Oathbringer Review (including podcast)

A note on spoilers. In this review, I’m not going to spoil any major reveals. But a few general plot points are fair game here. So if you’re hoping to go into your reading of Oathbringer 100% fresh (not a bad call, since impeccable story structure and Roshar-shattering reveals are Sanderson hallmarks), turn back now. If you’re just looking for a little pre-game commentary, though, then read on.

image: tor.com

“Your words are not that special, Brandon Sanderson.”

So said my wife after I congratulated myself on finishing one-third — 400 pages — of Oathbringer, the third of Sanderson’s mammoth Stormlight Archive series. Even for someone of my fantasy-oriented literary proclivities, this book is a monster. Ten-point type scrunched between barely-there margins, filling 1,250 pages? To the uninitiated, this appears as an act of extreme hubris. I assure you it is not.

It’s not hubris but deserved confidence that has driven Sanderson to write over a million words across three volumes of The Stormlight Archive so far. It’s the confidence of someone who is in full command of his prose and, more importantly, his worldbuilding. His words are great, but it’s his worlds that command attention. More on that in a bit; let’s talk Oathbringer specifically for a moment.

Listen to the spoiler-free review episode here

The story still focuses on our three main characters: Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. Where The Way of Kings revealed Kaladin’s back story and Words of Radiance did the same for Shallan, Oathbringer belongs to Dalinar. The title in this case refers not only to a book-within-the-book, as previously, but also to Dalinar’s mystical sword, or shardblade. Flashbacks show us Dalinar in his prime, wielding Oathbringer to devastating effect across the kingdom he is working to unite by force.

But the most impactful portions of the flashbacks are reserved for Dalinar’s relationship with his wife, memories of whom were apparently so painful that Dalinar had them magically excised from his mind. Learning what drove Dalinar to such drastic action makes for some of the most gut-wrenching scenes in Sanderson’s entire œuvre.

While the book focuses its flashbacks on Dalinar, fans of our other heroes need not worry; we spend plenty of time with both Kaladin and Shallan. Kaladin spends a good portion of Oathbringer learning that fulfilling his Windrunner oaths (“I will protect those who cannot protect themselves” / “I will protect even those I hate, so long as it is right”) requires actions that are not always easily justified.

Meanwhile, Shallan is faced with the same dilemma as Vin, the heroine of the Mistborn trilogy: she must decide which of her personae is the true one. The more literal nature of Shallan’s journey toward self-understanding is a result of the magic systems peculiar to Roshar and Shallan in particular.

Oh, and praise the Stormfather, the love triangle between Shallan, Kaladin, and Dalinar’s son Adolin that started in book two is resolved here in a way that is at once unexpected, sensible, and satisfying. Which is for the best, since the series at large could easily have been bogged down by a bunch of unnecessary — and surely angsty — YA-style emotional handwringing.

Time must be taken here — because damned if plenty of time wasn’t taken in the first half of the book — to mention secondary and tertiary characters, of which there are legion. Fan favorites are either completely absent (Eshonai) or cruelly underused (Rock, Lopen), while others are unexpectedly given substantial page counts (Teft, Moash). Depending on your appetites, this will either be a boon or a curse. I’m still undecided.

Ultimately though, Oathbringer, while clocking in at an eye-popping 391,840 words, manages to be the tightest of the three Stormlight books in terms of character scope, especially in the last half. As with The Way of Kings, there comes a tipping point somewhere around halfway through the book where the setups beget payoffs, which come faster and faster until the final pages. If you’d asked me at page 500 whether Oathbringer is a page-turner, I’d have said no. By page 800, though, it was a firm yes.

It’s not all roses, of course. As I’ve alluded to a few times already, this book is just plain long. While many high fantasy aficionados are ready and willing to dive into 1,000+ pages, such hefty word counts make The Stormlight Archives difficult to recommend to newcomers. If it’s true — as many Sanderson fans say — that this is his best series to date, then it’s a shame that it’s so difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t yet on the Brandon train. Entry-level material this is not.

Another barrier to entry is Oathbringer’s dependency on Sanderson’s other work. To fully appreciate the characters and events of this book, it’s necessary not only to have read, but to remember fairly well several of his other “cosmere” books, especially Warbreaker, the Mistborn series, and Elantris.

Thankfully, these crossover moments are written in such a way that you won’t be slowed too much in your reading if you’re not familiar with these other books. But if you’re not up to speed with those stories, then you’ll likely be scratching your head at the end of Oathbringer, trying to figure out why certain characters and objects were so prominent. To a newcomer to Sanderson’s cosmere, this stuff will feel like so much bloat in an already massive book.

Back to those possibly-not-that-special words. There’s a tendency among Sanderson’s detractors, and even those who simply prefer other authors, to point to his prose style as lacking in some respect. The most common complaint I hear is something along the lines of, “It’s just so … utilitarian.”

But this is precisely what I, and millions of others, enjoy. And Sanderson’s prosaic prowess is on full display in Oathbringer. “In the best prose,” as Arthur Clutton-Brock put it in his essay The Cardinal Virtue of Prose, “we are so led on as we read, that we do not stop to applaud the writer, nor do we stop to question him.” Indeed, rarely does Sanderson puncture the fourth wall of the narrative with a poetic flourish, drawing attention to himself rather than the story at hand. His discipline helps to make this a story in which you can — and should, and will — become blissfully lost.

But why bother to get lost at all if the place you’re losing yourself isn’t worthwhile? Here we come to Sanderson’s true genius: creating compelling, instructive worlds and peopling them with compelling, instructive characters. And when it comes to his worlds, the rule is simple: worse is better. Sanderson’s M.O. seems to be to create the most vivid, dark, smelly, miserable, unstable locations he can think of, then set loose a cast of characters and see how they react. The now-classic example is that of Vin and Elend, Mistborn’s protagonists, wading hip-deep through never-ending volcanic ash toward the literal end of the world. “Bleak” doesn’t begin to cover it.

The world of The Stormlight Archive, like that of Mistborn, seems like a miserable place to be. A good portion of Sanderson’s magic comes in making you want to be there anyway, for as long as you can. Such is the case with Oathbringer. If my chief complaint with the book is its length, then next in line is that I can’t spend another thousand pages on Roshar.

“Your words are not that special, Brandon Sanderson.” That’s up for debate, I suppose, though I know where I’d come down. What’s not up for debate is that Sanderson’s worlds are indeed that special.