Oathbringer: Ambitious, often compelling, a bit over-long

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsOathbringer by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviewsOathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

So I’ve decided there’s so much to cover in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer (1200+ pages), and there so much I can’t say so as to avoid spoilers, that I’m going to eschew the usual seamless essay structure for this review and just go with relating some brief and, at times, necessarily vague reactions to various aspects.

Structure: As with the other books (The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance), Sanderson offers up multiple POVs, with the flashback POV going to Dalinar this time around. Some of what we learn of his past won’t come as much of a surprise, though what may not have been telegraphed in earlier books is the degree/intensity of what is revealed. It’s perhaps the largest character arc in terms of the distance between an early version of a character and their current self, appropriate for a book that speaks so much about the importance of the journey. It also serves as a nice microcosm of the larger story in several ways. I’m not sure we needed all of Dalinar’s flashback scenes, and as with a few other aspects, I thought things did get a little repetitive (all those journey/step references for instance), but overall the structure was effective.

Revelations: There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of information in Oathbringer, and I like that Sanderson doesn’t try to tease mysteries out too long. We get answers to questions from earlier books with regard to historical events, revelations about characters past and present, explanations with regard to world-building — the Spren, the Voidbringers, the magic system, etc. Some of these, similar to Dalinar’s past, have been telegraphed in the earlier books, but it’s nice to have things laid out with a bit more certitude.

Story: One of the more effective themes in Oathbringer is the power of story (for good and ill) — how it can move people to action (or justify action), the way it serves as the basis of national community, how the stories we tell about ourselves create ourselves and can either force us to change or prevent change.

Shallan: One thing I loved about Shallan’s storyline is the way it highlights the power of fantasy to make the metaphor real, in this case the way her different illusions of self mirror her own lack of true identity (or at least a willingness to trust in her identity). On the other hand, as much as I liked the idea of this, the execution was more problematic for me, with it going on too long and dragging in what felt like an unnecessary love triangle.

The Unbound: Hints of the Forsaken here from WHEEL OF TIME, but in more abstract and in many ways intriguing form.

Philosophy/Social issues: There’s a lot of depth in Oathbringer, with Sanderson exploring philosophical issues, religious ones, as well as issues of gender, identity, substance abuse, personal trauma, redemption, and the like. It’s ambitious to say the least in this regard, and I give him props for not relying on plot alone (and plot is a definite strength as it always has been with him — he’s not, I’d say, a great stylist, but he is a great storyteller). That said, overall, it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes these issues felt a bit clumsily or bluntly handled, or a little light; other times they were insightful and deeply thought-provoking — offering up moments to pause the reading while you mull over that last line a bit more.

Humor: Sure, this is a weighty book, metaphorically and literally (1200+ pages), but Sanderson invests it with a good amount of humor to lighten both mood and the reading experience.

Oathbringer did lag in places for me, and it did feel repetitive in place as it spiraled around some of the same plot direction or themes. I think it could have dropped some of those 1200 pages (maybe 1-200 of them). Shallan’s personal plotline grew more annoying as it went on, especially with regard to that love triangle. Sometimes the characters voiced things I’d rather were revealed through action instead, or that Sanderson just trusted the reader to intuit. So Oathbringer has its issues (these and a few others). But Sanderson has always been a consummate storyteller, and that talent, combined with the ambitious discussion of social and philosophical issues, more than outweighs the book’s flaws.

~Bill Capossere


THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson fantasy book reviews

Brandon Sanderson loves writing. Or at least, I’m pretty sure he does. For one thing, it’s difficult to author as many as books as he has in such a short time without liking the process, but it’s also easy to tell from just reading his work. His books feel almost buoyant, filled with an earnest pleasure in telling the story. It seems, while reading, that Sanderson must be the biggest fantasy fan of them all, and he’s delighted to be able to write books in the genre and share them with all of his readers. When he slips up, as he does now and then, we are more inclined to forgive him, because it’s easy to get caught up in such obvious enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, though, can become a double-edged sword. It certainly tends to invigorate a work, but it can also be the enemy of restraint. To some extent, that’s what I think happened in Oathbringer, which is not by any means a bad book — in fact, it’s a pretty good one — but all the same does suffer a bit in comparison to its predecessors in THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE.

Now, some degree of let-down was probably inevitable, following the big finish of Words of Radiance. After all, the great big apocalyptic event the characters were trying to prevent just sort of happened at the end of book 2 (out of a planned 10-book series), which always meant that book 3 was going to have to do some “reports of Armageddon were exaggerated” material. And that’s well and good. All stories have their highs and lows. We readers love our peaks, but on some level we know that we need our valleys as well, our quieter moments of build-up to make the big moments feel earned. And of course, the taller the peak, the longer the trek to get up there. Oathbringer has a hell of a dramatic peak. The biggest one yet, in fact, and bear in mind that I am discussing a book series where the previous finale featured an attempted regicide, one hurricane smashing into another, and a pair of super-powered knights engaging in a midair duel to the death. When it comes to action climaxes, Sanderson goes ham or he goes home, and this installment is no exception. Oathbringer‘s finale goes ham, with a consequently sizable amount of page space necessary to justify it.

