This is a mammoth effort on the part of the author. It is epic in scope, breadth, and vision and manages to sustain itself without blinking for a thousand pages. The author certainly deserves credit for that. And the world-building is second to only a select few. “Dune” comes to mind in the level of detail imagined here. Most laudable of all, he manages to create a truly epic hero in Dalinar Kholin.
If only the whole story had been about him.
As good as parts of this story are, and make no mistake they are excellent, this story fails on three major counts and one minor one: its tone, its vulgarity, and its theology, the minor failure coming in the world-building itself.
First the tone. It’s far too dark. And, as most dark stories tend, it’s far too modern in its outlook. Characters are sarcastic, materialistic, jaded, you name it. They run the gamut. And we spend a good third of the book doing research in a library. Those were by far the most painful sections of the book. But mostly there is just a sort of hopeless inevitability to everything. Worse, for two-thirds of the book we have very little clue what the real threat is and only a slightly clearer picture by the end of it. We don’t read fantasy for snapshots on modern society. We read the papers for that (speaking metaphorically here).
Then there’s the vulgarity. Prostitutes are commonplace. Profanity is sprinkled in here and there. And certain bodily functions referenced. Worse, the “bardic” character has the mind of 14 year-old adolescent boy. You know, the kind they used to put in detention. Now, I guess they just give them a slot on late night TV. All of this without eliciting so much as a shrug from the author for by way of apology.
But the worst of all is the author’s handling of theology. Give him credit for at least tackling the subject. And it may be harder to pull off in fantasy than most genres, but he fails to deliver any sort of coherent picture by the end. It’s not clear what any of the major character believe, really. The clearest of them is the atheist because-bingo, you got it! the book has a predominantly modern world view. And because her views go largely unrelated we’re left with the typical category errors which get parroted everywhere else you look. Supernatural is just “the natural the hasn’t been explained yet.” (a statement of faith, by the way) and the Almighty is just one of many mighties, apparently because (mild spoiler in a book like this) apparently he can die. Unfortunately for my enjoyment of this book, I still retain my grasp of what the word “All” and “Mighty” mean. And also know what they mean together. Complete, unassailable power cannot die. God is both creator and sustainer of the universe. All power we have is borrowed from his infinite All. There are none who may oppose him, much less defeat him. Being cannot cease to be and Life has no quality of death within itself. It is not wise for an author to traffic with words he cannot use properly.
And where it gets worse is that the author is clearly attempting to draw some sort of connection between the divine realm and The Codes which appear to be one of the few things that can hold humanity together. But if the Codes have a source that can die, then the Codes can also die. So we’re back to where we started. Hopelessness. He is effectively undermining his own plot.
Finally, the world. It’s just too big. Too many vignettes. Too many exotic cultures. Too many snapshots of places that are not central to the story. For the love of editing someone needed to intervene here. This book is too long by 200, maybe 300 pages. We could have done without 80% of the interludes. Even Shallarn’s storyline, which is roughly 30% of the plot is agonizingly slow.
The peoples introduced felt more like alien races. In fact, overall, this book kept drifting towards wanting to be scifi. The parshmen are interesting and one of the bridge crew was a “horn eater” which felt a little like a troll. But everything beyond that. It all comes out in the wash, as they say.
Remember my earlier reference to Dune? The parallels are quite strong. A hopeless world wracked my infighting among archaic noble houses who possess fantastic technological capabilities (for all practical purposes that’s what most of the “magic” is here-science is even referenced several times, a terrible decision in fantasy). A gifted writer with designs on grand spiritual underpinnings but no grasp of actual theology. And the ability to pour out reams and reams of creative cultural and geographic details.
This book is better than Dune because it ends on in more coherent, dramatic fashion. Kaladin’s transformation is stirring. Dalinar’s stability is inspiring, and the training of the bridge crews and the final battle give us something to cheer for, but beyond that, this is a muddle. The heroics are too little to late. The vulgarity stains like that bag of trash you forgot to take out last week. And the theological ramblings are meaningless. And that’s a shame, because the writer clearly has loads of talent.