Words of Radiance was easily the best book I've ever read, which naturally resulted in some pretty high expectations going into Oathbringer. As much as I've tried to smother it after waiting for over 3.5 years, I just had to accept that it was futile.
Who am I kidding? Sanderson has completely smashed all expectations by offering yet another best book I've ever read.
Is Oathbringer a literary masterpiece? A classic that will stand the test of time and be remembered in the same vein as Lord of the Rings? That might stretch it a bit too far, but only time will tell. I wouldn't also call it flawless, as it is not. As far as I am concerned, however, it is a singularly brilliant creation which is both epic in its scope and intimate in its soul.
Art is about emotion, examination, and going places people have never gone before to discover and investigate new things. The only way to create something that nobody hates is to ensure that it can't be loved either. Remove enough spice from soup, and you'll just end up with water.
The worldbuilding in this book, to put it mildly, outshines its predecessors. We finally leave the confines of The Shattered Plains to traverse the other parts of this vivid and alien world. The events from the end of Words of Radiance precipitated the need to extend the reach of the political narrative to other monarchies in Roshar. Urithiru, Kholinar and Thaylen City are all impressive and fascinating in very distinct and unique ways. I appreciate having the large full-coloured map of Roshar behind the dust jacket that came in handy when trying to understand the relative location of one country to another. The interior art is, as usual, stunning in illustrating the worldbuilding elements.
An endpaper depicting in-world Heraldic art. By Howard Lyon
Oathbringer is a dense book. Much to my delight, the lore and histories of Roshar, which so intrigued readers in The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, are deeply explored. With each deftly handled exposition or revelation, one cannot help but wonder at the mind that did not merely create but also balance and manage such complexity (not only of Roshar but the Cosmere); the skill to weave that complexity into strands that teased and yet seemed almost apparent on hindsight. It is like seeing tiny unconnected parts of a massive painting, each giving you a small clue, its implications only dawning upon you once the larger picture has been revealed. Even then, I am sure that I can only see a fragment of a whole - one which is, more or less, complete at this stage. Or so I've been led to believe.
After three books in, one thing that I kept marvelling at is Sanderson's naming convention in this series. Using the term Radiants to denote knights who adhere to specific Ideals and who glow with Stormlight is so fittingly epic. The names of the Ten Orders of the Knights Radiant, those of the Heralds and the Unmade, and the pivotal historical events such as the Desolations, Aharietiam and the Recreance - it all just sound so appropriate in its own context. To be honest, I don't usually pay much attention to this aspect while reading (unless it's truly bad or jarring), but here, it is too good not to do so.
As for pacing and plot progression, it is close to perfection. Oathbringer felt even more like a trilogy in a single book than the previous two instalments. The narrative ebbed and flowed with a slower start followed by mini-climaxes and little lulls as the events gradually escalated to a mind-blowing, heart-stopping and breathtaking climactic ending. When the final chapters start to switch into multiple POVs, you will know that you have arrived at what has come to be known as the "Sanderson avalanche". In this book, it is an avalanche to end all that had come before – to think that this is only the third instalment.
For all the worldbuilding, lore and action present, this novel is sublime in balancing between a grand sweeping tale and personal character growth. And this is where the book transcended from great to spectacular.
I've watched a recording of the BYU launch party of Oathbringer, where Sanderson said that the first magic system he developed for Stormlight was that of soulcasting; an allusion to transformation, which is the theme of The Stormlight Archive. It is about the change and progression of people through their conflicts, both internal and external, and experiences. As such, the series is ultimately character-driven, despite all the fantastical elements wrapped around it.
The past is the future, and as each man has lived, so must you.The question is not whether you will love, hurt, dream and die. It is what you will love, why you will hurt, when you will dream, and how you will die. This is your choice. You cannot pick the destination, only the path.
