Small Things that Bug Me in Sanderson's Otherwise Good Stormlight Archive
All my instincts and prejudices tell me that I should dislike Brandon Sanderson’s books. They are popular, American, film script-like, products of workshops and beta readings, philosophically naïve, wholesome and lacking anything like the spiritual or transcendental or even allegorical. In his lectures, their author, dressed usually in jeans, tee shirt and blazer, draws his examples from and constantly alludes to contemporary popular culture. Even so, I have now read The Way of Kings and two thirds of Words of Radiance – books one and two in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series – and I quite like them. The plots are well constructed, the world-building is excellent and everything is skilfully written. You root for the heroes, mostly. In sum, they are entertaining, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. And who knows, maybe that’s because they are written by the sort of person who does beta readings and does not care too much about fashion.
With that throat clearing out of the way, we can move on to what annoys me about these books. If you suspect you will be offended by criticism of your favourite fantasy books, do not read any further. If you want to avoid spoilers for The Way of Kings and the first third of Words of Radiance, do not read any further. But if you have read the books and if you are anything at all like me, you might take pleasure in knowing that somebody else was bothered by some of the things that you, too, were bothered by.
The book’s language contains several seeming anachronisms. For example, a building might be described as “utilitarian” in design, or things may be “statistically” proportionate, or “love is like a classical melody”, or an association may be a “false positive”. These words draw me out of the setting, which seems more late-medieval than anything else, and certainly pre-Enlightenment.
There is a serious overuse of what I will call the dramatic paragraph break. For instance, early in Words of Radiance we read:
Eshonai pocketed the gemstone, and checked the time. Her meeting with the rest of the Five wasn’t scheduled until the third movement of the Rhythm of Peace, and she had a good half a movement until then.
It was time to speak with her mother.
and then, just a few lines further down, it goes on:
We do have to do something, she thought, attuning the Rhythm of Peace in the back of her mind. She sought comfort in its calm, soothing beats, soft and blended. Like a caress.
Then she saw the dullforms.
and then, a couple of pages later:
Eshonai listened, and though her mother’s voice did help her attune Peace again, she found herself deeply troubled anyway. She had come here for answers. Once, that would have worked.
You get the point. I think this technique is cliché, and though it could perhaps work if used sparingly, Sanderson is free and lavish in his use of it.
Shallan’s storyline, and to a lesser extent Kaladin’s also, read like young adult fiction. I think that is mainly because they are focused on self-identity, as any coming-of-age story is. (Dalinar’s storyline is too, to some extent, but it’s more of a middle-age identity crisis than anything else.) That’s one reason. The other is that, when they touch on more abstract issues – for Shallan, questions of faith and ethics, and for Kaladin, questions of class and prejudice – they do so at an incredibly shallow level, such as when, in The Way of Kings, Jasnah seems to be introducing Shallan to the Trolley Problem and a very basic Utilitarianism. Fine, a young person would be getting introduced to the basics. But why should I want to read that?
The witty dialogue lacks wit. I am not talking about the King’s Wit, whose roasts are neither funny nor particularly clever, but are also, I think, not supposed to be. I am taking about Shallan’s wit, which is truly cringeworthy, but which for some reason apparently everyone around her, including the narrator, considers sharp and amusing. For example:
Yalb stepped up to her, proffering the pages. “Your accouterments, my lady.”
Shallan raised an eyebrow. “Accout-er-ments?”
“Sure”, the young sailor said with a grin. “I’m practicing my fancy words. They help a fellow obtain reasonable feminine companionships. You know – the kind of young lady who doesn’t smell too bad an’ has at least a few teeth left.”
“Lovely”, Shallan said, taking the sheets back. “Well, depending on your definition of lovely, at least.” She suppressed further quips, […]
The books seem to want you to believe that Kaladin’s central flaw is his failure to save those around him. In fact, his supposed failures – failing to keep his brother alive, failing to save his military squad from death and betrayal, failing to help his fellow slaves – these things were all out of his control: no reasonable person would consider him blameworthy. So, in fact, his failure is really one of understanding: he thinks he has far greater agency than he does, and his internal model of the world does not match reality. That is about as attractive as somebody who believes in astrology or geomancy. Like the person who goes to a job interview and, asked what their biggest weakness is, replies merely that they sometimes work too hard, thus in fact revealing a weakness albeit not the one they think, so the narrator tries to convince us that his holy man is a flawed human.
Adolin’s romantic exploits in The Way of Kings are silly. No teenager that I know of has ever taken love so lightly. And Adolin is in his twenties! Which only makes this subplot all the more unlikely. It is as if the man has no will, no desires, no inner driving force. In his complete half-heartedness, he is the direct opposite of everything that makes the narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time so sympathetic and memorable. It would be another thing if he actually consummated all these flings before giving up on them, but that does not seem to be the case, which is perhaps not surprising given that the author of these books is a devout member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Is Adolin a virgin? I got that vibe from the book, but that only makes his behaviour all the more baffling.
The bridgemen are supposed to be the dregs of society – theirs is supposed to be the place where scores of criminals, psychopaths and other low-life scum end up. And yet all the bridgemen that we see are basically honest, loyal and morally good people, and they are led by an actual saint. Sure, sometimes they hint darkly at some disreputable past, but never concretely enough that you as a reader are actually faced with any of their wrongdoings. I do not have much experience with high-security prisons, but I imagine that, should you find yourself in one, you would become acquainted with, yes, some good people, perhaps even an innocent saint or two, but also many violent, hateful and lawless villains. And while these villains will have redeeming qualities and may be able to find absolution somewhere, in The Stormlight Archive, the bridgemen’s qualities have nothing to redeem, and there is no guilt in them for us to absolve. In The Stormlight Archive, somehow all the actual scoundrels reside in the relatively tiny population of lighteyed nobles.
In The Stormlight Archive universe, or at least in Alethkar, the kingdom that gets most of the attention, only lighteyed nobles are permitted to carry swords; darkeyes are forced to carry spears. I think this is implausible from a cultural-evolutionary perspective. The stakes are high in war: losing one is very destructive for a culture, and winning one can be very effective in spreading it. Assuming that swords have some competitive advantage over spears in some situations at least, an assumption I think is backed by the presence of swords in armies from ancient Rome and Persia up to the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, the fiefdoms of Alethkar, which we are told are in constant warfare both with one another and with exterior nations, would either have adopted the sword more widely or been replaced by cultures that did do so. Alethkar is a highly competitive environment, and allowing swords only for officers – a tiny subset of the military – seems seriously maladaptive.
Sanderson, B. (2014). Words of Radiance. Macmillan. ↩︎
Actually, a far greater flaw in Kaladin’s character is the extreme, bitter, deep-seated prejudice and hatred he displays in his thoughts about lighteyes, which prejudice and hatred also reveal one of his chief virtues, his restraint. ↩︎