TITLE: Oathbringer (Stormlight Archive #3)
AUTHOR: Brandon Sanderson
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: November 14, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: N/A
This review is for the third book in a series and might contain spoilers for the previous books. Please make sure to read the previous books before reading this review.
I love a good doorstopper. Not everyone has the patience for them, to be sure, but I enjoy them immensely. One of the best examples of this currently in publication is Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, a truly epic tale with a projected ten books in the series. Oathbringer is the third book in that series and continues where the first two books, Way of Kings and Words of Radiance, left off.
At the conclusion of Words of Radiance, the Knights Radiant stood refounded once more, but their footing remains uncertain. Though they have discovered how to use the Oathgates and can now use the lost city of Urithiru as their home base, their situation is still precarious. As the newly-created Everstorm sweeps across the land, the nations of Roshar are left helpless in its wake as it not only destroys infrastructure but restores the awareness of the parshmen and causes them to flee. The Everstorm has also upset the natural cycles of the highstorms, making it difficult to know when to seek out shelter (where it has not been destroyed by the Everstorm) and when to leave out spheres for Stormlight. With so much infrastructure destroyed; manpower in the form of parshmen running away as their awareness returns; and with Stormlight more precious than ever given the uncertainty of the highstorms, the nations of Roshar fear that a Desolation may be closer to happening than they ever thought possible.
On top of that, Alethi politics is in an uproar. Though the most important figures of the Alethi political structure are safe in Urithiru after the Battle of Narak, the Alethi capital Kholinar has gone dark, with no responses coming out of the city and everyone within seemingly incommunicado, even via spanreed. The Knights Radiant have not returned in glory it seems but under shadow.
Dalinar Kholin faces all this uncertainty as best as he can. “Unite them,” the Almighty commanded him in his visions - but doing that is easier said than done, as the threat of heresy and the murder of Highprince Torol Sadeas undermine his authority amongst his own people. On top of all that, his past is coming back to haunt him: a past he would much rather forget. It is more than one man can bear alone - but he is Dalinar Kholin, Blackthorn, and he will do what he must to save Roshar from the coming apocalypse.
As with previous novels in this series, the story is told from the point-of-view of specific characters, most notable of whom are Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar. Though their characters have been steadily developed in previous novels (especially Kaladin and Shallan), this novel points them down new and interesting trajectories.
Let us start with Kaladin. In this novel, he continues to grow as he learns what it means to be a Knight Radiant and a Windrunner, as well as the deeper meaning behind the Ideals he has spoken and the oaths he has sworn. He thinks he has finally found the answers he needs, but his storyline in this novel shows him that his Ideals and his oaths are more complicated than he thinks they are. Time and time again Kaladin questions his understanding of them, forced to ask himself whether or not he is really doing the right thing. This constant questioning and striving to do what is right has become an important feature of Kaladin’s storyline, and is, indeed, the key to his characterisation. It would be easy to slot him into the role of the noble hero - indeed, that is what many characters in the series itself have already done - but Kaladin’s story shows just how complicated being a hero can be. After all, a hero always “does the right thing”, but how does one define what is right? Take the following excerpt, for instance:
“You changed your mind about Elkohar, Kaladin. You saw what was right.”
“Did I? Did I find what was right, or did I just finally agree to see things the way you wanted?”
“Killing Elkohar was wrong.”
“And the parshmen on the Shattered Plains that I killed? Murdering them wasn’t wrong?”
“You were protecting Dalinar.”
“Who was assaulting their homeland.”
“Because they killed his brother.”
“Which, for all we know, they did because they saw how King Gavilar and his people treated the parshmen.” … “So what’s the difference, Syl? What’s the difference between Dalinar attacking the parshmen and these parshmen conquering that city?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly.
“And why was it worse for me to let Elkohar be killed for his injustices than it was for me to actively kill parshmen on the Shattered Plains?”
“One is wrong. I mean, it just feels wrong. Both do, I guess.”
“Except one nearly broke my bond, while the other didn’t. The bond isn’t about what’s right and wrong, is it, Syl. It’s about what you see as right and wrong.”
“What we see,” she corrected. …
“Fine. But it’s still about perception.” … “Storms, I’d hoped … I’d hoped you could tell me, give me an absolute right. For once I’d like my moral code not to come with a list of exceptions at the end.”
Heroes who question themselves are becoming more frequent in stories told across various media, which is a good thing because it makes them more human. From the outside, Kaladin might seem like the perfect hero for an epic fantasy: a man of common background who has risen, through his own effort, to become a peer of the greatest people of the realm, but on the inside he still doubts himself. HIs self-doubt, in turn, keeps him human, which I think is an important trait in a hero: a bit of humanity that keeps him from becoming a static paragon.
Another notable aspect of Kaladin’s characterisation is how he slips into dark moods. Shallan tends to call him “brooding”, but Kaladin’s darker moments are not so simple, since they are rooted in the traumas of his past. I am no expert, but I think it would not be too much for me to say that Kaladin is suffering from PTSD, and that it affects his decision-making and reactions to things in more ways than he might care to admit. He struggles to overcome his past, and in this novel he manages to do so, to some degree, but his struggle is not yet over, as a key event in this novel’s latter third will show.
