There’s an interlude in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer where a scholar takes a break from fretting about the end of the world to read a romance novel. A colleague trying to get her back on task offers to lend her the sequel to the book, where a new heroine has to choose from three prospective suitors, leading to the exchange:
“Wait. There are three different men this time?” “Sequels always have to be bigger.”
It’s a fun bit of lampshading of the challenge Sanderson faces in the third book of his epic The Stormlight Archive series. But while Oathbringer is bigger than its predecessors, upping the word count to a whopping 1,220 pages of world-spanning conflict, it’s not actually better. The Way Of Kings spent most of its time introducing the world and characters, and the series seemed to have hit its stride in Words Of Radiance. Unfortunately Oathbringer shows that Sanderson’s story might not be powerful enough to last the 10 books the author has planned.
That isn’t due to lack of ambition. While the action in the first two books of The Stormlight Archive was largely confined to two countries, the characters discovered a way to open portals across the world at the end of Words Of Radiance. The effect is similar to unlocking fast travel in a video game: suddenly the setting feels a lot larger. Characters pop in to visit other countries in a bid to unite the world against Odium, a godlike being bent on destroying human civilization. Leading the efforts is Dalinar, an honorable prince whose flashback chapters show his misspent youth as a murderous warlord and explain why he has such a hard time making allies even as kingdoms are devastated by destructive storms and Odium’s monstrous army.
The real problem is that Sanderson’s dedicated readers have seen this all before. All of his adult fantasy books are set in the same universe, and that’s become a problem. Any author is prone to have similar threads across novels and series, but by actually connecting his works he undermines his talent for crafting novel settings by making his conflicts not just similar but the same. The first trilogy in Sanderson’s Mistborn series also involved a group of magically empowered heroes trying to unite a devastated world against a terrible godlike being with a monstrous army—Odium’s cosmic cousin Ruin. The similarities weren’t as noticeable in the first two books of The Stormlight Archive where the characters were dealing mostly with the machinations of other humans, but as the power of the antagonists increase, so do the plot parallels.
The stakes are meant to be bigger here, with Odium positioned as the overarching villain of Sanderson’s whole Cosmere setting. A first meeting with Odium shows him to be a compelling villain, but a lot of the material feels like a retread. A large part of Oathbringer examines how various institutions deal with massive change. Alethkar, the largest kingdom in The Stormlight Archive, determines social hierarchy by eye color. In one chapter, the low-class, dark-eyed character Moash is delighted to see a light-eyed packed in with other refugees in a conquered city only to discover with disgust that the more powerful aristocrats have still managed to maintain their standing. The same country’s rigid gender roles, which keep women from carrying any weapon larger than a dagger, are forced to change as some gain the ability to conjure massive swords. Dalinar receives visions that the Almighty is dead, a victim of Odium. While his words are named heresy, the dominant church can’t stop a new cult from emerging to respond to the cataclysmic events.
But Mistborn also explored socioeconomic inequality and the formation of new religion. Perhaps the most original thing Sanderson does to distinguish the works is bringing nuance to Odium’s army, the Voidbringers. While its leaders are evil and insane superpowered warriors, most of the force is composed of a former slave race granted the awareness to realize how poorly humanity has treated them. When Dalinar hears that humans fought for Odium during previous attacks, he can’t understand why. One of the book’s most interesting arcs shows Moash making just that decision because it’s the best outcome he can find given how broken the current systems are. It’s a level of moral nuance that can be rare in high fantasy.
Oathbringer also makes missteps outside of the main plot. Shallan was a delight as the primary character of Words Of Radiance but seems to have regressed here, spending much of the book coming up with elaborate ways to cope with her new power and responsibility while also being embroiled in an incredibly stupid love triangle. Dalinar is meant to be the main character of this book, but he spends much of his time away from the action working on diplomacy. It takes more than 600 pages for Oathbringer to hit its stride. Fans who have gotten this far in the series might be willing to wait for that payoff, but they shouldn’t have to.
The weak points are frustrating since Sanderson still delivers plenty of thrills, with appropriately epic battles, complex plots, and dark mysteries to unravel. Sanderson has begun providing answers to some of the series’ mysteries, including explaining The Stormlight Archive’s cryptic opening scene, but he’s also introducing new ones. The real stars of Oathbringer are Odium’s lieutenants, the Unbound, nine spirits with chilling power and arcane motivations. One tries to understand humanity by replicating the violence people do to each other and another brings down a city by enticing its leaders to abandon their worries and just revel in the end of the world. They feel similar to the Forsaken from Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series, which Sanderson finished after the author’s death, but Sanderson uses them well to craft some truly unsettling scenes.
The book does have some surprises, with heroic deeds not always going as well as planned, and there’s a lot of great humor. Supporting characters do most of the heavy lifting so that the major ones can spend the majority of their time brooding about the weight of saving the world. They’ve got a long way to go. Sanderson needs to keep things fresh if their battle is going to be worth continuing.