So yes, this book is quite the brick, but that’s not usually a problem for Sanderson, who is almost superhuman in his savvy at keeping a reader engaged, even over long stretches of text. His plots do it, presenting simple, engaging surface levels that conceal complex, immaculately considered depths. A Sanderson story is like a perfectly crafted clockwork mechanism, every piece fitting into another to present a seamless whole. Indeed, his strength at plotting is perhaps his greatest attribute as a writer, but like many great plotters, his Achilles’ heel tends to be character study. For the most part, Sanderson plays to his strengths, but sometimes he makes a leap for that undiscovered country of plot-light character work. For better or for worse, Oathbringer contains such a leap.

Here’s our premise, before I go any further: Dalinar Kholin has recently bonded a mighty spren called the Stormfather and refounded the Knights Radiant with himself as commander. Unfortunately, his ascension has coincided with the end of the world, as the ancient enemies of humanity return to strike against them. Dalinar is convinced that banding the various human kingdoms together into one alliance is the only way to save the world, but even with evidence of apocalypse on their hands, the various kings, queens, and emperors are a bit wary of trusting their futures to Dalinar, who was in his youth an infamously brutal general in defense of his brother’s kingdom. Kholin must not only convince his allies that he is a changed man, but also — as the weight of their distrust begins to tell on him — he must convince himself.

Oh, and Shallan trades in book 1’s social anxiety and book 2’s amnesia for book 3’s Dissociative Identity Disorder, because her series arc seems to be an ongoing quest for DSM-V bingo.

Most of this is good stuff. Dalinar’s storyline is tense and engaging, Shallan’s struggle to become her own person is appropriately involving, and Sanderson keeps things moving in a way that left me eager to see what would happen next. We finally get answers about some of the big questions of the series, and they feel appropriate for the world and grounded in the hints already delivered. The dialogue is rich, the action is well-crafted and evocative, and the finale is a big glorious crescendo, everything one could desire from the conclusion to a STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE book and then some. It’s big, it’s unflinchingly melodramatic, and it’s a show-stopper. I ate it up.

And yet… there’s a lot of stuff during that hike up toward the incandescent conclusion, and some of it isn’t so solid. Dalinar’s storyline is good, as I said above, but as so much of it takes place in flashback or is personal to one character, it can’t really serve as the skeleton for the rest of the novel. In previous installments, Dalinar’s big political storyline tended to fold the arcs of other characters into itself, or at least give them something to bounce off of or react to when things got slow, but here Sanderson is forced to either come up with a whole different overarching plot for them (at the risk of upstaging Dalinar’s more introspective journey), or rely on a series of character-driven episodes. He opts for the latter, with mixed results.

Shallan gets some good stuff in her new psychological/emotional crisis, but after a while her story starts to lapse into telling the reader the same information in different ways. Kaladin gets an entertaining arc out on a scouting mission, but once back with the others, he is left with little to do but brood. Szeth’s interjections are at once lively and sparse. Meanwhile, in my biggest disappointment of the novel, one gets the impression that Sanderson was so baffled by what to do with the messy, interpersonal material of the Adolin and Jasnah storylines that he chose to simply sidestep it. The bones of planned (and awesome-sounding) character drama are still there, but ultimately he does little with the subplots and mostly pushes what remains into summary rather than scene. Adolin’s arc in particular feels like a waste of a very solid set-up. During the slowest section of the novel, clearly running out of ideas for the main cast, Sanderson starts inserting little vignettes about the daily lives of minor (previously non-point-of-view) characters. This might have been a good move from an author who relished character study, but I’m not convinced that Sanderson is that author. On the drawing board, the vignettes look fun — covering drug addiction, culture shock, and lots of similarly meaty themes — but in practice many of them come across as somewhat rambling and tropey. Sanderson’s enthusiasm and ambition are clear, but so is his lurking discomfort with this kind of storytelling.

Overall, Oathbringer is still an entertaining and well-written work, but does constitute something of a dip in quality for THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. The central storyline is solid and the finale is involving, emotional, and tremendous fun; but many of the subplots feel like they’re spinning their wheels, and some of the character work falls short of its ambitious intentions. I admit that as a fan of the more taut Words of Radiance, I was a bit disappointed. That said, I don’t want to undersell the very real pleasures that Oathbringer offers to the Sanderson fan. If some of it feels slow in comparison to STORMLIGHT standard, the novel never becomes actually unengaging or uninvolving. The highs are still remarkably high, and the lows are only relative lows. Ultimately, Oathbringer may be a weaker installment of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE, but the series as a whole still has nothing to worry about. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s epic fantasy at its most epic.

~Tim Scheidler

Published November 2017. The #1 New York Times bestselling sequel to Words of Radiance, from epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson at the top of his game. In Oathbringer, the third volume of the New York Times bestselling Stormlight Archive, humanity faces a new Desolation with the return of the Voidbringers, a foe with numbers as great as their thirst for vengeance. Dalinar Kholin’s Alethi armies won a fleeting victory at a terrible cost: The enemy Parshendi summoned the violent Everstorm, which now sweeps the world with destruction, and in its passing awakens the once peaceful and subservient parshmen to the horror of their millennia-long enslavement by humans. While on a desperate flight to warn his family of the threat, Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with the fact that the newly kindled anger of the parshmen may be wholly justified. Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope. Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together―and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past―even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with you about Shallan becoming more annoying. So much of the focus was on her internal struggle and, while that was interesting, it was very repetitive and was far less important than other events taking place. I’m intrigued as to how that will continue in the next book…so we’ll see. Hopefully, her drama dies out quite a bit.

  2. I think I am stopping this series. Sanderson can write entertaining prose but there is a juvenile (or perhaps simplistic) quality to the characters and their inner lives that began to tell on me in the last book.

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