Bookshot #178: Rhythm of War

So far, the pattern of the Stormlight Archive has been more or less this: lots of book interspersed with interesting moments until you get to about the 75% mark, and then things trip into fast forward in the usual Sanderlanche and you wind up with a big, awesome payoff that makes the lots of book you just went through more or less worth it. Three books in and you kind of know what to expect when you're getting into a Sanderson book so, I picked up Rhythm of War (Book 4 of The Stormlight Archive) thinking I was going to get much the same formula and only this time, I didn't.

Going into this one, I had seen a lot of chatter online that indicated people either liked it or hated it and I was curious about that, because about 25% of the way in, I was actually enjoying this one. Things were happening. There wasn't as much 'lots of book' in between key moments in the plot. It felt like it was moving a long as a pretty brisk clip. Yes, there were the flashbacks to build out the character of Venli a bit more but they were interesting and I assumed that they were going to pay off at the end like they usually do. 

Right out of the gate, I liked- in fact, I'm going to go further and say that I loved that Sanderson took a great chunk of this book and dedicated it to fixing Kaladin. Kaladin being put through the wringer/traumatized has been a regular feature of the first three books and forcing the character to sit down and confront his trauma and actually work on getting better is unique in my experience in the genre. (The other character from fantasy that really gets put through the wringer over the course of a bajillion books is probably Rand Al'Thor and he doesn't reconcile his trauma until the end of the series and certainly doesn't confront it directly the way Kaladin is forced too.) Exploring ideas of battle shock, trauma and mental health seems like such an obvious thing to do- and I'll admit I haven't read every fantasy book out there, but I've read enough to know that this feels really important for the genre and certainly adds a level of rich detail to the world-building in The Stormlight Archives. 

(And yes, I know there are online arguments about the way mental health is portrayed in the book, but I'm going acknowledge those and say it's refreshing to see a fantasy author talk and think about mental health at all and celebrate that.)

Kaladin's arc might be the most satisfactory in the book. He goes to some extremely dark places. His powers are hampered by the Fused takeover of the Tower and Urithiru and he's alone and working against impossible odds. He's at odds with his father, Lirin, who comes across as a prick for much of the book, until the end when you realize that he has been struggling to accept Kaladin for who he is this entire time rather than who Lirin wanted him to be (and props to Mom, Hesina for shaking some sense into Lirin at the end) but that dynamic also feels very real to me. As a parent, you say you just want your kids to be happy and fulfilled, but it's a struggle sometimes when you realize how different they can be from you-- and that's me speaking as someone with young kids. I can imagine if there's more of a generational gap (say Boomer/Gen X) that dynamic could lead to more conflict between parent and child. 

Eventually, Kaladin swears the Fourth Ideal and gets an upgrade in power, his own Shardplate- and the slave brand scars on his forehead get healed. He also makes peace with his father and I don't know if he forgives himself over the death of his brother, but he certainly makes a kind of peace with that as well. Important character developments all across the board for Kaladin Stormblessed in this book and it's a very refreshing change of pace for the character.

The big centerpiece for the plot here is probably what goes on at Urithiru-- the Fused stage a surprise takeover of the Tower while Dalinar, Jasnah and the coalition of Monarchs are away fighting in Emul. Navani is left behind and makes contact with the Tower's spren-- believed to be dormant/dead and part of the crystal pillar they discovered when they first got to the tower. Before the occupation begins, she has been getting messages telling her to stop creating fabrials because they're capturing/torturing spren to do so and it turns out that it was the Tower spren, The Sibling trying to get her to stop. The Sibling doesn't trust her, but when the Fused takes over and begins efforts to corrupt it, it reluctantly accepts her help.

I think what I like the most about Navani's arc is probably that she gets to really find herself as a character for the first time in the series. Initially, she's the widow of the fallen King Gavilar, the mother of Elhokar. Then she marries Dalinar and she's the Queen Mother who has a keen interest in scholarship and science but is more of a patron than an actual serious student. Here, she gets to actually be a scholar and figure stuff out and she loves it. I'm also guessing that her discoveries about Voidlight, Stormlight, Towerlight, Lifelight, and perhaps most importantly Anti-Light are going to be massive plot points moving forward. This feels like Stormlight's Oppenheimer moment here and it's going to be fascinating to see how it all plays out going forward. In the end, The Sibling does agree to bond with her, even though their relationship is somewhat awkward and she activates the full powers of the Tower to help drive out the occupiers once and for all.

