‘Words of Radiance’ is the best kind of escapism

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
– J.R.R. Tolkien

Growing up, I, like many others, was fed a hearty diet of books and stories. I don’t remember a week passing by when I didn’t read some novel or other. And my favourites were books that recruited my imagination and called it forth into battle. Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion, and most of all: J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The language, the adventure, the sheer scope of the battle between good and evil; I was enraptured by the world created and the wondrous imagination that created it. The same feelings are engendered by Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives series. Words of Radiance is only the second book in the proposed 10 volume epic, but after reading it I sat back and said to myself, “This may be one of my favourite book series I’ve ever read.” Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but I’m convinced of its greatness regardless of whether or not I still think it’s the best 10 years from now.

Sanderson has long been a favourite author of mine where fantasy is concerned. While his prose and thematic depth may not live up to Tolkien, or a modern classic such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, he has a penchant for incredibly intricate world building, and an adept skill weaving elaborate plot lines that all meet and crescendo in perfect unison. words of radiance

In The Stormlight Archives, the plot takes place on the world of Roshar, a planet where massive, world wide storms pass over its surface every few weeks; where plants and animals have crustacean-like shells they can retract into for survival, and where a great war is being fought between two nations, the Alethi and the Parshendi. Words of Radiance continues where the first book, The Way of Kings, left off, in the midst of this war, as Highprince Dalinar tries to bring peace, the former slave Kaladin struggles for justice, and scholar-in-training Shallan discovers who and what the mysterious Parshendi race might really be.

The book is about far more than the war itself; it introduces more and more of the underlying mythology and cosmology of the planet and its varied cultures. And through that connecting thread, all the intricacies of political intrigue, of the war, of the half dozen or so characters the story follows, it all becomes much more than the sum of its parts. It becomes a glimpse into the unfinished work of a master craftsman forging that epic that rivals anything before it. Because unlike the gritty, pseudo-historical world of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Brandon Sanderson’s approach eschews that dark cynicism in favour of an epic adventure. It’s not just the emotional pull of the characters and plot which drew me in, and perfect blend of comedy, drama, and action, but the concept as a whole is so ambitious, complex, and finely tuned that it was impossible not to be sucked in by it.

And as someone who loves and needs all types and genres of books, who studied literature and loves “serious” and “literary” novels, I bristle at the word “escapism” or “fantasy” being used as a derogatory epithet. A book has worth not because of its topic or ascribed genre; it’s not that simple. What’s so wrong with escapism? What is wrong with reading that delights and excites you? A story that takes you through the wardrobe into another world? Escapism doesn’t mean you check your brain at the door and shut yourself away from the world — it’s a means of joy that gives you new eyes to see the world. At the end of the day, that’s what Words of Radiance is; a book that will leave you grinning ear to ear and ready for an adventure of your own.

Artwork by Michael Whelan.