Top critical review
One of the WORST books I've read, and I LOVE the first two.
Reviewed in the United States on January 13, 2018
First let me say that I have a GREAT deal of respect for Brandon and his work. I go WAY out of my way to recommend his stuff to people, and have recently even purchased a few copies of The Way of Kings for friends of mine who I knew would like it but I couldn't get them to get up and get the book. (and they loved it) I also listened to every single season of Writing Excuses at least 4-5x and consider it a significant part of what as made me into whatever "level" of writer I am currently, which I'll say I would classify as "I don't totally suck". I also actively encourage other writers to do this and, yes, have gone as far as handing them a DVD with 10 seasons of writing excuses to listen to. (free to download, FYI)
So, it's fair to say I am a Brandon Booster.
But this book is disappointing on many levels. In the interest of just trying to provide some information that I hope will be valuable to any who might read it. I’m going to approach this essentially unemotionally, and address each issue briefly.
In summary, though, this book honestly feels like an early draft that they pushed through without much external editing. Every writer, no matter how good, starts with manuscript that needs tons of love to bring it to the final product. This one reads very much like that. Why they let this book get published this way is beyond me. Perhaps it’s just because it’s been so long and the fans were screaming. Perhaps Brandon has become so big that the editors have been told to go easy. Whatever the case, this book was not finished and not to the level of quality I expect from an author who I believe to care very deeply about a quality product.
Here are my issues in no particular order… (and note that many points bleed into other points because the issues I find in this book permeate the entire text)
First, this book is full of unnecessary material. There is much in here that contributes only to pacing problems. You can literally skip whole chapters and it will have no substantial impact on your understanding of the story, the characters, etc. One could argue that maybe there are things I’m skipping that will matter in future books, but with these books being so long, and so far apart in release, there is likely no way I’m going to remember it all by the time I get there anyway. I’ve also gone back to a number of sections I skipped and double-checked… and nope… nothing lost.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… cutting the book down nearly always makes it stronger.
Second, this book has a great many of what my friends and I are laughingly calling “meetings and conference calls”. There are endless chapters where there are people sitting around debating something or talking about something. Rarely can I tell you what the debate was about, because the debates themselves are not even interesting. Even the characters are, in some cases, complaining about sitting around in meetings. This is such a running theme in the book that I’ve started to call it “Brandon’s Book of Meetings” and part of me has to wonder if he’s starting to spend more of his personal life in conference rooms and it’s just leaking into his prose.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… characters not actually “doing” anything tends to be dull and uninteresting.
Third, this book focuses on viewpoints that we mostly don’t care about. Kaladin takes a back seat and we’re spending time with secondary characters that mostly are window dressing in previous books. It’s possible that some of these characters are more interesting than we think, and in at least one case that turns out to be true. But for most of them, it is not. The “interlude” characters are particularly painful for the most part because they are often about people we’ll never see again, and on the rare occasion that we wind up interested in them, poof… we’re back to Dalinar in a conference call. Granted, this is more of a personal opinion than some of the other points.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… too many characters can cause issues in a book. Switching characters can force the reader to deal with a character they’re not interested in, and the ramp up time can literally lose your reader.
Fourth, our main characters have faltered significantly. Shallan becomes ridiculously whiny and tries to hide from herself. Kaladin falls so victim to his own nonsense that he fails to uphold the one tenet of his character that constantly makes us love him anyway. Dalinar turns into some failed attempt at a diplomat. And Adolin… poor Adolin… becomes nothing more than a back-seat love interest who mostly just occasionally grunts remarks at Kaladin when Kaladin is telling him to do things.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… hesitant characters are hard to pull off. The characters must be active. Flawed, certainly, but striving towards some ideal. Rarely can you get away with whiny or inactive characters.
Fifth, the voidbringers largely turn out to be postal workers and cooks. The bulk of the looming horrifying bad thing turns out to be mostly just people, just like everyone else. Just as tired and confused as any other people suddenly pressed into war. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the looming evil of the book sort of fizzles out and becomes “mostly people” who are led by some big baddies that only occasionally show up and in small numbers, and are hardly bringing anything close to “the desolations”. Heck, they just kind of move in, kick out the occupants of the city, and treat their captives extremely well. It’s like a benevolent army of postal workers. It’s really weird. There could be some big surprise coming, but we’ve not maintained the urgency here.
From the writer’s perspective… you have to keep the threat levels up or the reader isn’t worried about the characters anymore. This is compounded by the next point.