Dalinar and Jasnah feel like they're in a bit of a holding pattern in this book. The former, I'm okay with- his big moment was really the last book and I think it's good he's sort of trying to figure out his powers and figure out how to get Odium to agree to terms to his contest (which he does). Jasnah is more of an open question at this point. A very interesting character throughout the series, you get some capital M moments for her character, but there's relatively little else about how she's settling in as Queen-- the first Queen the Alethi have had if not ever, then certainly in a very long time. She seems to be having a fling with Wit, which okay, was kind of surprising and cool, if unconventional in a very Jasnah-like way. I wonder if we'll see more of her in the next book. (I'm kind of hoping so.)

Shallan and Adolin almost rise up in the rankings for one of the more interesting aspects of this book, but just as they're getting going, the book moves elsewhere for an extended period of time before coming back to them at the end. They feel like a bit of an afterthought- like 'oh crap, I've got to finish their plot line out and I forgot' type of a moment, but they too deliver significantly. Shallan reintegrates Veil and comes to terms with some of her hidden past. She sets herself against the Ghostbloods-- which has 'future foreshadowing/plot points' written all over it- but more importantly, Adolin's trial gets his 'deadeye' Maya to actually speak. She reveals that the spren chose to sacrifice themselves in the Recreance and demands that the Honorspren not betray the sacrifice that they chose to make. That upsets the applecart greatly and breaks the Honorspren out of their self-imposed isolation in their fortress of Lasting Integrity in Shadesmar. Great moment. Great plot points-- but the extended gap they take (for good reasons, I'll acknowledge-- the Tower stuff is probably the primary focus here) lessen the impact of what they accomplish. The reader can see its significance but at that point in the book, it feels like they didn't quite stick the landing the way they should have here. The structure of it feels off to me.

Finally, Venli: I know Sanderson has a thing about flashbacks. I get that. They help build his characters out more, but I honestly just didn't care about Venli's flashbacks all that much. I'm not entirely sure I care about her as a character either- but maybe I'm not supposed to at this point? I think the complexity and the sheer size of the series might be something of a drawback to her character development at this point. I don't remember what she did on the Shattered Plains. I don't remember all the Listeners and all that. I remember the first Fused showing up and taking listener bodies and destroying their souls and Venli realizing what she's done. I remember her finding Timbre, her spren at the end of Oathbringer but... I feel like she's on something of a redemption arc that will be critically important further on in the series. I'm fine with that. But really, until the very end when her little group of compatriots finds the Listener survivors and she helps to heal her Mother, there are other Fused/Singer/Listener characters that I find far more interesting. Leshwi and Raboniel, for instance, are far more intriguing to me. This is definitely a character I want to see more of and hope to develop more in the future, but her arc was just largely okay to me. 

Overall: This was largely an okay book to me. I get that some of it's going to be set up at the end of the first half of the series with Book 5, but at the same time, Lord are these books getting to be a lot. Like, the complexity is getting out of hand here. I felt like I needed a flowchart to remember everything from the previous three books at points and I do think the usual Sanderlanche that blows your mind at the end of these books was somewhat lacking here. The proverbial pot took just a touch too long to boil here and as a result, the landing wasn't quite as satisfying as it was in previous books in the series.

The cosmic aspects of this are getting interesting though. There have been broad hints about other worlds out there beyond Roshar and here we get the first explicit mentions of that coming into the books-- Cultivation-- largely mysterious and on the sidelines for most of the series, also seems to be growing into her role in these books and what her endgame/agenda is has yet to be determined. 

I will not lie to you, friends. Sanderson is a lot. These books are getting to be a lot. I would imagine I won't touch Sanderson at least until the next one of these comes out sometime next year. (I have yet to decide on what to do about the next era of Mistborn. I might try it at some point, but I'm also not in a huge hurry to do so either, because, these books get to be a lot.) My Grade: *** out of ****.


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