lines of an author’s pre-writing notebook.

There’s a counterpoint to all of this: What if the artificiality is intentional? The Stormlight Archive is the first major cornerstone of Sanderson’s meta-narrative known as the Cosmere. It exists not only as a series in of itself, but as an advancement of connections between his past and future work. Given the nature of worlds within the Cosmere (so far), it’s possible that Roshar is the result of some ‘clockwork world’ design. If that’s true, changes still need to be made in how this series presents itself. Namely: Bro, it needs to get weird.

I don’t think The Stormlight Archive is a bad series. It’s too soon for such a judgment. But I think its sense of artificiality, even if intentional, needs adjustments. Many of the precedents established in the first two books need to be completely torn down. In this, there is hope. The ending of Words of Radiance made a number of critical choices that have given me a restored sense of optimism for book three. The story is at a place where we’ll finally get the multi-threaded, world-spanning fantasy epic The Stormlight Archive is supposed to be. The potential is very high, especially if the series starts getting weird, starts embracing its position in a growing meta-narrative instead of more teasing us along.

I may have to get off at the next station, but my ticket for this hype train is still valid and I’d like to see it through to the end.