Book Review: Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 4 of The Stormlight Archive
Publisher: Tor Books (November 17, 2020)
Length: 1,232 pages
Forget ice cream headaches, what I have now is a massive Stormlight headache from consuming Rhythm of War just a little too fast, devouring this 1200+ page bad boy in less than a week. What can I say? I just couldn’t help myself. While I’m pretty much reading everything by Brandon Sanderson these days (and fortunately for his fans he keeps up a regular output of books across his multiple series), for many of us, The Stormlight Archive is his magnum opus. I eagerly anticipate every sequel, even when there are usually several years between them, and I am all in with each release—as in, anti-social mode is activated from the moment I crack the cover, ending only when I finish the last page.
And as with every Stormlight Archive novel, there’s a lot to unpack. Even more so this time, because Rhythm of War doesn’t pick up right after the end of Oathbringer. Instead, the series appears to have taken a gap year, and when we make our return to the world of Roshar, momentous changes have happened to some of our characters since we last saw them. But not to worry, for everything will be filled in, in due course.
As the title implies, the brutal war has been raging for quite some time, almost to the point where the constant violence has become a way of life. With neither side coming out on top, uncertainty has taken its toll on Dalinar and his Knights Radiant, including the hero known as Kaladin Stormblessed. Reluctant as he is to leave his post, Kaladin now must consider the wellbeing of his crew and do what is best for the war effort, even if it means removing himself from the frontlines. Meanwhile, their side faces another serious problem: with a shortage of honorspren willing to bond with humans, they now have no way of creating new Radiants. To address this issue, Adolin and Shallan have been tasked to put together a mission to another plane of reality where the honorspren dwell, in the hopes of earning their support. Behind the scenes, Navani and her scholars also continue to make incredible leaps in their technological research, developing new strategies and weaponry to help give humans the edge.
With each installment, Sanderson has shifted perspectives to focus on different characters, giving readers a more rounded view of the entire saga. For me, Rhythm of War was really more about the female characters taking the lead, as the attention this time falls mainly on Navani along with Eshonai (including flashback sequences featuring her sister Venli). Of course, the cast also includes all the characters we’ve come to know and more, but Sanderson has always been well known for writing strong women, and this book demonstrates this well. Furthermore, I am continuously impressed with his sense of balance and symmetry—the violence and action of pitched battles are important elements in The Stormlight Archive, of course, but we mustn’t overlook the many breakthroughs that occur out of the sight, away from the public theater of war, either. This was one of the many reasons why I was grateful for Nevani’s chapters, which shone the light on the incredible developments in fabrial technology, Urithiru research, and the efforts of scholars. I’ve always loved her character—a woman who is intelligent and dangerous in her own way. It was fascinating to be in her head, especially if you have an interest in fabrials and how they work.
And then there were our other key players. One of the best things about the main characters of The Stormlight Archive is just how delightfully flawed they are. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where the narrative never fails to pass up the chance to beat readers over the head with how storming conflicted Kaladin is over his trauma and pain, though this time we have the added dynamic of Lirin and Hesina. Believe it or not, Rhythm of War actually contains a lot of messages and themes about parenthood and the relationships children have with their mothers and fathers, even outside of Kaladin’s thread—they are there if you know to look for them. Next, we have Shallan, who is dealing with a condition similar to a form of dissociative identity disorder. Again, unfortunately we have the narrative vigorously expounding on her struggles, which I felt had the adverse impact of selling her character short. That said, I was also touched by the bond she has with Adolin, who is there to love and support her. What they have is more than chemistry; it’s an understanding of how two people can be completely different, yet still find common ground to make decisions as a team. Shallan and Adolin’s relationship is real, and their emotional intimacy on the page goes a long way in advancing character development for them both.
As for the world-building, entire essays can be (and likely have been) written when reviewing and analyzing of the world of The Stormlight Archive. Relax, I won’t be doing that. Instead, all I’ll say is anyone even passing familiar with Brandon Sanderson and his work knows that this area is his forte. Expect more of the same quality, imagination, and complexity in Rhythm of War as we’ve seen in the previous three volumes when it comes to magic systems and world craft. You will also have the opportunity to explore more aspects of the realms of Roshar, and not just the physical ones. Cosmere enthusiasts will be especially excited to discover even more new developments and added connections to the greater universe.
But now, on to the criticisms. I went back and forth with myself on how to rate this novel, which is the first in the series to not receive a full five stars. Granted, 4.5 is still superb and meant I loved the book, but if I’m being honest, I might have enjoyed Rhythm of War just a teeny tiny bit less than the others. The reason for this is the length, which might seem strange, seeing as I’ve never complained about the page count of the previous novels, and they were all massive tomes like this one. Thing is though, I never minded the length with the first three books. Obviously, I don’t expect to be enthralled or left breathless by every page, but thoughts like “Gee, this part could have been cut,” or “My gracious, this is such a slog!” never even crossed my mind with The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, or Oathbringer. However, they did with this one. To be fair, it didn’t happen often and only in isolated parts of the book, but those moments were there and can’t be denied. Some of this might have been due to the novel’s awkward structure imposed by the flashbacks, or the inescapable fact that we have come to the penultimate volume of the first arc of the series (Sanderson has said that ten books are planned, broken down into two sets of five books each). Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that I sensed some “bridge book” vibes coming off this one, as well as a feeling of holding back in anticipation for something far greater.
Bottom line though, Rhythm of War is another phenomenal sequel, a worthy novel adding a mind-blowing amount of significant content and meaning to The Stormlight Archive. While I will freely admit to being an unabashed Brandon Sanderson fangirl, having read almost all his books (I think there are only one or two novellas I might have missed), I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say that this is one of the greatest, most renowned epic fantasy series ever launched, and absolutely essential reading for genre fans. Even though it will be many years until all the books are completed, with each colossal volume demanding no small amount of emotional and time investment from readers, Sanderson proves time and time again that it is well worth it.