1 A 3 O R N

Stormlight Archive, 1 & 2

by Brandon Sanderson

Created: 2020-07-30
Wordcount: 0.9k

This is the second or third time through SA 1 & 2 for me. It's evident, then, that I enjoy them, at least to some degree. But. Enumerating ways in which SA is excellent would seem dull. So instead, I'm going to complain about some things I dislike about fantasy novels in general, using SA 1 & 2 as paradigmatic archetypes.

First, I dislike how ahistorical many organizations feel in fantasy.

In SA, the Knights Radiant are split up by purpose. Elsecallers are interested in objective truth; Windrunners are interested in protecting people; Bondsmiths are interested in oaths. And so on and so forth. In short, although these organizations have in-world histories, the divisions between these organizations can be explained in terms of archetypes apart from these histories. You could have entirely different histories, and still in some sense have the same organizations.

This is typical of organizations in fantasy novels, particularly YA-leaning fantasy novels.

But in reality, you cannot split organization from organization in terms of abstract goals and tendencies. You can only explain the difference between organizations through a history. The Dominicans and the Franciscans do, historically, tend to do different things; from an altitude of 100 miles, you'd have to say that Dominicans like to focus on the intellect and Franciscans like to focus on the will -- but a true causal history of why they are different would have to start with the history of their founders and the context of their times. Someone who wished to refound the Dominicans or Franciscans after their hypothetical extinction -- as the characters in the Stormlight Archive wish to refound the Knights Radiant after their extinction -- would find doing so in an intelligible fashion quite questionable.

Or, in short, as cows exist to make more cows, organizations exist to make more organizations. They cannot keep being without continuing to do this. So in the real world, trying to keep an organization effective, and attached to any consistent ideals at all, is a deeply time-consuming and often doomed task; almost every organization drifts from its goals to goals almost entirely unconnected with the original goals, as soon as it is founded. While, in fantasy worlds, once you start Gryffindor -- well, it's the house for brave kids, and it will probably remain so.

So, my first complaint is how ahistorical organizations in the Stormlight Archive are.

Second, I dislike how unified the hinges and powers of worlds often feel in fantasy.

In the Stormlight Archive -- well, as the name indicates, it's about stormlight. Stormlight is the fuel that the Knights Radiant consume to use their powers. It is also the fuel consumed by fabrials, the technology of the world, used to heat things, to dull pain, to lift things, and so on. It is also the fuel consumed by the hidden technology uncovered by our heros in book two. And it is also the fuel consumed by soulcasters, religious artifacts which can be used to transmute any substance into any other substance. And it is also something in which you are an expert, if you're expert in the science of this world.

Are you keeping track? In our world, you can be a scientist and know a lot, say, about the genetic engineering useful for making more productive crops. This leaves you relatively useless at aeronautic design, or at computer programming, or at civil engineering. The Stormlight Archive -- and many, many similar worlds -- doesn't feel like that. Expertise in one part of the world makes you better at the whole. The science of the world feels smaller.


So, end my complaining for now. This was going to be mostly complaints, but I'd like to launch into something a little different.

I don't know what I think of Brandon Sanderon's writing.

It isn't, and people usually say it isn't, particularly elegant. It isn't particularly original to say this, on my part.

At the same time, though, it does really reflect, in some way, what it is to be a human. All good writing does. It just doesn't do it with the kind of grace that Seth Dickinson, or Tolstoy, or even Patrick Rothfuss has. It doesn't feel literary -- by which I mean, gesturing incomprehensibly at my own lack of the quality that I describe, that it doesn't slip ideas into your mind frictionlessly and pleasantly. It just sort of says them.

So Shallan or Kaladin's difficulties are true to life. But they aren't elegant portraits.

I go back and forth on how big of a deal that is.

David Foster Wallace had this whole speech -- "This is Water" I believe -- about how sometimes it is dumb platitudes that you need. The kind of thing you get from AA meetings, or from basic fundamental religious teachings. Don't lie. Do good work. Don't cheat. Be kind. Don't act from anger. Things like that, which are important, hard to remember when relevant, but important all the same.

And sometimes, good hortatory writing and speaking is just a way of... saying these obvious things, in a way that you forget that it's obvious.

What if the plainness of Sanderson's writing is just that -- it is related to some basic descriptive truths about humans the same way that AA is related to some basic normative truths about human nature? Neither is particularly subtle, but they seem true. At least to a first approximation. Like how Newtonian mechanics is true, kind of.

I don't know.