I’ve completely blitzed through the Stormlight Archives series this past year. Some combination of too much free time, being trapped inside, and the need for escapism has made me power through hundreds of pages per day, culminating in me finishing Rhythm of War in three days.
Unfortunately, it was kind of a disappointment.
Like many, I was originally drawn to the Stormlight series because of its worldbuilding. The first two books do a phenomenal job of establishing Roshar, with its weird creatures, cultures, locations, politics, weather, and secrets.
The worldbuilding in these first books is accentuated by the characters. They feel real and relatable. They’re thrown into and forced to navigate the weird world, attacked by society and forces they don’t understand. Their travel and actions reveal more about Roshar and its mysteries, driving the plot forward and keeping things interesting.
However, at some point, the balance tips. Around the third book, the Stormlight series becomes less about how characters react to the world and more about how the world reacts to the characters. They become so powerful and important that they’re effectively immune to broader societal forces, and the focus of the story becomes the characters' influence on the world and relationships with each other. This same transition is what killed Game of Thrones for many people. The series became about characters reacting to other characters rather than broader forces like society, politics, or war.
Unfortunately, the characters in Stormlight are less interesting than the ones in GoT, so the focus on them somewhat undermines the series. They’re not entirely one-dimensional, but one rarely needs to guess at their motivation or feelings. Sanderson tries to add some internal conflicts to give them some depth and unpredictability, but it doesn’t really work because the conflicts aren’t real. They feel like cheap obstacles for the characters to overcome to further the plot, not actual conflicts or characterization.
Rhythm of War compounds this mistake by spending a ton of time on characters I struggled to care about. Characters who were once tertiary now take center stage. A fourth of this book is about a character who received maybe a chapter or two in the previous book. It’s like if a Dune sequel spent most of its time telling the story of Chani. Interesting to some, but sort of losing the thread of what made the book popular/good in the first place.
Additionally, Rhythm of War (and the Stormlight series in general) suffers from what one might call The Anime Problem, where, in order to keep things exciting, characters need to constantly become more powerful, their foes more deadly, and the stakes higher. In Rhythm, this manifests as ever-crazier powers/knowledge for the heroes and ever-larger (in scope) villains. At a certain point, it just sort of strained credulity and had me rolling my eyes, even in a fantasy novel.
I enjoyed the book overall and I’ll continue to read the series, but Rhythm just doesn’t capture the magic of the first two Stormlight books for me. It’s too much action, too much character-driven drama, and not enough of what made Stormlight good in the first place: the world.