Not the Best Stormlight Book But That Doesn’t Say Much: Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War

I have to put this right at the beginning: When I say this wasn’t my favorite Stormlight book but, in fact, my least favorite volume so far, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book in general. Brandon Sanderso has a gift and his very worst stories are still better than a lot of what else is out there. So now that that’s out, we can talk about why I wasn’t as into this book as I was into the other three.

RHYTHM OF WAR
by Brandon Sanderson

Published: Tor, 2020
Hardback:
1232 pages
Audiobook:
45 hours
Series:
The Stormlight Archive #4
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums.

After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage, and the threat of a betrayal by Dalinar’s crafty ally Taravangian looms over every strategic move.

Now, as new technological discoveries by Navani Kholin’s scholars begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure.

As with many sprawling epic fantasy series, it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about the newest one without spiling events of the previous volumes. There will be no spoilers of Rhythm of War here, but there may very well be spoilers for the three books that came before.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book but there were also an unusually high number of elements I didn’t, and the trademark Sanderson twist and emotional gutpunch didn’t really have that much of an impact this time. I think this book’s biggest problem is its lack of focus. Every Stormlight book so far followed all the main characters but one of them was the central character of that particular book. First it was Kaladin, then Shallan, then Dalinar. This time it is supposedly Venli, so we get some flashback chapters from her perspective, but they didn’t feel like they painted as much of a cohesive picture as the flashbacks in previous books did for their respective charcters. I didn’t feel like I learned great new thing about the character or like she grew because we examined her past together. Venli was pretty much as we know her and her growth is triggered by the present, not the past.

But that’s not the only focus and pacing problem. Juggling this many characters spread all over the map(s) hasn’t been a problem for Sanderson before, but this time, he struggled. Kaladin is still my favorite so I don’t mind spending hundreds of pages with him, even if he is going through depression and thus, not exactly fun to read. But the jumps between storylines often felt too long apart, some characters barely get mentioned at all.
Shallan and Adolin go to Shadesmar to try and convince the Honorspren to continue bonding with human Radiants. This is a pretty cool idea that delivered one of the best moments of the entire book at the end, but most of the time I kept forgetting that this plot was even still going on. Like we were introduced to their side quest early on, then followed Navani, Kaladin, and Venli for a loooong time, then quickly checked up on Adolin and Shallan and it felt like they hadn’t progressed at all while we’ve been battling Fused, creating new inventions with Stormlight and fabrials and examining our relationship with our own people and the war that is raging over Roshar. This gets better later in the book, but spreading some characters’ story out so thin with this much space between chapters made it feel like the B plot despite it being actually a really good story in its own right with huge implications for the world at large.

Now what I did like was one thing that everyone loved and one thing many people liked the least (I guess I’m weird). First of all, the way Sanderson desrcibes and examines mental health, or rather mental illness. Because Kaladin – and many others – suffers from what they call battle shock. He wakes up screaming, his dreams are full of death and battles, he gets distracted during real battles, and doesn’t find much joy in living anymore. Bridge Four has evolved, some characers have left, ohers have been promoted, they’re not the found family they used to be and it’s hard on Kaladin. He’s also dealing with the rift between him and his father. So while Kaladin’s story line was tough to read and far from lighthearted, it was also the most rewarding. Not only does Kaladin become the first therapist of Roshar, but the way his feelings are talked about hit home deeply. We’re still in the middle of a panedmic and isolation is something many of us are dealing with in one way or another.

The part that most people found too long but I absolutely adored was the Navani chapters. I maybe should have mentioned that the entire A plot basically evolves around Urithiru being attacked and shit hitting the fan really hard. Our heroes and heroines have to be extra clever if they want to get out of there alive and take back the city from the Fused. Navani developes this intriguing… relationship with Raboniel, one of the Fused, that feels honest whenever a new scientific discovery is made, but is also rife with betrayal because those two are mortal enemies on different sides of this war. I loved both watching Navani’s mind come up with new and interesting ways to use natural resources for science (she’s the biggest nerd on Roshar!) and following the relationship between these two powerful women. You can never be sure whether you can trust the other. Sometimes working together benefits both, but who knows when the backstabbing will start up again? It was exciting and I quite liked how this plot line ended. Again, hugely impactful things are discovered that will definitely be important in the next book.