As for Shallan, Oathbringer explores the consequences of her decisions and realisations in Words of Radiance. After finally uncovering the truths she has deliberately buried, Shallan must now come to grips with who she is and what she must do. Though her status as a Lightweaver ought to give her purpose, she still feels rootless, drifting between Veil, the identity she created in Words of Radiance to help her survive the uncertainty of her journey to and her stay at the warcamps, and herself as Shallan. At first she thinks she’s doing fine, that she has managed to find a balance between herself and the world, but when the seemingly impossible happens, Shallan is forced to confront the hard, painful truths of her life, both of her past, and of her actions in the present - and it does quite the number on her, as this excerpt shows:
“Pattern. Do you remember what you said to me the other night, the first time … we became Radiant?”
“About dying?” Pattern asked. “It may be the only way, Shallan. Mmm … You must speak truths to progress, but you will hate me for making it happen. So I can die, and once done you can—“
“No. No, please don’t leave me.”
“But you hate me.”
“I hate myself too,” she whispered…
Unlike the other orders of the Knights Radiant, Lightweavers like Shallan do not speak Ideals in order to gain more power; rather, they must speak “truths”, as Pattern states in the above excerpt. This is complicated by the fact that Shallan has built quite a few lies around herself, and her power as a Radiant - making illusions - is actually about creating lies, after a fashion. This means that a great deal of Shallan’s continued development is focused on questions about the nature of truth, and the consequences of running away from it, which is what she has been doing since Words of Radiance. It comes to a head in the novel's latter third, in a chapter that, I think, is one of the most beautiful and most powerful in the entire novel, even though it is one of the quieter, more intimate moments of the story.
Of the three characters, this book is most focused on Dalinar. Up until this novel, the reader has gotten only a few hints about Dalinar’s past: that he was crucial to Gavilar’s quest to unite the Alethi high princes under his rule, and that he’s one of the greatest warlords of the Alethi people. But it is easy to put a pretty face on conquest, and Oathbringer reveals the truly ugly side of Dalinar’s past, as this excerpt shows:
“I respect you greatly, Brightlord,” … “Your life has been one of grand accomplishment, and you have spent it seeking the good of Alethkar. But you—and take this with the respect I intend—are a hypocrite.
“You stand where you do because of a brutal determination to do what had to be done. It is because of that trail of corpses that you have the luxury to uphold some lofty, nebulous code. Well, it might make you feel better about your past, but morality is not a thing you can simply doff to put on the helm of battle, then put back on when you’re done with the slaughter.”
Confronting his past, and the reputation that comes with it is something that Dalinar constantly struggles with throughout the course of the novel. As his memories return, told in the novel as flashback chapters, Dalinar slowly reaches a point where he must confront the weight of his past - and the moment he does so, he does it in the most powerful, amazing way imaginable: one that proves crucial not just to the plot as a whole, but to Dalinar himself, as well. Again, as with Kaladin and Shallan, this happens in the novel’s latter third and is definitely one of the main highlights of the entire novel.
One of the things I like most about Sanderson’s novels is that they always deal with some very interesting, timely themes, and Oathbringer is no different. Aside from the themes that Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar tackle in their own storylines, the other important question that hangs over the novel has to do with the nature of colonialism and slavery. If a people’s land, culture, and freedom are stolen from them, do they have a right to get it back? Yes, obviously - but how? It is easy to say that an oppressed people deserve to take back what was stolen from them, but this leads to other, more complicated questions. Is violence justifiable? Is war upon the oppressors the only thing that will fix what was done? Take a look at this excerpt:
“…it doesn’t have to come to war. You don’t have to fight…”
“Perhaps. But let me ask you this.” … “Considering what they did to me, why wouldn’t I?”
Kaladin couldn’t force out an objection. He remembered his own time as a slave: the frustration, powerlessness, anger. They’d branded him with shash because he was dangerous. Because he’d fought back.
Dare he demand this man do otherwise?
“They’ll want to enslave us again,” …
“Maybe … maybe we can convince them otherwise. … If we can talk to them, show them how you can talk and think—that you’re like regular people—they’ll listen. They’ll agree to give you your freedom. …”
… “And that’s why we should be free now? Because we’re acting like you? We deserved slavery before, when we were different? It’s all right to dominate us when we won’t fight back, but now it’s not, because we can talk?”
It’s an interesting - and valid - response: if a people are oppressed and they find themselves freed from that oppression, is it any surprise that they would want to strike back at their oppressors? That’s why colonial powers always feared native uprisings and rebellions: because they were afraid that the horrors they had perpetrated on the native populace would then be turned upon them.
But is it right? That is where it gets more complicated. The notion of retribution - an eye for an eye and so on - seems logical, if not outright justifiable, but again, is it right? Is it right to massacre one’s oppressors? Is it right to enslave them? It is justifiable, yes, but is it the right thing to do? There are no easy answers to that question, and the novel does not even attempt to offer such answers. What it does, however, is leave the question open for the reader, so that he or she may come to his or her own conclusions - if such is even possible.
After all, this novel only leaves more questions than answers, both in terms of themes and in terms of plot. Many spectacular and triumphant things happen, to be sure, but there is always that lingering sense of unfinished business. There is still much that is left unresolved, and there are developments here that will certainly have repercussions on the rest of the series, but that is only fair. It is only the third book in the series, after all; there is still much left that needs to happen before the fireworks of the ending are in sight.
Overall, Oathbringer is a worthy continuation of its predecessors and an excellent addition to the series. As always Brandon Sanderson delivers a truly epic story that just seems to grow even more epic with every passing instalment of the series. Characters both old and new grow in unexpected ways - sometimes positive, other times not so - and the world of Roshar continues to grow bigger, even as the conflict at the heart of the plot grows in scale along with it. It is early days yet for the story of the Stormlight Archive as a whole, but I am sure that, by the end of the novel, the reader will already be looking forward to more. I know I am.