As kids we were always imaginative. We would dream of flying, fantasise worlds where bad things were rare and be the hero of a story to save a kingdom. The fantasy genre aims to capture those wistful times, but also offers so much more.
These long epics make you feel less lonely. When a character dies, the loss feels akin to that of a close friend. In a protagonist’s failure, you see your own shortfalls and when they triumph, you find yourself motivated to persevere. When nobody believes the central character, it reminds one of the times they were considered wrong by everyone, and of how they had proven themselves otherwise, to others as well as to themselves.
For readers, fantasy books are great at evoking these emotions. For authors— prolific and novice alike— the genre serves as a great route to exploration of scenarios that may never take place in reality.
In this article I explore what makes the Stormlight Archives (SA) a must read modern fantasy series.
“Hello. Would you like to destroy some evil today?”
The God of Roshar is dead. His chosen ones, the Heralds, are driven to madness by thousands of years of torture. In a moment of weakness the Heralds flee, leaving one of their own to suffer. The armies of the Heralds, the Knight Radiants have also turned their backs on the humans.
SA is a story of people struggling— internally and externally. It is a story of war between men and gods. Kaladin, the son of a surgeon and a highly skilled spearman has been branded a slave because of treason to the kingdom. Shallan is a girl who is trying to steal a highly valuable item from a princess to save her family from a nefarious group her father got involved with.
Kaladin suffers from PTSD and depression. Shallan has dissociative identity disorder (DID). These are the people in the war against humanity in Roshar. Other characters in SA include Lyft, who is afraid of growing up (something I can personally relate to), and Adolin, who lives in the shadow of his father— the most respected and feared general in Alethkar.
What makes these characters stick for me long after I turn the last page of each book, is Sanderson’s understanding that ideal characters are those that are deeply flawed in their own way. Kaladin is a calm warrior, his focus unwavering in battle. Outside battle however, he is filled with self doubt and the horrors of war.
I have suffered from depression. In fact, haven’t so many of us felt depressed to different degrees at some point in our lives? Seeing how Kaladin shakes off his depression has always been motivating for me.
And though I have never had to deal with DID, I have an online friend who has. They have two other identities. One, a four year old girl and another, who replies only in emojis. Each of them has their own name, just like Shallan.
Hence, these characters, even though they don’t exist in our history books, feel so real.
“Rumbles angrily – Stormfather”
Roshar is a unique planet. It is ravaged by a storm— the high storm— which moves round the planet destroying everything in its path. Buildings, while safe from this storm, may sustain damage. Being caught outside in a high storm is certain death.
The world of Roshar is inhabited by humans, spren and the parshendi. Humans were able to bond with spren and depending on the type of spren, humans would get powers such as changing the direction of gravity, altering appearances of individuals and objects, and even converting one physical object into another— a technique they call soulcasting.
Politics, history and tradition engulf SA. They make the setting, which is an essential element for an epic fantasy. Shallan, Kaladin, Adolin, Lyft, Dalinar and others make a strong cast.
But a book isn’t worth reading without one last ingredient— conflict. In SA, this conflict manifests in the form of battles and large scale wars that span across books.
Mere mortals fighting with arrows and swords would become redundant in a long drawn out tale. What makes characters in SA interesting are the powers they are granted by bonding with a spren and special weapons called Shardblade and Shardplate.
If you love action sequences like I do, you will find the series delivering on all fronts in this department.
“When once humans and spren bonded, the results were women who danced in the skies and men who could destroy the stones with a touch.”
Owing to past events, the spren have stopped bonding with humans. But there are reports across Roshar of people absorbing the light from gemstones, of people glowing. This light, called Stormlight, is collected in gemstones after the high storm passes.
Does this mean that the spren are back? But if so, why? What does the war with the parshendi have to do with this? These mysteries and countless more are interwoven into SA.
Roshar is populated by different cultures of humans. The Alethi are warlike. They proclaim the Heralds, the once saviours of humanity, to be enemies. It is taboo for men to read; predicting the future is forbidden.
For the battles to come, everyone will have to learn to set their differences and past feuds aside to join forces. The interaction between characters and between cultures is superbly handled in SA.