Most of you would know this if you follow the series and its updates closely. Oathbringer is Dalinar Kholin's book, as the previous two were Kaladin's and Shallan's respectively - from a backstory perspective. And it very much feels like Dalinar's book. With a longer history given his age relative to the two younger main characters, there are a lot more flashback chapters of Dalinar - an enlightening, powerful and highly relevant backstory to the events unfolding in the present timeline. The manner in which the story of his past is woven to lead into the climax is absolutely masterful.
Accept the pain, but don't accept that you deserved it.
The development of the characters - both main and supporting ones - continues to be most compelling and excellent, taking the story in a direction that is not entirely expected, but still wholly satisfying. It is an understatement to say that Sanderson does not make it easy for his characters. The path towards being a full Knight Radiant demands an embodiment of the Ideals, each being more difficult than the previous. In this, we see our beloved characters going through significant internal struggles and learning acceptance, which makes a transformation more realistic and way more gratifying when it happens. More importantly is how Sanderson enabled readers to feel as if they are part of the inner turmoil and eventual evolution of these characters, instead of being a mere bystander to the events. And by staying steadfast to an existing core cast, this only further fuelled my empathy and emotional investment for them, favourites or otherwise.
Ten spears go to battle, and nine shatter. Did that war forge the one that remained? No. All the war did was identify the spear that would not break.
Allegorically, the story deals with both big and abstract world-spanning issues and small and personal real-life matters. I respect the effort he took to understand and then write about mental health issues, as well as his openness in dealing with discrimination and prejudice, whether it's challenging individual perception, societal norms or even religious doctrine.
Now, I need to touch upon the prose and dialogue. Personally, I have always enjoyed Sanderson's dialogue and writing, and find him quite talented in delivering simple, direct and succinct phrases that truly make an impact, without having to go into long and rambling philosophical discourses. The in-world texts in The Stormlight Archive demonstrate that he is capable of writing in a more ‘elegant and poetic' manner, but perhaps that is just not how he wanted to tell his stories. Just as I can admire long beautiful passages of introspection and philosophy, I can also equally appreciate the simplicity of unembellished prose which distils the verbiage. Given how dense these Stormlight books are, I prefer this style of writing as it allows me a more thoroughly immersive experience. Notably, his writing skills are noticeably improving with every book he releases.
All that said, the primary reason why this is the best book I've ever read is that it gave me the most emotionally charged reading experience I've ever had. I cried and laughed. I squealed and screamed. I felt my heart turning to mush. It brought out joy, tears, sorrow, pain, fear, anger, excitement, anticipation, shock, wonder and awe, so strongly that I'm sure emotionsprens surrounded me. This is also, in my opinion, the darkest book that Sanderson has ever written. There are moments, which made me think that the series is treading into the grimdark territory.
Admittedly, I did wish for my favourite character of the series (and possibly of all-time) to have more presence in this instalment, but I accept that this might not always be the case given that the story is not going to centre around one main character (as much as it might seem to be in the past two books). There are also a few storylines which appear to be given too much of a light touch in the narrative, possibly in compromise for the momentum of the overarching story, or even perhaps to fit into future books. These are a few of the issues which, I am all too aware of, may not be entirely well-received by some existing fans.
Oathbringer can be treated as Book 3 of 5, out of a larger 2-part series of 10 books, with the second part of The Stormlight Archive heading in a new direction. As with each volume so far, this novel is a self-contained story that concludes most satisfactorily, while teasing the reader with more questions and leaving some loose and new threads for future instalments. Even after reading over 1200 pages, I wanted more and almost flipped back to the first page to start over again. There can be no other testament to the magnificence of Sanderson's magnum opus, where every book so far had succeeded in perpetuating such an obsession from me.
Fantasy fans, allow me to reiterate - if you haven't started reading this fantastic series, seriously, what are you waiting for? A fair warning though – be prepared to suffer from a hangover once you have finished reading these masterpieces.
NB: For maximum reading enjoyment, one should read Warbreaker before Words of Radiance and absolutely must do so before Oathbringer.