Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 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)
Dealing out as many exhilarating moments and heartfelt ones as questions to think upon, Rhythm of War is a simply stunning composition from a masterful storyteller!
Heart on my sleeve here; the Stormlight Archives is my favourite series by far. I doubt anyone will be surprised that my most anticipated book of this year was Rhythm of War. While I had the best intentions of savouring this story, I devoured it in a couple of days, but I have zero regrets!
The third book of the Stormlight Archives, Oathbringer, was a fantastic follow up to my favourite book of all time, Words of Radiance. What had me worried though was the high bar it set in terms of expectations for the rest of the series. The book was incredible in every way, and the Sanderlanch was so mind-blowingly epic, that surely, SURELY, Rhythm of War had no chance of competing with that. That right there, it makes me feel like I have not read pretty much every damn thing this guy has written, because how do I still doubt? This book is everything I wanted, hoped for, needed and MORE.
“No man can judge another man’s heart or trials, for no man can truly know them.”
Rhythm of War picks up one year after the events of Oathbringer, and while the plot is too spoilery to talk about, the reasoning behind the choice this for this time-skip seems to be revealed in the different plot structure this time around and is one of two things that stood out for me about the way the story is told. Brandon has followed a clearly defined blueprint for the first three books, with one viewpoint per chapter and pacing that sticks to a methodical gradual buildup towards that frenetic crescendo we know as the Sanderlanche. Rhythm of War, however, does not entirely follow suit, in that the one-year time-skip has catapulted the story straight into events that are immediately gripping and told at a commensurate faster pace than we are used to seeing so early, with viewpoints bleeding across one another similar to what we are used to at the end of the book, enhancing the frenetic feel of it all, sort of like a mini Sanderlanche, and lifting the tempo and excitement levels right at the start of the book. While I enjoy every second of these books and can’t count myself among any of those who have found large parts of the books boring, this difference in pacing is an unexpected yet delightful deviation from the beaten path but makes perfect sense with this being the penultimate book of the first five book arc of this 10 book series. Sanderson has always said that book five will be sort of an ending to this first part of the story, and so this pacing change makes sense with the added tension of things drawing to a midway close.
The second thing is that while the story starts with all the characters together, it soon splits into three groups of viewpoints with three different arcs that form the weave of the larger arc of this book. I think this was a brilliant narrative decision by Brandon, creating some interesting character dynamics and interactions and also letting some of the characters really come into their own. More on that soon. Furthermore, every interlude was fantastic too, although that can probably be chalked up to us being almost halfway through the series and deeply invested in it. One of the main complaints I always see with the first few books is that the interludes feel like you are stepping away from everything and following some random side story, and while I still enjoyed them, I cannot argue with that and back in Way of Kings I was definitely eager to get back to the main story. This far into the series though it feels as if any hint of such issues has faded away, the interludes feeling like pieces of the puzzle that are now making sense, giving you a clearer picture overall and becoming valuable additions to the main body, fascinating in their own right.
“Wit never gives me answers. At least not straight ones.”
“That’s because Wit is an asshole.”
As I mentioned above, the author made some interesting character choices and really blew my mind with the viewpoints of several of these. Sanderson initially said this book would be Eshonai’s book, and while we do have quite a few viewpoints of hers, this book felt very much like another character’s, who in my opinion, just about stole the show. I may have thought that I had already found all my favourites for this series, but Sanderson showed me that a LOT can still happen and there is always room for one more. And while characterisation up to this point of the series may have been outstanding, here we are shown that this genius of the genre always has more arrows up his sleeve and he knows how to step his game up. Our boy likes to grandstand, and he has outdone himself once again, giving us so much development in this regard that I have to take my figurative hat off and bow.
Before I praise him too much, let me just take a moment to glare at him, nay, to GLARE at him, for the amount of pain, torture and suffering he inflicts upon some of his characters. My poor, anguished heart. These characters are FAMILY Sanderson! Deeply flawed, broken people, and FAMILY! I feel like I suffered every harsh and unforgiving second with them and it was BRUTAL. Rhythm of War played havoc with my emotions, making some roller coasters I have experienced seem tame by comparison. Through sheer writing skill, this emotional tennis was not confined only to existing characters, but new ones too! In Rhythm of War, I have found one of the best antagonists I have ever had the pleasure of encountering upon a page. This character was so difficult to emphatically label as good or bad and it was easy to forget the side they were on, inspiring so many different emotions in me. As a co-blogger of mine pointed out though, (waves at TS) this is one of Sanderson’s strengths. It reminds me that Sanderson once said (don’t hold me to this please) that Kelsier, a hero of one of his other series, could easily be the villain of someone else’s tale. So, what is true for a protagonist can also be true for an antagonist, and it is never more evident than here.
