Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 6 of 5 stars
Series: The Stormlight Archive (Book 4 of 10)
Genre: Epic fantasy, high fantasy
Published: 17th November 2020 by Tor Books (US) and Gollancz (UK)
Rhythm of War had me humming to the Rhythm of Awe. Even with my sky-high expectations for this book, Sanderson has surpassed them yet again. This book was STORMING INCREDIBLE!
For seven years since I’ve started reading The Stormlight Archive, I couldn’t decide which title was my favourite, as they were all equally amazing in their own right. That indecision has now ended as Rhythm of War has managed to edge out the rest. Bear in mind, I’m talking about a favourite amongst favourites, as I considered all of them masterpieces and the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. That was how utterly, totally, undisputedly incredible Rhythm of War was for me.
“Honor is not dead so long as he lives in the heart of men.”
In my review of Oathbringer, I said that it gave me the most emotional charged experience I’ve ever had. Three years later, now, I was presented with an even more powerful and exhausting emotional roller-coaster. I read this massive book over the course of about four days, rendered almost non-functional in real life as I lost myself in Roshar and the lives of the some of the most compelling characters to ever grace the pages of an epic fantasy book. This book was absolutely relentless in its grip on me. And judging from all the reaction on social media, the release of Rhythm of War is a blessing amidst the bleak landscape of 2020. Sanderson and his team also went the extra mile in engaging readers virtually to make up for the lack of physical tours – the sheer amount of content available from them has been staggering this year, and very much appreciated.
“For the men chatting together softly, the change was in being shown sunlight again. In being reminded that the darkness did pass. But perhaps most important, the change was in not merely knowing that you weren’t alone – but in feeling it.”
What Sanderson managed to achieve in this penultimate entry to the first 5-book arc of this series was built upon the strong foundation of the characterisation and worldbuilding in the past three books. The character work in The Stormlight Archive has so far been his best yet, but it seemed that Sanderson was far from being done. I couldn’t believe that he could pull out even more development to the characters that we’ve already grown to care so much for. His representation of these characters, especially those with mental ailments, feels so authentic because he relies on a diverse range of beta readers who could better relate to or identify with the experiences of these characters. The character moments in Rhythm of War were some of the most emotionally powerful ones in the series, and there’s so, so much of it. In fact, I’d say that this is the most character-focussed book so far. Regardless, I didn’t feel that plot, pacing and worldbuilding were sacrificed in order to achieve that. Sanderson managed to incorporate all those while still pushing and developing his characters.
“Is he trustworthy?”
“Absolutely, he’s Bridge Four.”
My emotional attachment that I have for most of the cast in this series was so strong that anything that happens to them matter deeply. Almost too deeply as Sanderson was so brutal towards his main characters that there were times where my heart actually felt pained. GRRM might be brutal in killing them off, but death is easy. The way these already broken characters are dragged through literal hell as they struggled to embody the Radiant Ideals made for a lot of hurt, but it was also very inspirational with great emotional payoff. It’s also one thing to be invested in characters that you’ve known and read about in three massive books, and quite another to be introduced to a new one that was one of the best antagonists that I’ve ever read about. This is something I’ve always appreciated about Sanderson’s writing as the antagonists in his books are never just villainous caricatures. I couldn’t say much at all without spoilers, save that this character was one of the most compelling and intriguing that I’ve come across; one that I couldn’t dislike at all, and one that I could easily have rooted for if Sanderson has flipped the story around.
“No man can judge another man’s heart or trials, for no man can truly know them.”
While Sanderson has been occasionally criticised for his characterisation (I for one could never understand that, especially for this series), no one could ever dispute his mastery over worldbuilding. And Rhythm of War proved that he remains unassailable at the top of his game. He managed to so seamlessly marry technological advances with the magic system that the concepts actually do make sense from real world science point of view. In his interview with Michael Whelan, the artist for the US covers, Sanderson said he approached the worldbuilding in The Stormlight Archive like science fiction instead of traditional fantasy. Even more fascinating is his concept of fractal worldbuilding, where one can opt to only appreciate the overall worldbuilding from a larger scale, or go deeper and discover more complexity and details that bring everything together. To further encapsulate this concept, even the continent of Roshar is shaped like a fractal Julia set. Sorry, I’m digressing as I fangirl over what a totally awesome nerd he is.
