I’m not going to write up a summary of this. For one, it’s WAY too complicated. For another, it wouldn’t make any sense to people who haven’t read earlier books, and would spoil earlier books besides.
Let me start by saying this: On first read, I didn’t necessarily like the book. Absolute shocker, yeah? On a book I expected to be my favorite of the year, and the one I’d literally been looking forward to for three years? But yeah. My first impressions were of a book that was generally well-written, and which had lot of interesting new developments, but just felt off for me. I knew this had a lot to do with how I read the book – the first 19 chapters over several months of pre-release, followed by a frantic two-day read of the remaining 900+ pages – and the fact that my favorite character (Shallan) was missing from a giant chunk of the book. I knew that I needed another, slower, audio reread to fully immerse myself into the world and begin to make connections. The reason that I don’t normally swallow 1200-paged books in two days is because then I’m too close to truly see them.
I know that this is a bit of a weird thing and probably has to do with my synesthesia, but I tend to see stories as having shape. And I mean, literally see them that way, as in, when I picture a story, it has physical form that has nothing to do with the traditional book shape, or even the traditional story arc. Rhythm of War, for instance, felt like a glass cube or terrarium with structures inside, all lined up and regular and unable to flow organically because there were walls on all the sides to keep them held in. Frustratingly contained, with new information that got caught in corners but with no resolutions (yet), emotions smothered: a picture-perfect model of a book, rather than the frenetic energy that I’d expected. It’s not anything like those that come before it. And I wasn’t sure that 1) I liked it, and 2) that it would feel the same on a second, longer read.
It didn’t take a second, longer read for me to make the connection. In fact, I was literally 2.5 hours into this 57.5-hour audiobook when it suddenly clicked:
The Way of Kings is Kaladin’s book. Its shape is that of a sluggish heartbeat, pulses upward followed by long, slow, painful persistence. The structure and writing of the book reflected Kaladin’s struggles with depression, and the waves of his moods.
Words of Radiance is Shallan’s book. It is a tapestry, a puzzle with bits weaving in and out in complex layers, all pulling tighter and tighter until a full picture is revealed. If Shallan were a writer rather than an artist, this would be the way she would create. (Notably, this is much closer in structure to my favorite kinds of books, so it’s no surprise that this is my favorite in the series, and the one I could read – and did read – a dozen times in a row without tiring of it!)
Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book. It is a pulsing mass of darkness that rises and rises to an unbearable level of pain and then keeps going. And going. And going. Until one small change, and suddenly…the darkness no longer has a hold. The book’s structure mimics a particular scene in the book, magnified. It feels like a gruesome ultramarathon with the most perfect runner’s high when you cross a certain line.
And this book. Rhythm of War. This was meant to be Venli’s book. It’s Venli’s flashbacks, Venli’s progression, Venli’s book. But from the very beginning, it never felt like hers to me. This is Navani’s book. Navani the queen who holds everything together. Navani the scholar who gives herself no credit. Navani – the woman who organizes the world into lines and who brings order to chaos. Like a story, built inside a terrarium, contained and neat and emotionally controlled.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, with earlier books. Sanderson has written them in a way to reflect the primary narrator’s experience of the world, even when that narrator is not on screen. If this isn’t a testament to master craft, I don’t know what is!
And so I go into the majority of my second read of Rhythm of War with a very different attitude and understanding. Yes, I’m sure that I will pick up a thousand things I missed on the first, rushed read. I’m sure I’ll start to make Cosmere connections, and see hints that I skipped over before, and yeah yeah yeah. But this. The experience of the books right down to the shape in which they’re written…that alone just gave Rhythm of War its place among my favorites.
As of posting this review, I’m about halfway into my second read of the book via audio. As expected, I’m making a lot more connections now, and some of what I previously thought were loose ends were actually just me being too tired to figure stuff out on first read. It’s as if this time, instead of looking into the terrarium from above, I’m inside it and exploring the ecosystem from within. While it’s too soon to say for sure, it’s very possible that Rhythm of War will move from third to second spot in my hierarchy of favorites in this series. I’m enjoying it so much this time around. Clearly, I shouldn’t binge-read these books when they come out. Also, hurrah for Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, who do the most amazing job with the audiobook and bring the story to life!
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