One of my favourite aspects of Rhythm of War is that this book is more deeply personal and character-focused than any of the previous entries, with some of the most beautiful moments in the series so far and also some of the most emotionally devastating ones. Not that this is any less plot-driven or less exhilarating than its predecessors. It just feels like a deeper dive into the characters and their thoughts and emotions. In particular, Sanderson’s exploration of mental health and all its various aspects made everything so much more affecting, and the amount of research he put into this by getting feedback from readers who identify with what these characters are going through clearly shows through the experiences on-page. Something else that stood out for me is how the author is never afraid to highlight or cast a spotlight on race, gender or sexual preference. It’s a joy seeing how these are discussed or explored along with all the different cultures that are represented in this world and the diversity of the cast never ceases to amaze.
The world that Brandon has built here is ab. so. lute. ly. INCREDIBLE. When I pick up one of these books I am transported to that world instantaneously and so deeply, that it takes me at least a week to feel like I could pick up another story after one of these. It’s not that I don’t want to, but rather that I still have one foot on Roshar and just can’t escape thoughts of it. It’s such a testament to writing prowess. While the world-building could easily have taken a back seat having already been so thoroughly well established and detailed to start with, Sanderson is not content with just leaving it as is here and I LOVE him for it. You thought you knew it all? YOU DON’T.
I really, REALLY want to talk about a thing that has become majorly important to the story here as it is one my absolute favourite things when incorporated into fantasy, but I can’t really, other than to say that the title of the book hints at it. (EXCITEMENT!!!) Speaking of important things, as the in-world science has steadily evolved, so has the technology, and while it has grown in leaps in bounds since Oathbringer, here the author proves his adeptness once again by seamlessly integrating science and engineering with the magical systems of this world, pushing these fields beyond their known boundaries and putting Roshar on the cusp of a veritable explosion of technological development. There is just so much lore that has been revealed, and after layer upon layer upon layer, this world is the most fascinating place we have in the fantasy genre right now in my opinion. I honestly think four books into this ten book series, there is nothing else I have read that is as developed and fleshed out as The Stormlight Archives. Ok, there’s one or two pretty famous series that I have yet to read, and many smaller ones as well, but stormfather, this is phenomenal. And the real kicker is, I still feel like Brandon is holding back and showing us only a glimpse of his cards.
“Honor is not dead so long as he lives in the hearts of men!”
As for the action, If you read this expecting the Sanderlanche to be a bigger and better version of the one in Oathbringer, you are going to be slightly disappointed. While this is every bit as good, or maybe even better if you ask me (it’s DEFINITELY better), this one is different from what we have had so far. It is more personally focused, featuring one of the most important sequences in the entire series and is absolutely PHENOMENAL. I freaking LOVED IT. In fact, I just reread it again. I don’t think I can say much more on it, apart from that it left me wrung out, utterly exhausted and yet blissfully happy. And then Sanderson upended EVERY. DAMN. THING. WHAT?!?! HOLY SHARDCHICKENS!! I can’t even BEGIN to imagine what’s in store for us next, but I have never been more worried for the future of the Cosmere, and I have never been more ready for the next book.
Just to quickly touch on this: the Cosmere connections and implications revealed in Rhythm of War are many and staggering. To discuss them here will turn what was supposed to be a short review (and yes, I’m well aware that plan died about 500 words ago) into a novella of sorts, so I will refrain from saying more. I do however want to suggest again, that if any readers of this series at this point have not yet read both Warbreaker and Dawnshard to please do so. Those who do not are missing out on some vital knowledge that not only helps in making certain Cosmere connections, but also helps with a deeper understanding of certain characters, scenes, and the Cosmere in general. It just elevates everything to a whole new level. And also, you can flail and scream and run around shouting things at cats that make no sense to them! I, er, definitely did not do that.
Time to wrap this up, with a thought on the prose. Sanderson’s writing is as wonderful as ever, just dropping you into the story and making the mechanics of the story fade away, drawing you deeply into the tale and delivering pure, unadulterated escapism. People often rave about many other aspects of writing, but there is no substitute for pure storytelling and that is what Brandon is at heart, a pure storyteller, and he shows it on-page.
I was convinced I was going to love this book, and I was not disappointed, but what I did not expect, was how much I would love it. And while I can see how some others may not like it as much, I personally adore it. Brandon Sanderson has once again obliterated my expectations and written another wonderful story that I will love forever. And while the Stormlight Archives is not yet halfway written, I am in no doubt as to its future status as a Fantasy Hall of Fame member. As to my new favourite book? That title now belongs to Rhythm of War.
Life before Death.
Strength before Weakness.
Journey before Destination.