Book Review: Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson is 1242 pages long.  The audio book clocks in at over 52 hours, making it longer than the entire Star Wars movie franchise.  What’s more, Oathbringer is the third book in the Stormlight Archive, which also includes previous novels, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance.  Combined, they have a total page count of well over 3300 pages.  Oathbringer is, in many ways, the apotheosis of modern Epic Fantasy.  Game of Thrones might be the most famous entry in the genre at the moment but Sanderson’s newest entry is undoubtedly the most quintessential.  It sets a high benchmark but in doing so, it suffers from serious flaws.  Let me explain:

In an earlier draft of this review, I compared Oathbringer to a gourmet buffet, in that it’s expensive, seemingly endless and high-quality.  But in all honesty, I don’t think it’s correct to compare Sanderson’s latest to The Bacchanal at Caesar’s Palace.  On second thought, it’s more like buying an industrial-sized drum of restaurant-quality vanilla ice cream and working through it with a spoon.  It’s very good ice cream but it’s all the same flavor.

Before I go much further, I want to clarify that in my opinion, Brandon Sanderson is a good writer, and Oathbringer is a well-written book.  Sanderson has innate understanding of the surface elements of modern fantasy.  He is a master of very important genre standbys like lore and worldbuilding.  His setting of Roshar feels like a wholly alien world that you can get lost in.  Most importantly, he has absolutely nailed one of the most important aspects of Epic Fantasy, the ability to live vicariously through the story and its setting.  This is one of Sanderson’s signature touches.  He fills his worlds with charismatic factions of knights, wizards and rogues that any reader would want to be a part of.  You think it’s cool to think about which of the four Houses of Hogwarts you’d belong to?  Try imagining ten different orders of knightly battle wizards in Oathbringer, each with a unique pairing of two magical powers.

Unfortunately, though the pacing is mediocre which is strange because I don’t remember this being a problem for Sanderson.  In the past, even his longest novels (the other two in this series) flowed with an almost cinematic pacing.  In contrast, Oathbringer feels simultaneously too long and too short.  There’s enough material in this book to fill three or four slightly smaller fantasy novels.  Characters come to the personal realizations and important periods of growth multiple times throughout the novel but because everything moves at a breakneck pace, nothing and nobody has time to breathe.  If the story ever decided to slow down and let the events progress at a more natural clip though, the page count could very well crest up on 1400 or even 1500.  But at that pointed, you’d be broaching the question of “why make this one book in the first place?”

That said, when everything clicks, the novel sings.  Sanderson’s characters are usually archetypes but he writes so well and gives every character a clear enough voice that they never feel dull.  Certain characters wear out their welcome (particularly a precocious child, a character type that I’m genuinely not fond of) but overall this is probably one of the strongest “sprawling casts,” in a genre notable for such.  And when it comes to writing action, Sanderson might be without peer among modern fantasy authors.  Some authors like Joe Abercrombie might be better at describing the texture and violence of a clash but Sanderson is superior when it comes to describing the actual ebb and flow of a fight.  This becomes doubly evident during the single large battle sequence that takes up the last tenth of the book, which is also the one part of the book where the moment to moment pacing finally feels right and grand moments of spectacle begin to feel earned.

The bigger problem with the book from a consumer perspective is that it’s entirely typical.  While it’s true that Sanderson has undoubtedly created a wholly unique world for his Stormlight Archive, the story he’s chosen to tell is utterly pedestrian.  Again, all the pieces are put together with the skill and precision of a master craftsman but there’s no surprises.  Even the novel’s greatest twist, a secret that is implied to be quite literally apocalyptic while well-staged, isn’t really much of a twist.  Consequently the novel never feels like it’s challenging the reader, and I think that’s a  quality that doesn’t get enough credit in popular fiction of any genre.  Even old-fashioned pulp adventures like the collective works of Robert E Howard and Dashiell Hammett challenged their audience by being as lurid as they could be.  In contrast, Oathbringer relies on the oldest troupes in the Epic Fantasy genre.  The novel definitely toys with the idea of blending modern issues into the fabric of the Epic Fantasy genre but it never seems to know what do with these ideas, especially the really big one that I won’t spoil.  And while looking to the fantasy genre for concrete answers to real life problems is foolhardy at best, the answers the book does provide for these issues are unsatisfactory at best.

So what is the answer to the question of “should I read Oathbringer?”  Honestly, I’m not sure there is one, at least not one that could be considered satisfactory.  Oathbringer is the third in a series of ten planned books.  If you’re already invested in the world that Brandon Sanderson has written, you don’t need me to ruin your fun.  And if you’re not?  This is decidedly the wrong place to start.  More importantly than that though, the biggest problem with Oathbringer, to my mind, is that you can sit down and read all 1242 pages of it and not really be enriched in any notable way.  I feel bad saying that, to some extent.  It means playing contrarian to a novel whose basic message, while slight, is a positive one about redemption and self-determination.  But while the novel touches upon these big ideas, its relationship with them is akin to two ships passing in the night.  In some ways, I feel like Oathbringer defeated me.  I could sit down and write out a detailed explanation for the world of Roshar, and the various factions within it.  Even a cursory reading of the series could leave you with enough knowledge to fill a modest fan wiki of factoids about races, cultures, and Sanderson’s trademark systems of magic.  But when it comes to how the book made me feel and the impact that it left upon me?  It feels like a lot of what MacBeth would call “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Ironically, when I first set out to write this piece, I intended to use Oathbringer as a sort of prism through which to look at the genre of Epic Fantasy.  That article probably would have ended on a dour, downbeat note.  But earlier this week, something amazing happened.  N.K Jemisin won her third consecutive Hugo Award for The Stone Sky, the conclusion to her Broken Earth trilogy, a feat which has never been done before.  I own a copy of the first book in that series, The Fifth Season and found it to be an invigorating read.  Jemisin takes the Epic Fantasy genre and moves it in some really interesting directions (how many books have you read that feature a second-person narrative perspective?)  Moreover, the moral and thematic conclusions the book comes to don’t just feel earned, they come from extremely visceral moments of character development.  It took me longer to finish The Fifth Season than it did to read Oathbringer but only because I made the former last.  It was like eating a piece of perfectly cooked filet mignon, it’s not the largest cut of steak so you have to savor every morsel.  What’s more after finishing Oathbringer, I immediately picked up the sequel to The Fifth Season on Kindle.

And I think that’s why I’m actually more optimistic about this literary genre now than when I started writing this review two weeks ago (yeah, I started writing before I finished the book, that’s called efficiency).  Even with the popularity of more notable writers like George RR Martin or Brandon Sanderson, the genre is full to bursting with talent.  Beyond the emotional heft of Jemisisn’s work there’s the visceral (and frequently morbid) thrills of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, the swashbuckling adventures of Sebastian De Castell’s Greatcloaks and the shockingly irreverent Rat Queens comic by Kurt J Wiebe.  And those are just the stories and authors I know of!  What I’m saying is that if Oathbringer has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t judge an entire genre based on one story within it.  So if Epic Fantasy with deep, and well-crafted worldbuilding is your thing, give Oathbringer a try (once you’ve read its predecessors) but if you want to get something more out of your summer or fall reading?  There’s an entire world to explore of great fantasy literature out there and you shouldn’t feel constrained.

Oathbringer is available thorough Tor Books.

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