“He hated that to every one of them, he was some kind of representation of an entire people. He wanted to be seen as a person, not a symbol.”
Armed with some comprehension about rhythms from the perspective of the Parshendi, I thought that I had some understanding about the significance of this book’s title. I was resoundingly disabused of that notion, and the revelation behind the true importance of tones and rhythms in this world was stunning. Anyone who is partial to the concept of music being foundational to worldbuilding will absolutely love this aspect. I certainly did, and frequently found myself unable to fathom the depth of this author’s mind and imagination. On top of all that, fans of the Cosmere would be treated to loads of cosmere-spanning connections and cross-overs. It’s so expertly done that I don’t think that readers who are not caught up with the Cosmere would miss anything and could take it as just another mystery. I can certainly vouch for this because one of my co-bloggers has only read Stormlight and even without knowing what she was missing from a larger Cosmere perspective, she still loved this book. As I’m thoroughly a Cosmere fan (and Sanderson-obsessed), it made for much squealing and excitement when I spotted references or actual things related to another world/series within this fictional universe.
“Time. It is a sadistic master. It made adults of children – and then gleefully, relentlessly, stole away everything it had given.”
Rhythm of War also reads differently from the rest of the Stormlight books, save for the Prologue which is another POV of the same night which started it all in The Way of Kings. There was a time jump of about one year after the last book, Oathbringer, and this book opened with lots of action. It was written to be a climax of the ‘missed book’ in that time jump. As such, Part One started with a bang and settled to a more contemplative tone as the main plot developed. The flashback chapters also did not appear until Part Three, to better fit into the current timeline’s story.
“I’ve listened to ardents talk. I’ve been poked and prodded. I’ve been stuck in the dark. None of that worked as well as knowing this one thing, sir. He still gets up. He still fights. So I figure… I figure I can, too.”
There had also been criticisms about how the Knights Radiant are too overpowered with their ability to heal with Stormlight. This is a fair point because when your heroes and favourite characters can’t get seriously injured or die, the stakes just don’t feel high enough to create tension. Rest assured that this was not the case in Rhythm of War as the knowledge, skills and/or weaponry of the enemies spelled some pretty bad news for our fellow Radiants. Without giving away too much again, I can say that for the most part of this book, the action scenes made for some really heart-pounding, panic-filled moments.
“You can bear it. You can remember it. Our weakness doesn’t make us weak. Our weakness makes us strong. For we had to carry it all these years.”
The Sanderlanche that everyone comes to expect at the end of his books was also different this time. Sanderson said that there’s a sequence at the end of this book which was “one of the foundational scenes I conceived from the beginning. In fact, it might be the very first big scene I imagined, and my favorite in the entire series.” All I can say is that it was utterly incredible, and even epic but not in the way that one might presume, especially after Oathbringer’s climax. It’s also my favourite of the series to date. Far from being done, after this perfectly rendered and powerful sequence, I was then subjected to the most jaw-dropping turn of events that is going to have implications that I couldn’t even begin to process, except to say “What the actual f***!”
“Since we all go to the same place in the end, the moments we spent with each other are the only things that do matter. The times we helped each other.”
I’ve realised that I’ve used the word ‘incredible’ many times in the course of this review, but that’s the one word that kept popping up in my mind when I read this book. Hence, I thought it’s only appropriate to follow suit in describing my thoughts and feelings here. With four really big books into The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson doesn’t appear to be slowing down in the least, but in fact, is getting better. To me, this is epic fantasy unparalleled in its quality, consistency and scope, particularly because it is so accessible given the ease in its writing style; a conscious decision made by the author so that readers can immerse themselves completely into the story as the prose disappears, leaving only images and feelings. The writing while simple is by no means simplistic, and it is always cinematic without being bloated.
“Storytelling is essentially about cheating. The challenge is to make everyone believe you’ve lived a thousand lives. Make them feel the pain you have not felt, make them see the sights you have not seen, and make them know the truths you have made up”
As far as I can see, this series remains and will uncontestably be my all-time favourite fantasy series. I echo my own words in saying that The Stormlight Archive has raised the bar of what epic fantasy could be to stratospheric levels and I feel extremely privileged to be part of this journey.
Journey before destination, my friends.