Journey Before Destination: A Spoiler-Free Review of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer

It’s tough to review a book like Oathbringer. It’s the third volume in a mega-popular fantasy saga (that would be Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive), which means by now, his legion of fans are committed to grabbing every book and eager to avoid spoilers and form their own opinions (prediction: they’re all going to love it), and newcomers need to read two other massive volumes before they even get to this point.

With these two audiences in mind, I’ve prepared the following three reviews:

Review for Newcomers

Go and read my introduction to Brandon Sanderson, the Cosmere, and the Stormlight Archive. It has everything you need to understand why you must read this series. Then pick up The Way of Kings.

Review for Fans

Read it. Now. Drop everything and run to Barnes & Noble. (Who am I kidding? You’re already halfway through, aren’t you?)

Review for fans who want to know more (no spoilers!)

Three volumes deep into the Stormlight Archive, Sanderson continues to deliver on every promise the genre has ever made. It’s got a ton of action and warfare, it adds new layers to his trademark magic systems (as complex and layered as anything in the genre), it’s packed with terrific politicking, relevant social commentary, and increasingly rich world building. Fantasy hasn’t seen an epic this epic since Steven Erikson wrapped the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  (Though I wouldn’t fault you for name-checking N.K. Jemisin, Janny Wurts, Tad Williams, or Kate Elliott’s here.)

Oathbringer is very much a novel about change—and not only for the characters, who are all experiencing periods of tremendous growth. It’s also about the breakdown of established hierarchies during times of war. It’s about the way society changes and evolves, the erasing of sociopolitical and cultural lines, and the upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia during such times. In many ways, it is Sanderson’s most philosophical and political novel to date. Though it never feels like he is banging readers over the head with his message, it’s impossible not to reconsider the fallout from the end of Words of Radiance in light of current world events.

Which brings me to one of Oathbringer‘s major strengths: this is a secondary world that is, like our own, constantly in flux. Roshar is much-changed from the beginning of the series, even as it clings desperately to the familiar—even if the familiar, which encompassed rampant slavery, an enormous wealth divide between the ligtheyes and the darkeyes, and magical storms that ravaged the land, wasn’t quite so peachy.

Sanderson is effective at selling readers on the idea of a changing world because he chooses to set his stories within small geographic areas. Just as The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance mostly took place on the Shattered Plains, Oathbringer is set, in large part, at Urithiru, the lost city of the Knights Radiant. Because we spend so much time there, we become accustomed to things being a certain way. Our expectations, like those of the characters, are set and reinforced, which makes it yet more startling when we see how war is upending everything: Lighteyes and darkeyes mixing. The social order evaporating. Though they exhibit numerous other strengths, travelogue-style epic fantasies—which take readers to all corners of a world—often fail to create such a sense of ownership or involvement. In the midst of upheaval, Roshar seems to be changing and evolving far more than similar fantasy worlds. Actions have consequences, and history is never quite what it seems.

Moash, the disgraced bridgeman who tried to kill King Elhokar in Words of Radiance, is perhaps the best example of the human response to desperate, unexpected change—though to say any more would veer too far into spoiler territory. Needless to say, as in all of Sanderson’s novels, it’s more than the Big Three who make Oathbringer so interesting.

Of course, Shallan, Kaladin, and Dalinar are a huge part of the reason fans have become so invested in this series.This volume will surely please Dalinar fans; his flashbacks are satisfying and intense, showcasing what is, perhaps, the series’ most dramatic character arc—from bloodthirsty berserker to strained politician and father. He has long been one of my favorite characters, so to get a peek into his past, and have several lingering mysteries resolved, is a delight. There’s so much there to dig into, and the way Sanderson parallels Dalinar’s forced change alongside Roshar’s is ambitious and effective.

There’s a lot to draw in fans of Kaladin and Shallan, too. The former’s explosion in power provides great twists for his story, and with Kaladin-like nobility, the way he chooses to apply his newfound power is invigorating, and has far-reaching consequences. (Naturally, he also continues to make boneheaded decisions for all the right reasons.) Shallan, on the other hand, continues to twist in upon herself, on her way to becoming the series’ most complex character.

Sanderson effectively balances the novel upon these three tentpole characters, giving each their own goals and conflicts alongside their mutual ones. There’s something in this book for every fan. (Even if, like me, you’re a Jasnah fan. She’s back, and boy does she continue to kick butt.)

We’re now at a series mid-point (the Stormlight Archive is projected to be ten volumes, split into two smaller, five-volume sets), but Sanderson is dedicated to avoiding the mistakes of his fantasy forbears. The series continues to be as good as it’s ever been, with none of that aimless “middle book” sluggishness that occasionally strikes other epic sagas.

Oathbringer is everything I expected it to be. Not only does it make good on the promises of the first two volumes, it elevates the Stormlight Archive to new heights of epic magic, exceptional worldbuilding, and satisfying action. With each new novel, Sanderson proves himself to be the true heir to Robert Jordan’s throne. He’s writing big, meaty, contemplative epic fantasy, and showing no signs of slowing down.

Oathbringer is available now.

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