Sixth, we have leveled up certain characters to a point where they are essentially gods, and even gone as far as bringing some previously killed characters back from what we thought was their death. This means that pretty much all sense of concern over these characters possibly dying flies out the window… hell, they can’t even lose limbs at this point. So, every scuffle they get into, I just yawn.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… if you have super powerful characters, you must ensure that they are dealing with even more powerful enemies, or some sort of conflict that is well outside of their zone of power. And no, struggling to keep awake during meetings is not an interesting conflict.
Seventh… Spock’s second set of eyelids. Yes, I know we have characters that are learning new powers pretty much on the fly, but no, you cannot just insert a sentence like “Oh, and it turns out that you don’t need to breathe when you have stormlight so Shallan was totally fine” and expect to get away with it. And there is a fair bit of this going on in the book, so… again… I’m just assuming that our characters will pull out some new trick they didn’t know about previously to solve whatever issue they’re now facing, further reinforcing the god character problem. Unless, of course, they suddenly and pointlessly die. (next point)
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this one particularly from Brandon as he is famous for making this point… magic systems must have rules, and you must foreshadow enough so that the changes are surprising but inevitable. (two things laced into one here, but they are two different things)
Eighth, many deaths are abrupt meaningless. This happened in a prior book and was later kind of explained by the fact that the person was not actually dead at all, which has its own issues, but we can accept that I suppose. But multiple times in this series, someone is building up to a major conflict with another character, and then that character just dies in a back-alley stabbing (categorical, not literal). Sure, we have that looming thing of “oh wait, they’ll come back from the dead later maybe?” but you’re left feeling cheated or just played with, and neither is good.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… you have to make your character’s deaths mean something.
Ninth, there are crazy pacing issues. This does relate a lot to just the overall unnecessary content in the book, but not entirely. We spend endless time on meetings where nothing of import happens, and then we take a growing character from nothing, to suddenly becoming a radiant- which was never foreshadowed- to dead. All in about a paragraph or two. It’s literally like “oh… he’s a radiant. I guess? That seems… unexpected and almost deus ex machina… oh wait. Never mind. He’s dead. Oh and Brandon made a point to make sure we understand he’s really dead, probably because we don’t believe him anymore because he brought people back to life.”
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… pacing is extremely important. You have to match the speed of the prose with the mood of the scene in question.
Tenth: Lift. Seriously. She is, hands-down, the most amazing, fascinating and humorous character in the book. The entire book should be about her, from her perspective, and everyone else should be a secondary character. She is quite literally breathtaking to read, and has been since the first time we met her. And we, at best, get a paragraph or two of her now and again, with our main… and far less interesting characters… doing little more than scratching their heads and saying “wow, she was odd”, then shrugging their shoulders and going back to their meetings. We either need all of Brandon’s characters to be as interesting as Lift, be given far more of her POV, or have her removed from the book entirely. By the way, Taravangian flirts with this issue as well. Also a fascinating character that we barely get to see, though not nearly so impactful as Lift.
From the writer’s perspective… and I learned this from Brandon, himself… you cannot have one character so outshine your other characters that they become the focus of the book and pull the attention away from the main characters. Brandon famously talks about some villain that he injected late into one of his other books. The character was amazing, and his editor agreed that the character was amazing, but his editor made him pull him out anyway because it was too much of a distraction. This is that same scenario over again, only Lift is not a “bad guy”.
Eleventh: The LGBTQ+ thing. My original review harped on this issue in particular because for a portion of the book it really stood out. It pales over time by comparison and doesn’t come up much beyond that section, but it still needs a mention. The whole LGBTQ+ “issue” in our society is an important one, and yes, it’s good to bring it up and discuss it. However, I still believe that the tenet of “you must have what’s IN the book be important TO the book”. Yes, any common society is going to have LGBTQ+ elements to it, and Brandon’s book has society. But any common society will also have issues with a variety of other things that are not addressed in this book… likely because they are not important to it. Frankly, the entire thing feels forced.
From the writer’s perspective… write what’s important to the story. Cut the rest.
And yes, I learned all of this from Brandon. Which begs the question of why Brandon, or at least his editors, did not listen to his own advice.
There may be more, but I’m tired of writing this and my kids want donuts, so I’ll wrap this up.
The tragedy of all this is I think I may be done with Brandon. This was such an utter disappointment. I have no heroes in life. I’ve just never been that kind of person. But Brandon has been someone who I have held in extreme high regard for his craftsmanship and contribution to an art form I hold dear. He’s been the model of who I want to become, even knowing full well the odds are ridiculously not in my favor of attaining it. And suddenly, my model has fallen apart right in front of me.
I’m very disappointed. Very. Dissapointed.