For many the term fantasy conjures up imaginary world where magic takes the place of science and the level of technology tends towards the mediaeval. Wars are fought with bows and arrows and swords and often there is a despot ruling over the put-upon ordinary folk. The situations met by the characters are good versus evil. There may be other races such as elves, dwarves and goblins to enter into the fray. These are tales of heroism, treasures and lost princes. They are the stuff that fairy tales are made from and they are still extremely popular. The best draw you onto another plane.
The problem is that, like many a genre, there can be a perception that there is a formula that the authors are required to follow. There isn’t, but it is easy to see where the idea comes from so it is good that some authors are able to step outside the brief and create something totally original. Brandon Sanderson can do this.
The first volume in this epic, The Way of Kings, was the winner of the Gemmell Award for Fantasy. Award winners are always worth looking at. This one was an exceptional and worthy winner. Words of Radiance is an equally brilliant sequel.
The world in which the characters dwell is as alien as any science fiction world. Very few of the animals and plants would be recognisable to us having evolved to cope with the conditions they live and grow in. The book is peppered with exquisite drawings of the flora and fauna amongst other things. The continent is ravaged at regular intervals by vicious High Storms, the power of which is used to energise stones. These provide light and the power to run various devices including a ‘spanread’ which enables written messages to be sent over distances instantaneously. This is evidence that this world has a technology that the human population doesn’t understand, and the origins of which have been lost in the distant past. The power stored in the stones makes the rare suits of armour, called Shardplate, valuable as it protects and supports the wearer.
The source of the stones are the crystal hearts of the chrysalis of a chasm fiend. This is a huge armoured carnivore that roams the Shattered Plains. This area is a network of very deep fissures cutting the rock into plateau. It is on these that the chrysalises can he found. The armies of Alethkar have been camped at the edge of the Shattered Plain for many years, there purpose being two-fold – to find and acquire the gem hearts causing rivalry between the Brighthords competing, and to prevent the Parshendi from getting them. Effectively they are at war with the Parshendi.
There is a huge cast of characters whose characters and alliances have been developed in The Way of Kings. This novel is a continuation of their development. The rulers of the human cohorts are all lighteyed. This as a symbol of status. The present king’s father was assassinated and the current one, Gavilar, is inexperienced and considered weak by some. His uncle, Dalinar, is a buffer between him and the other Brightlords. However, during the High storms, Dalinar is afflicted with visions of a past era and giving him guidance as to how he should proceed. One of the things he is convinced he must do is to reform the Knights Radiant. How, he does not know.
Kaladin has been down as far as he can go. He was branded a slave and forced to join a Bridge Gang who carried the wooden structures that enabled the soldiers to cross from one plateau to the other. The death toll was very high. Using his skills as a soldier, Kaladin devised ways of reducing the risks for Bridge Four. By the end of the first novel, his worth has been recognised by Dalinar who has put Kaladin and Bridge Four in charge of security for himself, his sons and the king. Kaladin has also been adopted by a spren. These are fragments of energy often appearing at times of high emotion such as fear and pain. This one, which he calls Syl, encourages him to discover more about the ability he us developing to use the Stormlight absorbed in the stones to protect himself.
Shallan is the ward of Jasnah, the king’s sister and a scholar. She too has been adopted by a spren but she finds herself on her own after Jasnah is assassinated and the ship they were travelling in, sinks. As Jasnah has arranged a casual – a conditional betrothal – to Andolin, Dalinar’s elder son, she determines to join the royal party on the Shattered Plains. She also wants to complete Jasnah’s work and find the mythical city of Urithiru.
There are complex and developing relationships between the characters. They surprise themselves and others with their actions and decisions. At they same time, the situation on this world is gradually being unravelled. Do not be put off by the length of this book, and though it will be understood more thoroughly if The Way of Kings is read first, I defy any reader not to be sucked into the world of these characters and come away wanting more. These two books together represent the best fantasy that has been produced for a very long time.