Dalinar and Jasnah’s plot was the one I found weakest, maybe because we also only check up on them every 500 pages (or at least that’s what it felt like). It’s not like important stuff doesn’t happen – it absolutely does – it just felt more like interludes than proper POV chapters. Speaking of interludes, there are a couple of great ones here, including two of the most interesting people, Taravangian and Szeth.
Normally, the ending offers this big, world-shattering revelation in all of Sanderson’s books but this time, that didn’t happen. There were rather a few smaller moments, no less impactful emotionally but not as climactic as we’ve gotten used to. Adolin’s story had a big glorious moment of awesome, Kaladin’s felt more like relief, Navani’s was predictable but still cool, and one moment that I can’t say much about, gave me total chills and made me fear for all of those characters and what will happen in the next book. Rhythm of War could be called a set-up book for that reason. Pieces have been moved into place but, sorry Mario, the epic showdown is in another castle.

At this point in the series, I am getting a little annoyed with the lore, history, and background konwledge I would need to keep fresh in my mind at all times to fully understand what’s going on. Let me say that I did catch a pretty big connection to the Mistborn series as well as one to Warbreaker (though the latter may have been first revealed in the previous book, I don’t remember) but reading other people’s thoughts showed me that there is a ton of stuff I completely missed, simply because I didn’t sit down for the Roshar history lesson you apparently need for that. You’d think that in a book 1200 pages long, everything I need for full enjoyment and understanding would already be included, but alas. And on the one hand, that’s okay. I still have some extra material for the Stormlight Archive on my TBR pile and I like getting these extra glimpses into this big world but even without that, I can tell you that by now it’s not just about finding Easter Eggs anymore. If you haven’t read Mistborn and Warbreaker, you may be accidentally catching spoilers for those books by reading Stormlight first…

So all things considered, this was my least favorite of the Stormlight books but as I said in the title, that’s not saying too much. Because a bad Sanderson book is still well written with deeply human characters, impeccable world building and a killer ending. It’s just not quite as good as the ones he did before is all. Oh and just because he can, Brando threw in an epilogue that gave me all sorts of goosebumps and raised my expectations for the fifth book – and the end of the first cycle – extremely high. My guess is the time we spent setting up stuff in this volume will pay off hundredfold in the next book. We’ll see…

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

A note about this book’s Graphic Audio version: Unfortunately, Graphic Audio, whose adaptations I have been enjoying for years, did a pretty bad job this time. Because of Covid-19, some actors couldn’t do their part (or not in the time frame the company wanted?) so they replaced the actress who plays Shallan with someone not Shallan-y at all. It’s not that I dislike the new voice actress (she was in Mistborn Era 2 and I adored her in that role) but if you do a full cast audio version of a story this big, you should try to avoid main character voice changes at all costs! The narrator also changed but while I prefer Dylan Lynch, the original Stormlight narrator, I thought the new one did a commendable job too.

The sound design also suffered. Jasnah’s voice sounded way too deep, Pattern’s vibrations were suddenly different, and everything sounded just a bit worse, a bit cheaper than it did before, whether it was voice and music volume, or sound effects. And what I really don’t understand – because you don’t need a specialist or sound technician for that – is the change in music! Why are there suddenly tracks that sound like 90s video game battle music? I swear I got childhood flashbacks of when I used to play Secret of Mana on the SNES.

I hope Graphic Audio finds its way back to the quality they used to provide, otherwise this was my last time listening to a Stormlight book via their adaptation. As a longtime fan of Graphic Audio, I would have preferred to wait another year for the adaptation to come out in good quality with the actors we’ve all come to know and love rather than this messy version. I also find it interesting that the (respectful but honest) three-star-review I posted on their site didn’t make it through moderation…

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