Personally, I oscillate between fantasy and science-fiction but I am hard pressed to find a modern sci-fi epic that I can recommend. Sci-fi deals with things that may be possible with advancement in science and technology. Fantasy on the other hand, introduces more mystical elements, subjects that would only be possible if laws of physics were broken.
Fantasy frees the author’s mind to create worlds and characters like Roshar, sprens, gods and parshendi, which don’t exist in real life but would be interesting if they did. The magic system is strict, almost a science, that researchers can discover more about in SA books. There are hard limits on what one can do with the magical powers they are granted.
Just like we require energy to operate our technology in reality, in SA, stormlight powers the magic. Don’t expect a narrative about the power of love and friendship here.
If you enjoyed reading the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series, SA is for you. It has more rigorous rules on how magic is used, but it is these restrictions that make it feel all the more believable.
“Ah, the outdoors,” Shallan said. “I visited that mythical place once.”
With SA, Sanderson has shown that he is a master of creating intricate stories. When you read it, you get the feeling of something not being quite right, but in a good way. There is more to it than meets the eye. And you would want more of this.
A sense of mystery coupled with a story that really doesn’t give anyone a break like a teacher that has it out for you. The characters are very relatable, with all their flaws and struggles.
The world of Roshar itself is riddled with its own dynamics between humans, spren and parshendi. All these factors combine to create a delicious stew of interest making SA one of the best modern high fantasy series I have read.
Currently there are four books in the series:
Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilisation alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soil-less ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.
It has been centuries since the fall of the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplates remain: mystical swords and suits of armour that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors.
Men trade kingdoms for Shardblades. Wars were fought for them, and won by them.
The result of over ten years of planning, writing, and world-building, The Way of Kings is but the opening movement of the Stormlight Archive, a bold masterpiece in the making.
Kaladin must now protect the king and Dalinar from every peril while secretly trying to master the powers given to him by the honorspren. Despite being broken in ways Shallan refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization ending— Desolation that will follow.
The Parshendi, hard pressed by the Alethi will have to make a decision to embrace supernatural powers they once shunned.
Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope.
Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together— and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past— even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.
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.
As their enemies become stronger, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead an envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and convince the spren to join their cause.
“Accept the pain, but don’t accept that you deserved it.”
In his creative writing classes, Brandon Sanderson said that writing a fantasy novel involves three ingredients— the plot, the setting, and the characters— all connected together through conflict. SA does this so well. While the story can sometimes be predictable and you may feel like some characters you love deserved more chapters in the book; with SA, Sanderson has managed to create a wonderful living, breathing world with its own history, literature, art and problems.
If you have made it so far, congratulations for reading. If you are convinced to read SA, you can start with Way of Kings. However, if you are interested in exploring the stories that Brandon Sanderon is writing, I have a reading guide below and it doesn’t start with SA.
- The Final Empire (Mistborn #1)
- The Well of Ascension (Mistborn #2)
- The Hero of the Ages (Mistborn #3)
- Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive #1)
- Words of Radiance (Stormlight Archive #2)
- Oathbringer (Stormlight Archive #3)
- Dawnshard (Stormlight Archive #3.5)
- Rhythm of War ( (Stormlight Archive #4)
- Cosmere Collection: Arcanum Unbounded (Do not read this book first. You need to finish the three Mistborn books at least)
When I was a kid, I would not sleep without being told a story in the afternoon. That habit has naturally progressed into reading stories in the afternoon and at night. As an adult, these books give me a chance to keep aside the suffocating pressures of life; software bugs that needed to be fixed yesterday, bills that had to be paid, an article that had to be written, paperwork that had to be completed (because we all have paperwork in our lives).
Books like these step in and tell me— don’t worry, everything will be done in its time. If you ever felt this way— and you might, now more more than ever, during the pandemic— give these books a shot.
And while you’re at it, remember the immortal words of the Knight Radiants as told in the Way of Kings by Nohadon, a great Alethi king:
Life before death
Journey before destination
Strength before weakness.
This is a guest post by Shreyan Goswami.
Shreyan is a senior software developer at Honeywell. In his free time, he enjoys reading and sometimes writing. He likes tea and spicy food (not at the same time!). Apart from books, he loves playing video games and watching anime.
To discuss about books, video games and anime, you can reach out to him at his email [email protected] or contact him on Discord (Shreyan#8233).