It has been a long three years, but the next installment of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is finally here with Rhythm of War. One year has passed on Roshar since the end of Oathbringer, and a lot has changed in the war between Odium’s forces, the combined might of the returned Fused, and the now-free Singers against Dalinar’s Coalition and the Knights Radiant.
Yes, these books are long, but they’re like Thanksgiving dinner: you have to pace yourself, and if you do, you get everything you want. You can fill your plate up with detailed worldbuilding, an intricate magic system, complex characters, grandiose set pieces, and killer action sequences, and Sanderson has the luxury of being able to put that all into these thousand-page novels. This is the fourth book in this series, and if you’ve come this far, another thousand-page book isn’t going to break you. Though Rhythm of War is longer than the first two and near-equal length to Oathbringer, it reads much quicker due to the author’s excellent pacing and changes to the book’s regular format.
It has been standard since The Way of Kings to include flashbacks to significant events for the main characters. Sanderson has improved the way he writes flashbacks as well as how he structures the narrative around them. Rhythm of War‘s flashbacks depict Venli and her sister Eshonai, and do not begin until part three of the book, much further than any book previously. By then, we’re already in the thick of it, and they transitioned to in a way that flows better with the present story. Likewise, the interludes in Rhythm of War directly impact the main plot more than previous books. Interludes before have included foreshadowing of critical future events and glimpses into a much broader narrative in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, the shared fictional universe in which many of Sanderson’s books take place. Rhythm of War’s interludes have payoffs that come sooner rather than later. As a result, Rhythm of War‘s pacing doesn’t feel halted by the flashbacks or the interludes, sections I never disliked but that did feel like natural points to take a break. Instead, I found myself continuing to read late into the night, to that point when you look up and see the sun is rising outside and weigh whether it was worth it.
It was worth it.
Speaking of flashbacks, Venli was a character previously I did not care for, and I wasn’t looking forward to a redemption arc for her, even if I was slightly intrigued by her final moments in Oathbringer. Sometimes when you’re so invested in fiction and its characters, you don’t want to see those who have been the catalyst for others’ conflict and pain find forgiveness or a better way. I could not be happier to be wrong. She is one of the breakout characters of this novel, partly due to her self-reflection of the part she played in causing this conflict. Since Words of Radiance with Eshonai’s point-of-view chapters, Sanderson has been giving us the other side’s perspective more and more. With Kaladin’s empathy for the freed parshmen and the reveal that human beings were the Voidbringers, the black and white picture of the war between the Knights Radiant versus the Voidbringers has long faded into the background. Rhythm of War brings the grey area far more into focus with familiar characters like Venli and Rlain, along with a new primary antagonist, the Fused, known as Raboniel.
Raboniel plays the perfect foil to the other breakout character of this book, Navani Kholin. Navani has always been an exceptional character, but the spotlight has rarely been on her. Not so here. Rhythm of War is a book of self-discovery for Navani of who she is out of the shadow of her family after years of doubting herself and us as readers learning even more what’s great about her character. From the very beginning, the prologue foreshadows the large role Navani will play. Her husband still gets his moments crucial to the larger narrative, but it is through Navani that we interact with the ancient Fused scientist, Raboniel. She is everything an excellent, intelligent antagonist should be, cunning and curious, merciful and harsh, empathetic and disdainful. She is the we’re-not-so-different-you-and-I opposite to Navani. Through the two of them, we see what science is like in a world of spren, surgebinding, shards, and souls of ancient people being reborn. Some of the science explored I must admit I didn’t fully understand, but that made me more interested in reading, rather than taking me out of the book. It allows us to see another side of the conflict, especially the strain on the Fused, whose souls are endlessly reborn for war.
Some readers may be surprised by the direction Kaladin’s story takes. He’s the closest to our archetypal hero but has always carried an inner darkness within him since before The Way of Kings. For Kaladin, becoming a Knight Radiant has been simply a treatment and not the cure. He doesn’t overcome his battle shock, but Kaladin’s journey in book four is to learn to live with it. How do you cope with your mental illness and be the hero people need? Even when Kaladin triumphs in the dire situation he is in, it is not a be-all end-all fix for what is wrong. Sanderson’s depiction of the effect war has on soldiers’ minds and how Roshar has dealt with it is one of this book’s most meaningful parts. Sanderson depicts mental illness in a refreshingly truthful way, but doesn’t neglect the Kaladin readers love. He’s still a badass in battle with his own antagonist in Leshwi, the Fused who wants to fight the Windrunners with honor, and the Pursuer, the Fused who will cease at nothing to hunt Kaladin down and kill him.
If Oathbringer was about the global reaction to another Desolation, then Rhythm of War is what happens when the war comes to your doorstep. The conflict becomes more intimate, real, and frightening. Sanderson’s depiction of Singers is not as unemotional monsters but fully fleshed out enemy combatants. The right thing becomes less clear and consequences ever more real. This entry of The Stormlight Archive is the first where I found myself asking, “What if they don’t overcome the odds this time?” Sanderson balances this out with the treat of more references to his extended universe than I remember ever reading before. These are not casual references either, but point to an even larger story to come. However, they’re not infodump heavy. Readers who have only read The Stormlight Archive won’t be left clueless, but curious by the implications. The author makes the larger story of the Cosmere part of the series and not the other way around.
The novel does an excellent job of balancing sowing the seeds for what comes next and telling an exciting story in the present. Then the ending happens, and you suddenly remember the fifth book will be the end of the first overall arc of the series, and the tension and excitement compounds for what comes next. Oh, and Moash continues to be the worst.Rhythm of War is a triumph as both a standout in the series, and for laying the groundwork not only for the fifth book but what seems like the future of the entire series. I, a stickler for reading books in order, would reread Rhythm of War out of sequence. The author’s depiction of mental illness, enemy occupation, and science are captivating and real. The emotional roller coaster all of these characters travel on is both heartbreaking and thrilling. Book four of The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson puts the series and the Cosmere altogether in an interesting place. I’m evermore excited for what the future holds.
Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Tor Books.
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